I’m not talking about legal status, but about something far less tangible. I’m talking about whether Superman is really a strange visitor from another planet or whether he is, finally, one of us. I’m not talking about something in Superman’s nature but about something in ours.
Last summer’s blockbuster film, Man of Steel, wrestled with this distinction, but I am not sure that it came down on the right side. Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent may have asserted that he was just a farm boy from Kansas, but his aimless wanderings, his struggles to fit in, his costume adorned with a Kryptonian symbol rather than the human letter ‘S’, suggested that he did not really belong, suggested the he was different from the rest of us, that he was strange, that he was alien.
Comicbooks have also explored the alien nature of Kal El, last son of Krypton. There are plenty of good stories that seek to wring dramatic tension out of the difference between Superman and the rest of us, that tell Superman stories about the god who walks among lowly humanity or about the lonely outsider who can never return home. Many Superman stories since the New 52 reboot have followed this track. Some of them have been pretty good.
But Superman is not an alien. He is an immigrant.
He traveled to this Earth, fled to this Earth, like so many people on this Earth travel and flee from place to place in order to survive, in order to find salvation, and in order to start anew. In Superman, Siegel and Shuster gave to the world the story of an immigrant who came to a new world, a new country, and worked and fought to make that world, that country, a better place. It is the story of an immigrant, not an alien.
It is a matter of semantics, perhaps, but words are important.
Aliens are strangers among us, who never belong, who generate fear and hatred. Immigrants are newcomers, travelers, settlers, who can overcome fear and hatred to help us to build a better world. An alien is the other; an alien can never truly belong here, not because of who they are but because of what we are. An immigrant can be, with time, one of us. Look carefully at the history of the human race and you will see that we are all immigrants. We are all movers, dreamers, travelers, and explorers.
Geoff Johns gets this distinction. It is playing out in the pages of Superman.
The first half of Superman #33 is set in the newsroom of the Daily Planet. Perry White wants to sell papers and tell good, true stories. His staff argue and joke with one another. Johns’ dialogue is brisk and real. We are reminded that this newspaper business is a human endeavor, if one that is quickly fading. And Clark, who has been gone from the paper for too long, returns. This Clark is as much a reporter as he is a superhero, as much a Metropolitan as he is a Kryptonian.
In the new character of Ulysses, Johns and Romita introduce a Superman doppelganger, but one with an important twist. Ulysses was born on this Earth and was sent by his parents to another dimension in order save his life. He returns with great power. He is a natural born citizen, a human by birth, but also now an alien, one lost and out of place. It is Superman, the immigrant, who must lend a hand, must help to show the way, with a good bit of his Kryptonian superpower and even more of his inquisitive journalistic intelligence and his trusted human sources. The immigrant, born out there, helps the alien, born right here.
I like Geoff Johns’ take on Superman. I like seeing Clark Kent at the daily planet. I hope he stays; it is where he belongs. I like Superman as a human by adoption and by choice. I like Romita and Janson; I really do. Their Superman is vibrant and strong, youthful and yet mature. Their Clark Kent is no joke; he is more than an alter-ego. He is a reporter. He is human.
This Superman is one of us. This is important because we need Superman to remind us that an alien can become an immigrant, and that an immigrant can become a citizen and a friend. We need Superman to remind us to greet our fellow travelers, not with walls and soldiers, but with torch-lit liberty. We need Superman to remind us that among the poor and the tempest tossed sometimes come the fleet and the strong, that among the huddled masses come the heroes that will save us all.