Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Superman’s Immigrant Song

Superman is one of the most pervasive symbols of American culture, standing for truth, justice, and the American way. One of the most interesting idiosyncrasies is that despite this status as an icon, Superman is really an immigrant in the United States. This angle has been explored in various occasions, and the latest one to do so is the Grounded arc by J. Michael Straczynski and Eddy Barrows, although in a somewhat peculiar and different way. Hit the jump to see more.

Here’s how the scene played out:

(Click the image to see a larger, and readable, version)

First off, let’s start with the most obvious problem with Superman’s argument. He is basically denying asylum to the aliens who are literally escaping “a reign of terror in which all rights were erased”, a place where “anyone could be arrested and sentenced to death for the smallest infraction.” Most modern nations offer asylum seekers protection when escaping from violent and dangerous regimes, and though the United States doesn’t have a squeaky clean record, they also have a program of this kind. The nation itself was based on those fundamentals, on immigration as a mean to escape oppression and tyranny. Hell, if you look right under the Statue of Liberty, it even says “"Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, which sounds exactly like the aliens in this situation. Sending them back would be not only incredibly cruel but it would also mean the very death of these refugees. For such a small group, it would be relatively easy to accommodate them, even if it meant relocating them to another city/state/country.

Or an even better question would be, why didn’t Superman even ask them if he could help fighting back against the tyranny in their home world? Surely, if he didn’t want a huge group of illegal aliens making their way to Earth, the best solution would be to improve the conditions of the planet the aliens came from, so they wouldn’t HAVE to immigrate to Earth at all. JMS may have intentionally done this to mirror the policy of the modern nations I mentioned above, who are more concerned about who is allowed to come into their country rather than in solving the problems that are causing those selfsame masses to try to emigrate to their country. Much like the nations, Superman has the power to solve the problems of these foreign lands. The difference is that Superman does not have to worry about public opinion, unpopular decisions, or election years, and just concentrate on what’s the right thing to do. And I’m pretty sure that in this case, the right thing to do would be to help these poor aliens who are escaping the terrible times that has befallen their homeland, instead of telling them that they can’t stay here. That sounds like something Superman would immediately get involved with, and try his hardest to resolve.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Superman does not want to get involved in complicated interplanetary conflicts, or whatever excuse, so he must deal with the aliens that are already here. He tells them that they can’t stay there, and the aliens bring up the fact that he is also an alien immigrant, to which Superman replies that his situation was different. Again, JMS might have been mirroring the attitude of older immigrants and subsequent generations in the United States (arguably, most of the population), who usually shun newer waves of immigrations despite themselves or their ancestors having been in similar situations.

The problem is that Superman shouldn’t be having this kind of attitude at all. Historically speaking, Superman wouldn’t care where someone comes from, or what their legal situation happens to be, he would just care about their actions, the goodness of their heart, or the kindness in their soul. One assumes that he does not go up randomly to Martian Manhunter, Mon-El, or one of the other dozens of alien characters that populate United States in the DC universe to ask them for their Green Card. If anything, he would help them to sort it out with the authorities so these aliens could continue their Good Samaritan actions unhindered.

In the end, that is what happens in this situation. Superman allows the aliens to stay under the condition that they use their scientific knowledge to open a medical company. Before that, he asks them what they are giving back to the community, saying that “Every culture that has come through this country has added something to it.” This is a gross misunderstanding of how the melting pot theory works: cultures add “something” to the mix when they are integrated into a society, not as a prerequisite before they even join it. Asking people, immigrants in this case, to provide something as a condition of their legal status is merely akin to asking for tribute, rather than welcoming other cultures. Again, this could be intentional on JMS’ part, to mirror the stance of modern nations who welcome highly skilled professionals to immigrate, and some who often charge enormous fees to even be allowed to apply to enter their country.

