Hi, I’m Jim Smith, but if you gave a crap who I was you would probably just read my LiveJournal, so let’s move on to more pressing matters. And on a day like this, I’m obviously talking about Superman renouncing his US citizenship in Action Comics #900. Because, hell, what else is going on?
If you haven’t read the story, here’s the rundown of “The Incident” by David S. Goyer: For about the twentieth time Superman decided it’s not enough to beat up supervillains, so he flew to Tehran for a peaceful demonstration against the government crackdown on protesters. The White House has kittens over this, and Superman decides that if he can’t act abroad without being seen as a tool of American foreign policy, he will simply disavow his citizenship.
First, Superman’s bluffing. Technically he has no official citizenship to renounce. Clark Kent does, and he hasn’t renounced anything. I’ll spare you an analysis of whether Clark is just Superman in disguise or vice-versa, but the point is, Ma and Pa Kent tricked the government into putting Clark on the grid, not Superman. It’s Clark who has a Social Security number, pays taxes, etc. Frankly I’m not sure the government has cause to believe Kal-El is even a US resident, let alone a citizen. Symbolism aside, Superman disowning his citizenship is about as relevant as Aquaman and Mera applying for a marriage license in South Dakota.
In any case, this is obviously not a repudiation of “the American way,” or even a rejection of American exceptionalism. (I doubt Superman believes in American exceptionalism, but that’s neither here nor there.) Superman’s primary reason for doing this is to provide the US government plausible deniability when it is blamed for his actions. Superman as a character is designed to try to solve every problem put in front of him, particularly the problems that require immediate action. That ideology resonated with Americans in the ’40s and ’50s facing looming, unavoidable conflicts against evil empires. But by now I think even the most hawkish neocon is starting to realize the US has to pick its battles carefully. Superman can’t and won’t be as cautious, though; so, being a nice guy, he’s not going to let that cause trouble for his adopted country if he can help it.
Second, I think Superman is being a bit foolish. (He says as much himself in this story.) His reaction to the Iranian protests is consistent with his character, but it’s not a particularly good idea. He can address the UN all he wants, and renounce everything from his citizenship to his little red underoos, but people would still perceive him as an American acting on behalf of American interests. (In fact, on the last page of Action #900 he’s posing with the Stars and Stripes. Oops!) Even if he could divorce himself entirely from the US, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would still be calling him a pawn of the Zionists or something, and then what’s he going to do?
The thing is, Superman is not an idiot, and he shouldn’t have to blunder into these lessons like he’s never stopped to think about it before. (I would think just being a journalist would provide enough insight on the limits of brute force for him to already have a fully-formed philosophy on this stuff.) It’s all fine and good for Clark to ask himself why he always punches bad guys and never tries to solve real humanitarian crises, but the bottom line is that these questions have pretty clear answers. Superman punches bad guys because it needs to get done and he’s good at it, and he doesn’t tackle complex sociopolitical issues because he’s not qualified and he knows better. And frankly, ending famine and war isn’t going to mean much if Darkseid or Brainiac are left alone to destroy the planet, so I’d like to think Superman has his priorities in order and carries his end of the load just fine.
Third, I strongly doubt this was meant to go anywhere. Then again, I can’t fault anyone for believing otherwise. The general public is trained to think that, when the media covers a comic book plot point, it’s the start of a major event. (Captain America is dead! Wonder Woman got a new costume!) Comics fans are trained to think that a story appearing in, well, a comic book is going to have repercussions on the next issue. But the fact is, Action Comics #900 has six stories, and only the first (by regular series writer Paul Cornell) is continuing into Action #901. The rest are clearly fluff pieces, not so much intended to leave a mark on the Superman mythos as to get some big names (Damon Lindelof, Paul Dini, Richard Donner, etc.) into the anniversary event. David S. Goyer is writing the upcoming Superman film, but hasn’t been attached to any Superman comics beyond this one, so I’m pretty sure the goal here was never so much “Kick off a bold new direction for Superman!” as it was “give Goyer eight pages to do whatever, so we can hype his name in the credits.”
It’s possible that by now DC is scrambling to capitalize on the publicity, and Goyer may have guaranteed himself (or if he’s unavailable, somebody) a surefire 12-issue arc somewhere in the near future. There’s certainly potential for a storyline about the controversy surrounding Superman’s decision. Even so, I don’t foresee this having any lasting impact on the character. This has been a ongoing problem for the Man of Steel for years now. You know nothing he’s learning in his little walk across America is going to matter in six months, you knew a whole planet of Kryptonians was living on borrowed time, and you knew when Clark adopted a son that they’d find some way to undo that almost immediately. I give the citizenship matter eighteen months before it is either completely resolved or completely dropped.
Mind you, I don’t have a problem with Superman stories either upsetting or resetting the status quo. But the goal in this genre should be to achieve the illusion of change–you shake things up enough to make the characters’ lives feel real, but not so much that the brand becomes unrecognizable. Superman has had a lot of trouble with this. He’s perceived as having been too static in the old days, so modern writers are overly concerned with telling a groundbreaking deconstructionist Superman story. So now the problem is that it’s become difficult to find stories that are simply about Superman going to amazing places and doing amazing things like he’s supposed to. I don’t mean to single out Goyer–he only had about eight pages to work with and his story really did turn out quite good. But I can’t help but notice that Action Comics #900 features a lot of soul-searching and relatively little action.