Perhaps more than any other superhero, Superman has come to represent the ‘face’ of meta-values in America. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the character’s pursuit of “truth, justice and the American Way” began in Action Comics #1 on June 30, 1938. What followed is an incomparable leap into iconographic history and modern mythology the likes of which have not been replicated. Though many other comic book superheroes are known throughout the world, Superman remains the most identifiable and the most uniquely American.
After his first appearance it would only be a year later that The Man of Steel would appear on his own radio program and then in classic Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s. Version after version of Superman followed. His universe expanding onto television in 1951 with George Reeves in the title role and (following a Broadway musical in 1966) onto the silver screen in 1978 with Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman leading to a film franchise which ended in 1987 with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. All the while animated series continued to run over the decades including the popular Super Friends (which ran from 1973 to 1984) and featured Superman and other major DC Universe characters. The small screen grabbed The Man of Tomorrow up once again with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993). The WB’s Smallville, which began in 2001 and is still running, showed Superman was still relevant in a new century and helped create an atmosphere for the character’s resurrection on film in Superman Returns (2006) directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh in the lead role.
Superman has consistently appeared in comics since 1938. His history and evolution as a character and mythological figure is a compelling (and encyclopedic) portion of cultural history. Over time his powers at first increased (the character could not fly until his animated run) then decreased into order to create a more vulnerable Superman in the mid-1980s, leading to Superman’s death in 1992 in a battle against the character Doomsday and return to life in The Death and Return of Superman (1993). Despite the multitude of fairly consistent depiction, however, Superman has remained a reflection of American idealism (or his creators’ vision of that idealism). While the character tends to reflect major streams of the cultural discourse of whatever era in which he finds himself (WWII, The Cold War, 21st century globalism), a transcendent sense of justice is consistent throughout.
Yet, how has that idealism evolved over time? For instance, can anyone imagine today’s Superman going after “Japoteurs”? And yet such was the case in the Cold War-era animated series; a reflection of racism and the popular mind-set of the time period of a nation at war. By the early 1970s when Superman meets up with Jack Kirby’s hippie-esque “Forever People” he is depicted as out-of-touch with the youth culture, representing the other-side of the Generation Gap. Now that Superman’s vision has transcended the Cold War and, to some extent, the Stars and Stripes altogether and embraces today’s global perspective.
Indeed, what do truth, justice and the American way mean in the 21st century’s global village? Today’s Superman is not on the hunt for Osama bin Laden—he leaves that to the military. But, he is contending with a world of “supermen” in the current comic series New Krypton. Perhaps the most innovative and thought provoking Superman storyline in decades, New Krypton puts Superman contention with a planet filled with his own kind, where sinister factions are set on threatening the people of earth. Superman circa 2009 is a superhero who embodies a sense of justice that is more humanistic and less nationalistic in nature. And, yet, does Superman have a Kantian ‘true’ nature? Is Superman uniquely American or Humanistic or, might it simply depend, both for The Man of Steel and for each of us, on where we first landed?
This crisis of identity is posed by Mark Millar’s vision of a Stalinist Superman having landed in Soviet Russia at the peak of the Cold War. In the non-continuity tale Red Son penned by Millar with art duties by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, Superman’s Humanistic ideals come into direct confrontation with his nationalistic ones.
The major conceit of the plot sees Superman crash-landing in the Soviet Union instead of the United States during the reign of Joseph Stalin. Enough said. One might at first expect him to either grow up spouting Stalinist propaganda or being part of a resistance against the dictator. Millar provides what is, at first, a quite innovative alternative. Superman is still Superman. Raised on a collective farm in Mother Russia, Superman comes into his powers and grows up with the desire not only to help those in need in his own country but the evil capitalist Americans as well. Simply put, he will help anyone in need. In this ingenious way, Millar taps the nature versus nurture debate around Superman’s heroism, leaving the reader to decide its outcome.
Meanwhile, in the United States during the Eisenhower Administration, the government turns to Dr. Lex Luthor to find a way to end this Superman threat seen by the United States government as the ultimate Soviet weapon against truth, justice and the American way. Luthor, who in this alternate world is married to Lois Lane, is still as much of an egomaniac as ever. The only difference from his criminal depiction in DC continuity is that he is now working for the government as the world’s greatest scientist. He devotes himself to finding a way to destroy Superman the Soviet Menace. Again, how much of Luthor’s behavior is within his inherent nature and how much of this race to destroy Superman is Millar’s commentary on the nature of a capitalistic society and America during the Cold War and its impact on the individual?
With government bailouts of the private sector on everyone’s minds and people from across the world wondering what might happen next, Millar’s storyline stands out as one to reflect on during a time of economic crisis. More importantly, though, Superman: Red Son takes us directly not simply to a debate about capitalism versus socialism or communism but to a far more profound discussion; that of nature versus nurture in the role of humans and superhumans alike.
While the Superman of Red Son began his journey outside of the realm of politics, with Stalin’s death Superman becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. Mark his premiership by the use of his superpowers to create a socialist utopia that, he hopes, will eventually come to dominate the world. This is the fascinating break in character that is most compelling. Also it is with this recasting of Superman as Socialist ‘visionary’ that the inspired-ambiguity of the storytelling becomes paramount.
Like every political leader before him, Superman cannot get the full consent of the governed. But, knowing what is right for the populace he sets off to build his utopia. Not only does he force the Soviet people into a slavish reliance upon him, but also he sentences dissidents to be turned into ‘Superman Robots’ (lobotomized and reprogrammed to agree with his political philosophy and to serve the state in a productive capacity). In his effort to create a socialist utopia, Superman’s nature has been corrupted. At this point in the story, he does not deviate from his path. While he thinks of his actions as righteous the view from the outside paints him as an egomaniacal dictator the likes of which the world has never seen. He will not invade the United States however, the last main hold out of democracy and capitalism, because he wants to ‘win the argument’ without force of arms. Superman cannot see what he has become. A final confrontation between Superman, Lex Luthor and a pantheon of some of the most prominent characters in the DCU is bound to happen and, as always, the fate of the world is in the hands of a just a few.
So what are readers to make of Millar’s commentary on the idea of nature versus nurture in the far-more-than political commentary that Superman: Red Son becomes? Superman is not simply a Stalinist stooge. Lex Luthor’s ambitions, though egomaniacal and often destructive, lead to a new philosophy of “Luthorism” that has far-reaching results. Is Superman, by nature, a hero? Is his become corrupted a function of his becoming leader of the Soviet Union? Or is Millar saying something more? Is it possible that Superman is not inherently good after all and that in the right circumstances or following the proper social conditioning, Superman could become a force for totalitarianism? Under certain conditions, is Luthor’s rise to greatness, the defeat his greatest foe and through sheer force of ego and intelligence and the creation of a veritable a paradise redemptive of the American Spirit? How far are these characters guided by their natures and how much so by social conditioning?
Ultimately, the question of nature versus nurture will likely never be answered. Social scientists debate the issue incessantly. While nurture is noted as a far more influential force for human behavior than any inherent ‘human nature’, many top scholars will not even posit any inherent ‘human nature’. The very real fear of essentializing groups of humans and fear of attributing negative characteristics to them permeates such hesitations. Indeed, it is this sort of essentializing that can lead to widespread displays of human depravity such as slavery, the slaughter of native peoples and the Holocaust. An alternative position suggests a combination of nature (biology) and nurture (socialization) to make each of us who we are as human beings.
In presenting Superman as a Soviet hero Millar is bold enough to ask the question and enter the debate not only concerning capitalism and communism but, more broadly, issues of identity, and personal development in the face of socialization.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.