A Man of the Times

In the year 1942, America was embroiled in global conflict – she had entered World War II.  There was a remarkable upsurge of patriotism in the populace, running rampant through the whole culture.  Seeking to capitalize on this fervor, Famous Studios decided to add a new phrase to the opening of their Superman cartoon: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!”  Little did they know that they had wed what would become one of the most iconic superheroes to America and her values forever.

In truth, Superman had always been tied to America – it’s where the character was created.  The world of the author of any story has direct bearing on his writing.  But having made a direct, public connection to the American Way, Superman was now saddled with the burden of representing America.  Since then, various authors of Superman have paid varying degrees of attention to this aspect of the character.

But there is one tale of Superman where this aspect always seems to come through – his origins.  Superman’s origins have been told and re-told plenty of times.  But since the second story in Action Comics #1, which dealt with a corrupt U.S. Senator, Superman has never been far from America.  For better or for worse, he seems to capture the star-spangled zeitgeist wherever he appears.

To show this, I will be examining two Superman origin stories.  The first is 1986’s Man of Steel, written and penciled by John Byrne and inked by Dick Giordano.  It was the definitive origin story of the era, as it consolidated Superman’s origins since the cluttered and muddled silver age which had ended recently in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The second is 2010’s Superman: Earth One, the newest re-envisioning of Superman’s origin from writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Shane Davis.  Earth One is the stand-alone brainchild of Straczysnki, not counted as in-continuity or canon – it is simply its own graphic novel.

Let’s begin with the first.

1. Man of Steel

The year was 1986.  Ronald Reagan was president, coming off of his re-election with a landslide of electoral votes – his ratio of votes has yet to be surpassed.  His public approval was at its highest, for the economy has just come out of a long, sluggish downturn.  Many of those who felt he wasn’t doing his job well even had a positive personal opinion of the man.  Whatever we may think of Reagan in retrospect, a lot of the folks in 1986 were happy with him.

Talks were breaking with Mikhail Gorbachev about bringing an end to nuclear arms races.  On May 25, the Hands Across America fund-raising movement formed a nearly unbroken line of people, holding hands all the way across the continental U.S. from New York to California, to raise $34 million dollars for the hungry and homeless.  Though not everything in 1986 was rosy, such as the Challenger Space Shuttle crash, it was overwhelmingly a time of optimism, and all in all – quite the time to be an American.

This spirit is quite evident in Man of Steel, for there is a strong presence of social responsibility in it.  Even before he is Superman, Clark Kent directs his attention outwards.  Upon learning of his origins as extra-terrestrial, he decides to spend his life as his father thinks he ought to – dedicating himself to helping others in need, because it’s the right thing to do.

At first he tries to be anonymous, but when disaster strikes due to a crashing space plane, Clark doesn’t hesitate to reveal himself in order to save the men and women aboard.  In fact, just the opposite.  He says in retrospect, “And right in the middle of that torrent of humanity, I knew, I suddenly knew, that fate had taken hold of my life, that I was no longer the captain of my own destiny.”

That’s a pretty powerful statement coming from a young man.  He is unerringly convicted that he must give of himself for the good of others.  But after saving the plane from crashing, not everything goes as he might have expected…

The people in the first panel aren’t just grateful.  Some are scared, others are angry, most are simply curious.  But Clark Kent is flabbergasted.  He doesn’t know what to do.  But he won’t give up.  He doesn’t even consider it – he just needs help.

This shows that the conflict in Man of Steel is not whether or not Superman will take on the responsibility of being a superhero, it is how he will take up the responsibility.  Clark’s father helps him with that, coming up with the idea for the costume and a secret identity that will allow Clark time to himself.  Now in blue and red with his trademark “S” symbol, Clark Kent is ready to become Superman.