Don’t get me wrong, Superman WOULD expect people to contribute to society, to give back to their communities, and to generally help your neighbor. The crucial mistake that JMS makes in his logic is that Superman would ask that of anyone, not just of aliens, and he would not coerce people to do the right thing in order to get something they wanted, in this case, protection. Superman would offer the protection regardless, and he would lead them to the right course of action by example, not by conditions and terms imposed upon them.

Throughout the article, I mentioned several stances in which JMS may have been using Superman as a metaphor for modern nations, and whether that was intentional or not is open to interpretation (and something that perhaps only JMS and the editors will ever truly know). What cannot be argued is that in all of those cases I mentioned, Superman is used as a metaphor for something negative, for the worst of modern immigrational bureaucracy and modern attitudes towards immigrants. This rings false because, historically, Superman is a character that stands for humanity’s best attributes, for the potential of inherent goodness, and as inspiration of what we can be and accomplish. Using him as a metaphor the complete opposite of that would just be plain bad writing.


Immigration is a thorny and complicated issue, and while I don’t mind authors dealing with current events, there is a certain grace and depth that is completely lacking from the way JMS handled it in this story. The way that JMS had Superman approach the issue rang completely false with me, though I understand these may stem from my personal views on the immigration topic, and other people may think different. What did you think of Superman #702? Did you think that the immigration topic was handled properly? Let us know in the comments section below.

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grifter said...

i liked the point where Superman asks the aliens if they were contributing to society at all (and at this point they were not, and they're just hiding in plain sight). i understand where you're coming from with the melting pot theory, but from a standpoint of a taxpaying legal immigrant who, whether i like it or not, is sharing the burden of shouldering the cost of welfare for the illegals (after jumping through hoops for years and years), i would rather have a better system of integrating them.

ok, Supes stands for everything that's good in humanity, despite not being human. but the JMS run spins off from that War with the Kryptonians, and i don't blame Superman for being a bit leery of other aliens just simply showing up on Earth's door (whether with good intentions or not). he can't be taking up every single alien cause (even with an actual Alien Immigration Processing Department a la Men In Black) and going back to each of their home planets to wipe out tyranny. he's trying to regain a sense of being an Earthman again, with the mindsets that come with it, even it comes off as a little prejudiced. he's trying to find himself, and hopefully by the end of this journey, he will.

there's a scene in the '90s JLA Morrison run, where they ask why do humans need them at all. Superman replies: "to catch them if they fall." he recognizes that humans can't be using them as a crutch, but at the same time, he recognizes their huge responsibilities of protecting them. again, the Kryptonian War made him lose sight of that a bit, and now he can't be just accepting of everything. to his credit he doesn't force them off-planet, and instead finds a way to get them to be productive, and make them realize that they have to be, a fact lost among those illegals who game the system, knowing they can. fact of life: i see them everyday with their multitude of children born here in the United States, and i bet you they benefit from mostly from tax dollars (health benefits alone are staggering because there's no way you can deny everyone some form of care). i will concede that its because there's no way to integrate them smoothly and have them become responsible members of society, but as it is, they do what they do.

great post, Matt. i'm in the minority here as most people found this issue ham-handed.

brandon said...

Getting past the obvious -

1)Superman is not the gatekeeper of Earth and if these guys landed in Thailand would he care and give the same speech? Don't know, but I doubt it.

2) The aliens could be lying. I'm willing to bet that every national conflict has two sides to the story that present a very different version of tyranny or oppression. What if they don't have good intentions for Earth or their own world? Superman couldnt just fly off and settle something he only knows one side of.

3)If Superman were to track these folks shouldn't he tag them like cattle? If he doesnt need to then how come he didnt know of them prior to this exchange?

Dealing with issue at hand:

Immigration wise the story makes little sense here. Contributing to society could be little more than paying taxes and upholding the nation's laws. It doesnt have to be science related. I forget - has Superman shared his technology with Earth? Having not read the entire issue I'm not sure if this was addressed.

