Some superheroes’ origin stories are so deeply woven into the larger cultural tapestry that it’s become annoying when we see them re-hashed. But while we’re busy being totally bothered by reading something we’ve read a few times before, we tend to miss just how significant a character’s origin can be.
Poor Batman has relived the murder of his parents just so many times. It seems like you can’t write a Batman stand-alone story without flashing back to Crime Alley, two white chalk outlines surrounding young Bruce Wayne (and maybe a pearl necklace for emphasis).
Superman’s origin is just as ingrained in us: Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, shoved into a baby-rocket and sent off to Earth, right as his home world falls (literally) to pieces. Then the safely-crash-landed superbaby is adopted by the lovable yokel family, the Kents. Ma and Pa Kent teach baby Clark all about what a good human is before telling the confused space-man that he isn’t one.
Superman is often criticized for not being “relevant.” In his 2004 graphic novel, It’s a Bird…, Steven T. Seagle writes about being asked to write Superman at the same time as he is coming to terms with the fact that he is a carrier for Huntington’s Disease. Seagle devotes nearly half of his pages to ruthlessly deconstructing the Man of Steel, pointing out how in all his “power” and “courage” and “perfection,” he remains an entirely unrelatable character.
But that’s a narrow reading of ole Supes.
Let’s jump into the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman and learn Superman’s true origin story. The one that missed out on being woven into the cultural tapestry.
The character entered the world consciousness in 1938 with Action Comics #1. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. Both were sons of Jewish immigrants (Siegel was the third child of his Lithuanian parents to be born in America, Shuster’s family immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada, where he was born, and then from Canada to Cleveland when he was young).
Gosh, Mr. Peabody! What do Siegel and Shuster’s parents have to do with how totally unrelatable Superman is?
I’m glad you asked, Sherman. But let’s put that question to the holographic recording of Jor-El, Kal-El’s biological father. “You must remember you were sent here because you look like one of them – but you are not one of them. Our culture survives with you.”
Krypton’s last hope is to “immigrate” to Earth.
Not all earthlings are happy to see him, however. Lex Luthor, Superman’s constant opponent, constantly seeks to remind the world that Superman isn’t one of us. He’s not human, and he can’t be trusted.
So Superman is the ultimate immigrant, and Lex is the bigot who forgets that everyone who Superman “looks like” comes from people who immigrated here, including himself.
Superman is the escapist ideal for the young, first generation American children, perhaps picked on at school for being different (I don’t know anything about Siegel and Shuster’s childhood experience). Maybe Superman will never feel like he “belongs” here, maybe the Lex Luthors of the world will never make him feel “welcome,” but he proves time and time again that he’s a better champion of our virtues than we could ever hope to be.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way…
When Steven Seagle and other would-be Super-detractors insist that Superman isn’t relatable, they aren’t looking deep enough. He’s strong and brave and perfect because he has to be — his perfection is his only way to be accepted. He’s the classic American story of a newly-immigrated family that works for their entire lives to be great, to live the “American dream,” and to be woven into the tapestry. In Siegle and Shuster’s day, European immigrants faced similar racism that Latino, Middle-Eastern, and Indian immigrants face today.
So the question isn’t really, “Is Superman relatable or relevant?”
The question nowadays is, “Should Superman still be a white guy?”