superman and his family are refugees

Why Writers Continue to Miss Out on Superman’s Evolving Importance

Superman is a character people often lament about being difficult to write. How to do you take the most powerful man on Earth, an alien at that, and make him relevant to everyday readers? Smallville did it with angst, and Man of Steel attempted to address it with Superman being a “god” among people. But that only focuses on his powers—why his strength and abilities make him feel out of touch. What people miss is that the origin of Superman is one many readers can relate to.

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Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Both were first generation Jewish immigrant men. Siegel’s family fled anti-Semitism in Lithuania, while Shuster’s father and mother (original Shusterowich) immigrated from Rotterdam, Netherlands and Kyiv, Ukraine, respectively. The Jewish refugee and immigrant experiences are rooted in Superman, from the story of Moses to the then-immigrant experiences of assimilation and belief in the American dream.

“Siegel and Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, recognized and believed in this economic system, and Superman was designed to be its ultimate supporter,” wrote Timothy Aaron Pevey in From Superman to Superbland: The Man of Steel’s Popular Decline Among Postmodern Youth. “It was into this milieu that Siegel and Shuster injected Superman in 1938, a man who had been moved from his home planet of Krypton, and soon became the United States’ most loyal and powerful immigrant, built specifically to conform to Western cultural norms while remaining capable of physically handling the technological progressions that were changing our society.”

Despite those roots, Superman has been transformed into a symbol of American whiteness—his otherness stripped away, until even the very clear Moses allegory becomes turned into a Christian Jesus metaphor that only serves to confirm to people’s most clichéd interpretations of the character. Rather than being an Other, he becomes an Übermensch.

Once that change happens, the only way people have been able to handle Superman as a character is deconstructing that aspect—his power, the idea that he could become a fascist, and leaning into the conflict of if his goodness is out of superiority and altruism.

When you return the Otherness to Superman, you get Kal-El, and when you focus on that, the reality of his actual struggle becomes clear. Kal-El is sent to Earth because his home planet, Krypton, is destroyed in a natural disaster. Because Superman’s scientist father foresaw this, he was able to send his son away to safety. Kal-El is a climate, or environmental, refugee.

As described by National Geographic:

“Environmental refugees include immigrants forced to flee because of natural disasters, such as volcanoes and tsunamis.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, the last year such a report was taken. Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. Some say it could be as high as 200 million.”

We are literally living in a world where the Jor-Els of the world are sounding the alarm for the future of our planet, but it goes unheard as our technological advancements move forward. In addition to this, Kal-El is also an unaccompanied child. Unaccompanied children, in the political sense, are described “migrants under eighteen years old with no lawful status in the United States and who have no parent or legal guardian available to care for them.”

Kal-El is sent to Earth alone, and while it’s not explicitly stated, it is hoped that wherever he lands, people will see he is a small innocent child and take pity on him. “Still intact families who are desperate for their children’s safety are going to send their children to cross alone,” said immigration attorney Amy Maldonado, when discussing the issue at the U.S. Mexico board of unaccompanied children arriving.

It has been said that Kal-El is the ultimate undocumented immigrant, and that’s true. Clark Kent is an identity that can only be maintained if he passes for human. Passes for white. Passes for normal. That is something we see immigrants live in fear of constantly. It affects the jobs they take, the crimes against their person they don’t report, and the anxiety they live with.

Kal-El/Clark Kent’s immigrant experience is worth exploring because we live in a world were that is more relevant than ever. There are comic book readers who relate to the idea of being separated from their parents due to circumstances, who relate to the experience of forcing themselves to fit in, to shrinking themselves for safety. In 1978’s Superman, Marlon Brando, as Jor-El, says the following to his wife, Lara, as he prepares to send his son away to Earth:

“You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you … even in the face of our death. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel … all this, and more, I … I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son. This is all I … all I can send you, Kal-El.”

When Clark discovers his heritage, before he is told to lead people into goodness, Jor-El reaffirms that Clark is different and that is okay. “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.”

As a Black woman, I hear that, and I hear the stories of so many people: BIPOC people who have had to navigate predominant white spaces, immigrants who struggle between the choice to assimilate or not, and anyone who ever felt like the thing that made them different diminished them. And those stories can be fun, engaging, and meaningful (e.g. “For the Man Who Has Everything” by Alan Moore).

It is time for writers to stop making Superman a figure of exceptionalism and remember that when you take his powers away, you have an everyman story that reflects the changing American world every day.

(image: Warner Bros.)


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Author
Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.