Truth, Justice and the American Way: How Superman has been reinvented for an age of protest

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway,
Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

Long story short – A couple of months ago, DC Comics relaunched their entire line, and it’s turned out to be a roaring success, despite my pessimism. One of the most interesting changes has been to Action Comics, the granddaddy of American comic books and the traditional home of Superman. In the hands of writer Grant Morrison, the character has been returned to his roots, a social crusader on the fringes of the law.

It’s weird seeing Superman portrayed like this. I’m used to him being the patriarch, the guy who believed in the law and who worked within the system. Sure, some things needed fixing, but on the whole he believed in the American Way (define that however you wish). He was an authority figure – a positive, noble, idealism one, but an authority figure nonetheless. And I guess he still is, but only in terms of moral authority – he’s the one person in Metropolis who stands up for the little guy, and that brings him into conflict with industry, the media and the law.

The interesting thing is how this taps into the zeitgeist – let’s face it, 2011 has been a year of protest, and it feels as thought Superman has morphed to reflect this. As society realises the corruption that surrounds it, and starts to pull together into grassroots protest movements (Occupy, the Arab Spring), Superman has needed to change to maintain his role as the moral centre of DC Comics.

This isn’t a new idea. When the character first appeared in 1938, he was a product of the Great Depression, a period of economic crisis that hit in 1929 and whose recovery was shaken by a further recession in 1937. It was time of tent cities and unemployment and failing banks – well, circumstances are different now, but the iconography is the same, and if history is in some way repeating itself, maybe it’s necessary for Superman to return to his roots to remain relevant.

(Although I can’t help but note the irony of the original Action Comics #1, the book that not only inspired this current reinvention but the superhero genre in general, selling for $2.1 million dollars.)

 

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy.

Perhaps all this explains the costume worn by the new activist Superman – jeans and t-shirt and no spandex. If Bruce Springsteen worked in comics and not music, this might be what he came up with, and while it’s a change in image, I like it (certainly more than the costume worn by the older Superman in other titles, which looks more like his traditional costume but seems to be armoured – armoured?!). It establishes Superman as a working class hero, appropriate considering he grew up on a farm in Kansas. More importantly, it establishes him as a working class hero fighting against corporate corruption and vested interests.

Facing him is Lex Luthor, a corporate mogul touched by xenophobia and genius. He refers to Superman as ‘it’, hating aliens and convinced their presence on Earth will destroy humanity, although this concern is twisted by his lack of concern for life and his obscene consultancy fees. Lex is the evil shadow of the 1%. I guess Lex’s xenophobia reflects the hysteria over immigration, and so it’s worth noting that, in the 40’s, Superman was being used to tackle the Ku Klux Klan for real.

 

 John Henry told his captain,
“Lord a man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let this steam drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
Die with a hammer in my hand”

This conflict between Lex and Supes raises another theme – in three issues, our hero seems to be up against technology an awful lot – wrecking balls, trains, cyborgs. Maybe there’s something there about the dehumanising potential of technology, which ties into American folklore – I’d think I was imagining this if the title hadn’t already seen the reintroduction of a character based on John Henry, the folk hero who died proving the superiority of man over machine.

And so, in a time of economic, technological and social crisis, Superman undergoes a reinvention that aims to speak to the world he’s pledged to defend. It’s necessary to maintain the relevance of a character who’s long been a symbol of decency, compassion and heroism, and it allows Morrison to speak to the problems of the world around us. For years, fans were saying that Superman should be based on his Silver Age incarnation from the 50s and 60s – turns out a new lease of life for the character actually lay within the year of his birth. And while this isn’t the Man of Steel we’re used to, he’s one we can understand. Economic catastrophe? Racial tensions? Technology out of control? This looks like a job for Superman.

 

Oh, there have been times I thought I couldn’t last for long,
But now I think I’m able to carry on.
It’s been a long time, a long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Truth, Justice and the American Way: How Superman has been reinvented for an age of protest

  1. Pingback: Santa Claus Smith « Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

  2. Pingback: Run That Hammer Down: A Sort-Of Review of Action Comics 4 « Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

  3. Pingback: Look, Up In The Sky… Superman and Lois Turn 75 | Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

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