The story of Ferguson, an image of small town USA torn apart, unfolded through the media in increasing complexity. First, there were the tragic reports of a black, unarmed teenager shot six times, twice in the head, by a white police officer. Then, the shocking scenes of grieving demonstrators being attacked by police with tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored tanks were televised. Commentary then detailed how Ferguson consists of a predominantly lower class black community living under a predominantly white police force and political representation. Some analysis considered it a class struggle, an eruption of the desperation and anger that arises from poverty. The story of Ferguson became a complex one of militarized policing, systemic racism, and growing inequality.
Then we saw Superman.
Images surfaced of a man running the streets of Ferguson dressed as Superman. Michael Wheeler, 63 years old, claimed he wore the costume in order to promote peace. As someone continually fascinated by the character of Superman as an image of American social justice, I found myself asking ‘how might Superman have actually helped respond to the complex injustice of Ferguson?’
Well, the suggestion that Superman might have saved Michael Brown’s life is a sour one. Not only does invoking comic book messiahs feel disrespectful to the boy’s memory, but even if Superman did intervene, no superhero could save every unarmed victim of racial profiling and police violence. What of John Crawford, Oscar Grant, Jonathan Ferrell or Ezell Ford? Instead, I wondered if Superman could address some of the unjust causes of the consequent unrest. Could Superman disarm every police officer in the area without risking escalation in the process? Could Superman review the 10-33 program that had resulted in police acquiring surplus military equipment? Could Superman establish racial quotas for representation in policing and politics in Missouri? Could Superman engineer an economic policy to reverse the growing income inequality that has destabilised communities since the 1970s? Could Superman have done anything in Ferguson?
Well, no. I suspect Superman would feel rather helpless in Ferguson.
I know a little of how that helplessness feels. I lived for a few months as one of a handful of white people in an impoverished African American community in the South. I experienced firsthand the dynamics of a predominantly white police force, armed and sometimes armoured, operating in a predominantly black area. In a neighbourhood where gunfights broke out at a moment’s notice, my neighbours consequently digging bullets from their front doors, a police presence still wasn’t always welcome. The children feared the police who were associated with arrests, shootings, and with families disrupted by child protection interventions. The police, and the majority of authority figures in culture and governance, represented a systemic racism where power was divided along racial lines. Class seemed similarly divided. This was evident when hanging out on the porch with the local kids. These children wore torn t-shirts and lived off mac and cheese, sharing a mattress on the floor with their siblings, all the while knowing that pristine middleclass suburbia and the towers of corporate downtown were just a few miles away. On the occasion that I met people outside of the neighborhood, the notion of a white Australian living in the American ghetto often piqued curiosity. Many were surprised, even shocked at what I had seen, but some were skeptical. So I told stories, stories of armed cops, unarmed kids, racism and crushing poverty.
And the stories often changed people’s minds. There’s a reason Ferguson police confiscated recording equipment and journalists were threatened and arrested. In instances of ignorance and prejudice, reporting can certainly change people’s thinking. Consider the murder of unarmed civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson by police in 1965. When demonstrators marched from Selma to protest Jackson’s death and advocate for voting reform they were stopped by state troopers and attacked with clubs and tear gas. The scenes of that day, Bloody Sunday, were reported on television and pricked the nation’s conscience. The US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that year. In Selma, Ferguson, and elsewhere, stories, told by journalists, can change the minds of a nation.
Now, for those of us making comic books, we don’t report the news. While sequential art narrative is not bound by any particular narrative parameters, it isn’t too much of a stretch to state that the majority of funny books tell fictional stories within fantastic genres. When Umberto Eco asked “why does he (Superman) not go to liberate six hundred million Chinese from the yoke of Mao?”, he didn’t realize that Superman’s forays into reality had been tried and found wanting.1 When Siegel and Shuster had Superman single handedly apprehended Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin in What If Superman Ended the War? the result felt rather silly. More recently, David Goyer’s story in Action Comics #900 portrayed Superman renouncing his American citizenship after becoming involved in peaceful protests in Tehran, an idea alternately accused of being boring or outrageous. When we imagine Superman directly responding to the injustices and conflicts of our all too real world, it becomes apparent that no show of strength could resolve these situations and the final product is either insulting or lackluster. The graphic novel Superman: Peace on Earth, by Paul Dini and Alex Ross, where the Last Son of Krypton fails to address world hunger is a fine demonstration of the character’s limitations. Superheroes work best when employed as fantastic avatars, exploring radical ideas and responding to the ills of our status quo, cleverly dressed in metaphor and subtext.
There are important Superman stories to be told in response to Ferguson, however, precisely because where the Man of Steel might fail, a mild mannered reporter can succeed. When some of our superheroes are billionaires and playboys, the 1% so to speak, we can realize the significance of secret identities with journalistic day jobs (in Ferguson, Lois Lane, Vicki Vale and Iris West might be more useful than their respective heroes). Superman is unique in this respect because as a bulletproof journalist from a small town, Clark Kent is able to report the events, critique injustice and expose the untruths of a complex situation like Ferguson. If comics are to consider the militarization of police, systemic racism and growing inequality in America (and they bloody well should), then perhaps we don’t just need superheroes as much as we need journalists. Perhaps we need stories of small town USA torn apart, writ large enough in mythic metaphor so that our favorite ubermensch can fight for justice, yet also real enough that a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper can tell us the tragic truths we so often need to know. This isn’t just a job for Superman.
This looks like a job for Clark Kent.
* Ferguson in October, October 10-13, is a weekend of demonstration and activism facilitated by Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment. Ferguson in October is a nationwide movement against police violence.
For more information, see fergusonoctober.com
1: Eco, U, Chilton, N. The Myth of Superman, Diacritics, Vol. 2, No. 1
(Spring 1972), The John Hopkins University Press, pp. 22.