Superman came as a baby but really what did he do for Earth prior to the age of 25 or so? What's the age he should contribute? Why is helping on the farm not enough? Superman is in zero position to be an authority on the subject and he comes across as someone that doesnt even understand what laws should or should not be upheld as he simply lets them walk off.

Damn, DC ruined this franchise.

Dennis N said...

This character simply isn't Superman to me. The Red Son Superman was truer to the character than this arc. Honestly, reading this is like reading Kevin Smith's Batman, pissing himself in front of gangsters.

rachel said...

we have heard everyones opinion on it . could we please move on and actually talk about comics ? we all now it sucks you guys already talked about it on moments which was great

Dennis N said...

Maybe, just maybe, JMS is building Superman up as a jerk so that he can redeem him later in the arc. It's a way to show development, but it still feels artificial and forced.

onefinemess said...

My impression of "big issues" being dealt with in comics is this:

One sign that an issue is "big" is that it appears in comics. It is almost always dealt with poorly, but the fact that it "appeared" in a comic is some kind of reflection of the times. Bleh.

Anonymous said...

A few points:
1) Immigration quotas are frequently based on what the immigrants can potentially contribute to society. This is a sensible policy, and is practiced around the world.
2) Going over to another's land to make their situation better usually entails overthrowing the local government... war, essentially. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but its more complex than you state.
3) To immigrants such as myself, Superman represents the best of America. Its core values as defined by its founding fathers are second to none. Although I would love to see Supes actually punch something, this arc is an interesting exploration of what America is versus what it represents.

Anonymous said...

I firmly believe that JMS has one goal with his run on Superman: to make people care about Superman again. Rightly or wrongly, his approach is getting people to talk about the character again.

Anonymous said...

I never thought I would be hoping for another high profile comicbook death, but JMS has me hoping Superman gets beat down by Doomsday again. Time to let Superboy be the new Superman.

twobitspecialist said...

This is Amazing Spider-man #477 all over again (not immigration per se, but JMS using a high profile book as his soap box).

Hudda Budda said...

Let's cut the bullshit. Bet Supes wouldn't care about those alien immigrants if they were white. Difference is not that he came as a baby, but as whitey.

Anonymous said...

Reading this current arc just makes me want to skip it entirely and re-read All-Star Superman all over again. Imagine All-Star Superman helping that kid cheat at basketball or giving this speech? I think not!

Anonymous said...

superman is not just an american symbols , people the world over read superman. how do you think a teenager in mexico would feel reading that?
As JMS has laid it out superman has less sympathy for illegal immigrants than Bill O'reilly...whats next? will he fight the black panthers?
superman has been a character since the 1930s, a period thats seen racism, Hiroshima, Vietnam etc etc. The charm of comics is that he doesnt deal with all this he deals with luthor or darksied...
these issues should be avoided and if are to be tackled then superman should not be the average person he should be like jesus or MLK or gandhi...just complete mercy and kindness for everyone not just americans
and im still pissed about osborn having sex with gwen

Anonymous said...

i haven't read this run, causes it just sounds annoying, but "One of the most interesting idiosyncrasies is that despite this status as an icon, Superman is really an immigrant in the United States. "

isn't that why he's an icon?

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis, I can only hope this is a part of a story arc with character growth and we see his stance change because everything you wrote rings true.

Tom Foss said...

Fantastic analysis, Matt. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest problem of the issue is that Superman asked "why aren't you helping?" when he should have been asking "how can I help?" Judging the immigrants on a few seconds of conversation? That's not Superman.

Those who are citing the War of the Supermen: your excuses would ring truer if Superman were experiencing anything related to that tragedy. It's clear that JMS wrote this without knowing anything about the recent event, and Superman's lack of reaction to his people's genocide has been ridiculous. Especially when he's had opportunities to mention it, such as when talking down that girl on the ledge last month. Instead of wishing that Fidel Castro was dead, maybe he would mention that his entire race, good and bad people, was wiped out a week before. Maybe instead of talking about some person he knew who engaged in some euthanasia, he might have mentioned his father-in-law who ate a bullet to avoid the consequences of his actions. The girl said she'd lost "everything." Superman actually had.

