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Author Topic: Why Superman ISN'T the "Ultimate Immigrant"  (Read 7481 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: August 20, 2006, 12:53:46 PM »

By this point, nothing is more cliche in academia then some mincing fruitcake in the humanities doing a Masters Thesis on some pop culture topic. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND is a big one, as is Superman. FRIENDS is also getting up there, especially among white people.  Cheesy

One topic that is chosen often is the idea of Superman as an immigrant. It is true that Superman has many elements in common with immigrants, such as a dual "I am this culture, but also this one, too" identity (some of the more poignant moments involve Superman and Supergirl lighting their Space-Menorah for holidays only they know), and a sense of exile and loss.

But there are also many differences between Superman's story and the immigrant experience that he cannot truly be said to really be called "the ultimate immigrant."

Such as:

Superman never had to "adapt" when he arrived on Earth. Superman was raised as a normal earth boy in a small town, given flawless fluency in English by foster parents, and as his Clark Kent, his very DEFINITION is as a bland person that doesn't stand out or is considered unusual. Superman has never had to struggle with Earth customs; he's born to them.

There's no "culture clash" in Superman's story. Many immigrants deliberately adopt a new identity to Americanize themselves (just ask Jack Kirby and Gil Kane, neither of which is their real name), however, Clark Kent came on the scene so early on that it's hard to say where he begins and Kal-El's own personality ends.

(If I can do an aside, I've never agreed with many that claim that Clark Kent is entirely a fiction that Superman adopts just for kicks. First, it's irrational for Superman to adopt an earth identity and spend HOURS a day at it just to play games. For Clark Kent to be so important, there has to be some "truth" to him. I wouldn't go as far to say that he's the "real" person as some of the nineties writers would, but that the reason that Superman is Clark Kent is because some qualities that we see in Kent are true of Kal-El as well. He can be both Superman and Clark Kent the same way you're not the same way with your grandparents as you are with your raunchy drinking buddies. If EITHER identity is "truer," however, it must be Superman, because who we truly are, is defined by what we do under pressure and Superman's matyring sense of self-sacrifice always bubbles up in crisis situations, showing that ultimately, he's more tiger than lamb).

There's no curious hybridity of Superman's Kryptonian and Earthling sense of identity. Superman keeps his Kyptonian identity, which he expresses in the Fortress of Solitude, and his earthling life as Clark Kent, seperate. An example of what I'm talking about here is that some Cuban-American families celebrate Thanksgiving (an American holiday) but they serve roast pork instead of turkey. On one amusing occasion at a girlfriend's house, her parents thought the cranberry sauce I had brought was a dessert, and they served it with whipped cream! If Superman does combine his Kryptonian ways with Earthly ones, we've yet to see it, and since Superman is familiar with earthly ways, we've yet to see it.

Superman has always seen American society as it is. It's an oversimplification of many complicated character traits in Superman's personality to call him "optimistic." Superman doesn't kill because of his belief that all human life has value, for instance, and he is a person that doesn't compromise his high ideals, but that's not quite the same thing as someone that blinds themselves to the evil in others. At the same time, one aspect of the immigrant experience is that there is a sort of disillusionment from expectations.

One famous quote that summarizes this sentiment is "When I arrived in America, I thought the streets were paved with gold. I soon discovered that not only were they not paved with gold, but that I was expected to pave them." Many Jewish immigrants are surprised to find that unfortunately, the United States has anti-Semites just like anywhere else. Superman, I'd argue, is immersed in American society from childhood, and so he sees America with warts and all.

As for other heroes that claim the "immigrant experience" title...

Hawkman and Hawkgirl aren't immigrants either. They got everything they needed to know about Earth from the Absorbascon (easily the most INSANE piece of gadgetry in superhero comics by an order of magnitude), and they settled into their curator jobs without a single hitch or bump. But more importantly, they are NOT here to stay; they're studying Earth's crimefighting techniques, and presumably if they get a nestful of little hawklings, they'll raise them Thanagarian, because at some point in the ill-defined future, it's likely they'll go back to Polaris. Think of it like an American student studying in Paris. He may grow to have a great deal of admiration for French culture and people, but that doesn't change who he is, or the fact he's going back in a few semesters.

If any character has a legitimate claim to the title of having the classic "immigrant experience," it would be Wonder Woman, at least the Linda Carter TV version. She could reprogram a high-end computer lickety-split, but she didn't get slang or pop culture references, and she didn't know how to dance.

Hmmm...with all her tech skills, maybe Wonder Woman might be a part of the brain drain!
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brad.ricca
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« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2006, 01:47:58 AM »

Well, I think this brings up lots of interesting points (as in the previous misconceptions post) about how Superman is perceived and is there a 'right' or 'wrong' way.  Great post.  

But, as an academic myself (my secret ID, and no I'm not currently, nor have I been, mincing) though Supes' Jewishness/gayness/vegetarianess, etc. natures will come and go, the immigrant label has stuck.