In Man of Steel, however, Superman is not just a public service…  He’s a social force.  The ease with which Superman thwarts injustice frame him as nearly a kharmic aspect.  It’s almost scary how far this omnipotent aspect is emphasized.  Upon rescuing Lois Lane from drowning, Superman flies her back home.  Lois protests, flabbergasted, “You know where I live…?”  Superman casually replies, “Of course, Miss Lane.  I know where everyone lives.”

This is absolutely plausible, given the extent of Superman’s powers.  But stated in this way, it’s more than a little frightening.

Superman’s social power remains unchallenged until issue #3, where the Man of Steel confronts Batman, which, in the newly rebooted DC continuity, would be for the first time.  Batman, in typical fashion, has anticipated their meeting for months, developing a device to keep Superman from interfering with the Dark Knight’s more pragmatic crime fighting methods.

If Superman touches him, a bomb will go off in Gotham City, killing an innocent man.

“It’s a touch Machiavellian, I admit.”

Wow.  Doesn’t get more socially minded than that.  Batman is literally defying the law, both in terms of the literal (he is a vigilante) and the figurative (he is against Superman, the social kharmic force).  But despite disagreeing with Batman’s methods, Superman knows that he’s working to fight crime, and so Superman and Batman team up to take down the Magpie.

Afterwards, the two of them converse on a rooftop.  Batman bitterly remarks on the likelihood of the Magpie’s release due to corruption in city hall.  Superman is flabbergasted that Batman doesn’t trust those who enforce the law – he even seems a little naïve.

If Superman is a social force for good, then Batman is the opposite – a man on a quest for good, whether the social environment wants him or not.  Unlike Superman, he is summarily unconcerned with what people think of him.

But he’s still a hero.  When Superman demands that he take the innocent life he threatened out of any jeopardy, Batman grins.  Turns out, the bomb he had mentioned was in the back of his utility belt the whole time – it was his own life he was risking.  Superman leaves wishing the Dark Knight good luck.

Despite this challenge to Superman’s social ideals, the Man of Steel remains stalwart in his convictions.  As the later issue #6 proves, even in the most personal of conflicts, Superman will not waver on social responsibility.  In issue #6, Clark is visited by two ghosts from his past – the apparition of his father from Krypton and the very real Lana Lang, his childhood sweetheart.

The ghost of his father reveals to him knowledge of Krypton, the planet he came from.  Lana Lang reveals knowledge of the planet he is on now.

It turns out that before Clark left Smallville, he said goodbye to his high school crush, telling her that he had to leave to help others – and showing her his powers.  Now she’s returned to Smallville herself, to tell Clark that though she hated him at the time for leaving, she had now finally let go, realizing what Superman really meant.

“Because you can never belong to one woman, Clark…  You’re Superman, and Superman belongs to the world.”

Belonging to the world…  That is a serious obligation.  And yet in the final scenes of issue #6, when Superman walks in the fields of his youth to contemplate these issues, his first response is not to be afraid of that responsibility, not to worry whether or not he will be able to pursue Lois Lane…  But to try and figure out which world he is responsible to: Krypton or Earth?  Even the idea that he may not want that responsibility is completely foreign to him.  It does not enter his mind.

And after a long talk and much thought, he reaches his decision:

“But I was born when the rocket opened, on Earth, in America.”

Superman identifies himself as human – as American – as a protector of all people, a champion of the oppressed, fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.  He was born that way.  It is, quite simply, his destiny.

“We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent.”

Ronald Reagan

2. Earth One

Fast forward to 2010.  The economy is mired in a recession that has been plaguing America for three years.  President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are hitting the all time low for his presidency.  The public have grown tired of wars on Middle Eastern soil, an average 70% of them wanting troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Wikileaks is knocking holes in the integrity of U.S. national defense.  Politics have become increasingly partisan, locking the country in congressional standoffs.  National debt is on the rise, and unemployment is approaching 10%.