Dwarf said...

I am mexican, i live in mexico, buy like many mexicans i have family in the USA...

So, i like the poit that JMS is trying to say...

We can´t discus if this fit with all the background of Superman... but, thats is poitless...


And thats for ALL THE CONTRIES who have problems with inmigration.

So, yes, the aprouch of JMS seems to me a very salomonic one, the inmigrants have to give someting to the society in order to been acceptet... and the proof of that is all other inmigrant cultures who already have been integrated in the USA...

So i really liked the opinion of JMS.

As for the way that superman acts... well i think the problem here is that is a very complicated isue for a character to "goody gody cartonish stile".

Theres a reason why superman allmost never take this kind of problems in his historis (at least its a "alternative earhl, future, or someting)... and thats becouse there is no way Superman could come cleen...

If he take the "ok, come over we accep every one here" all the CONCERVATIVES would claim that superman is just "selling america" ("OUR big hero is actin like a comi" and so)...

So, theres no way that superman could take this problems (Real problems, even in an analogy like the one in this issue) and doing it "the right way".

Becouse superman IS THE BIG HERO GOODY GOODY the one who suports the troops and never ask is the "massive destruccion weapons" exist or not, he just say "I support the troops".

Its the same here, if you force the character in ACTUALY DEALING with the inmigration problem, nomater what the character does, is gona piss of someone.

Thats because Geoff Johns when he write about the xenophobic problems, he didn´t make superman take a stand... yes, superman fight the xenophobic bastarts... but superman never take a stand about iligal inmigration (you can´t stant agains iligal inmigration without bean xenophobic, you can be a inmigran... but a legal one)...

So, i just gona give JMS the creadit to deal with a vere complicatet issue using a character who in 75 years have never been used to deal with noting to much complicated.

Matt Duarte said...

Great comments all around, let's see if I address some of them.

@Grifter: I'd hate to get into a long, drawn out argument about immigration, because that's not what this site is all about and I'm sure we'd bore the hell out of people. I did want to mention something though: there are people who game the system whether they are immigrants or not. What hurts more a country, a large group of people working illegally, or some asshole in Wall Street scamming billions of dollars? I think most of the immigrants, if given the chance, would gladly and willingly work with the system.

@Brandon: Superman has shared Kryptonian technology with Earth on a limited basis, with Project Cadmus/STAR Labs and so on, but we have never seen any advancement come from it when it comes to regular folks. I'm sure this is intentional, as the folks at DC want to make sure that their Earth resembles ours as much as possible, and having normal people driving around in flying cars would shatter that illusion. This isn't addressed in the issue at all.

@Rachel: I felt this topic was worth going in deeper, and I had stuff that I wanted/needed to say about it.

@Anon #7: Assuming that the aliens didn't lie about the situation, it sounds like a pretty evil regime, one that Superman would fight against, not to mention an organization like the Green Lantern Corps and a bunch of other groups in the DCU.

@Anon #8: I don't really believe in the "Any publicity is good publicity" theory.

@Anon #13: Superman, in it's first years, used to battle corrupt government officials, evil landlords, and all other kind of social evils. It's not unprecedented for him to deal with current topics, but modern audiences expect a more nuanced and informed opinion, not strawmen and dodgy characterization to fit a story purpose.

@Anon #14: Well, to a point, yes, but he also embodies many of the ideals that the US aspires to. I'm sure if you asked, the majority of the reading public would consider Superman as American first, Kryptonian second.

@Dwarf: That's a good point about not wanting to anger a section of the US who would scream bloody murder if Superman accepted illegal immigrants like that. Superman can and has been used to deal with social problems (see above in this comment), but it is true that it would be a bigger deal today. Just look at all the fuss the conservative media made about that Captain America issue.

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