Compared to 1986, there is a spirit of pessimism now.  Americans are tired of foreign confrontations.  People are looking inward, and there are more protests and rallies than we really know what to do with.  America may still be one of the most powerful nations on the planet, but our efforts to spread truth and justice across the globe haven’t met with the best reception.  So what do we do?

Superman is asking the same question.

Earth One is a very different story from Man of Steel.  It begins as Clark Kent moves to Metropolis, his superhuman strength, reflexes, and intelligence enabling him to land any job he wants – and make loads of money doing it too.  But he hesitates.

The responsibility hangs over him.  To try and rest his conscience, Clark flies back to his father’s grave.  He sits there, talking to his dad, trying to rationalize… trying to reconcile what he wants and what he can do.  Unlike the willing Superman in Man of Steel, 2010’s Clark Kent is not at all convinced that he simply must be Superman.  In fact, he’s hesitant.  He knows it will put him on the outside.  He knows it will make him alone – he knows he will belong to the world.  He recognizes the incredible gravity of what 1986’s Superman took on without a second thought.

And he’s scared.

In the end, he tells his father (and himself) that even if he doesn’t become Superman, he can still use his normal job to help people in other ways – finding cures and exposing corruption.  He flies off into the dawn, convinced of the wisdom of his new, normal life.

But life has a way of putting our wisdom on its head.  When the Kryptonian Ship that Clark arrived in activates its systems in response to an alien presence, the beacon of its power leads a great threat towards Earth.  A dangerous man with a vendetta against Krypton has arrived, and he hunts for the sole survivor of the planet’s destruction.  As this aggressor begins ransacking the globe to draw out his target, the choice to be Superman becomes no longer a conundrum that Clark Kent makes in the silence of his own thoughts.  It is no longer a simple matter of regional problems or going out into the world to do good.  Superman is forced upon Clark Kent, because if Clark does not act, nobody will.

But the way people react to Superman’s altruism is not gratitude, as perhaps Clark anticipated.  The people he had sought a job from just days ago abandon their fellow men and sit by as their only hope for survival is crushed.  There is no mention of “America” as an entity, and nobody has the guts to stand up.  People just plain don’t give a damn.  Law and order is defunct – social responsibility is gone.

But in these times, all it takes is one person.  One person to stand up, and others, however few, will follow.  Where the many are championed in Man of Steel, the few are championed in Earth One – for in Superman’s hour of need, his help comes from two journalists.

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.  They pull him out from under the crushing power of his opponent, and Superman goes on to save the day, and the rest of the world along with it.  As Clark Kent, he joins the Daily Planet afterwards, throwing away the money he could make in some fancy lab in favor of the integrity of his co-workers.

Interestingly, Earth One is simultaneously more global than Man of Steel, and yet also more individualistic.  It reflects the shock to national integrity that America experienced, and in many ways is still experiencing.  Things are happening faster and wider all over the world, and the idea of national identity in America is changing.  The idea of identity itself is changing.  The establishment is being questioned as individuals gain more and more freedom to communicate, to organize, and to act.

3. Conclusion

So what does all this mean?  If Superman is representative of America, is he a rosy representation?  Is he a cheap, idealistic way of viewing a country?

Not at all.  On the contrary, it is amazing that instead of being anything close to propaganda, Superman is unafraid to embody both the ideals of America and her problems – to take on the zeitgeist of the times.  To stand for truth, justice, and the American Way, no matter if the obstacle is within or without.

However America changes – however the world changes in the coming years, Superman will always have that courage.  And we will always have it too.

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David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at http://www.davidbalan.com

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  1. It’s always interesting to me how often we revisit origin stories of our heroes. What is it that drives us to go back to these places and search for something new?

    Thanks for another solid article!

    • David Balan says:

      Thank you for your reading it!

      And I don’t know about the origin stories – it’s a good question. I would say that because Superman is such a pop culture icon, he must change with the times, each generation re-interpreting him for their own new world. Why that is? Probably our innate human need to make stories in order to understand the world around us.

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