And actually, the people who usually write those papers are students.  And they do so because the parallels really are hard to ignore.  I think the way you lay these points out is completely accurate, but I would argue that it is *because* he doesn't 'mix' these worlds that there is tension there -- and lots of it.  That is the immigrant experience.  Being different but trying to act the same as everyone else.  It's the very question of identity you raise: is he Clark or Kal-el?   He is both = tension.  If Superman were not an alien, I don't know that he would have lasted this long.  I think it spoke to the street kids buying him and to the parents listening in on the radio.  He was, back then, one of them.  One of us.

Joe and Jerry's parents both came from Europe (one of them barely escaping alive) so it seems to me their whole experience is writ into Superman, at least as a part of the overall jigsaw.  But I think it's a part that people really clung to.  This changes once again in the 70s but at that point I think people saw Clark as the alienated geek working in the office and identified with that more than the space part.    

Just my two cents -- obviously there are so many right/wrong ways because there are, as we know, many different Supermen.  Even Byrne's!  (Don't hurt me! )  It may read very different to me now but I remember those were the first Supermans I had bought in years -- no kids in the 80s read Superman!  If you got sick and got a Superman you grinned and bore it.  But Byrne changed that.   Why?  'Cause he did X-men.  Got a lot of kids into it again.  So sure now I can say wow I can't believe what he changed, but it all gets changed again anyway.
Even though I think All-Star Superman is a dream come true, I bet you ten years from now when Superman is back in a black costume or velour tracksuit or something people will look at Morrison's run and say the same thing.


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Permanus
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« Reply #2 on: August 21, 2006, 10:11:39 AM »

I love the way those studies always seem to be desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel. My favourite is probably the theory that Luthor is Superman's father figure since he has nobody else to vent his Oedipus complex on.

I agree with you that Superman is not an immigrant in any conventional sense: he doesn't have trouble understanding jokes because of cultural differences, he can make himself understood in restaurants, and he has never been passed over for a job because of his origins. As an Englishman who grew up in Sweden, where I attended a French school, I have some experience of culture clashes, and I can't see any of that in Superman's upbringing. In fact, his virtuous character is often ascribed to his staid American upbringing.

I should imagine, though, that he would experience a sense of alienation anyway, because he has never known what it is to be an ordinary person. I always like to think of him as being very self-conscious when he is dressed as Clark Kent: is he giving himself away somehow? Is this how normal people do things? That would actually account for Clark's insecurity, come to think of it; it's not just an act.

As for Hawkman and Hawkgirl, it's amusing that they become museum curators, of all things. They've been on Earth for a couple of days and they just waltz into the job of custodians of our cultural heritage? I wish I had an absorbascon (I once considered sitting the national curator's examination in France, but chickened out when another student, who had flunked it the previous year, told me what it entailed. It is notoriously difficult). Why didn't they just join the police force if they were interested in crimefighting techniques?

I don't doubt that the fact that so many superheroes are aliens reflects the fact that so many of their writers were first or second generation immigrants themselves. However, it's interesting to note that the characters are commonly shown to be very well integrated rather than people struggling to adapt to a new culture. Perhaps they represent the immigrants' dream of fitting in rather than his fear of being left out? Or am I just indulging in a bit of pop psychology myself?
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brad.ricca
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« Reply #3 on: August 21, 2006, 01:51:05 PM »

----------->Perhaps they represent the immigrants' dream of fitting in rather than his fear of being left out? Or am I just indulging in a bit of pop psychology myself?

---
I think that's it exactly -- that it is an idealized dream of it from a first-gen American's perspective of it instead of a first person experience -- just the fact that he doesn't have to deal with your examples of language, culture, etc. (unlike Martian Manhunter, for example) def. supports that -- point taken!

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Uncle Mxy
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« Reply #4 on: August 21, 2006, 01:57:16 PM »

I suspect if Superman wrote a self-defense book on Klurkor, it'd be an insanely popular martial art on Earth.  Kryptonian history (superhero history in general) would be a high school elective.  I'm sure that Kryptonese swear words would come in handy for Luthor for all the times Superman has hauled him away.  He's rarely been shy about sharing his culture with people, as a pretext for sharing his culture with the reader).  But the effects of that rarely come to the surface.  I wouldn't expect anything quite on the scale of, say, Alien Nation, but Superman as a comic book character has influenced our culture more than Superman influenced the culture displayed in comics.  

Speaking of which, one idea I've had about "why Clark Kent" (especially once he became powerful enough to not need to be at a newspaper to get the scoop) involves sharing his ideas on life and establishing Superman's legacy.  As Clark, he can write and comment on the human condition and have the ideas accepted or rejected on their own merit, not "because he's Superman".  Imagine Superman's last will and testament (carved on the moon with heat vision, 'natch Smiley ) and revealing how he's Clark Kent would change how his writings would be interpreted.  As the guy obsessed with statues for posterity, it makes sense that he'd want literary posterity in spades.
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Permanus
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« Reply #5 on: August 21, 2006, 10:22:10 PM »

Mxy, you raise a good point: why don't people on Earth insist more that Superman (or any of the other identifiable aliens that seem to run around the place) tell them more about his home planet? Why doesn't he open a restaurant that specialises in Kryptonian cuisine, or start a record label that showcases the latest hits in Kandor? Immigration works both ways, after all, otherwise London wouldn't be full of Indian restaurants (a fact for which I am eternally grateful).

Brad, I quite agree with you when you say Superman wouldn't have lasted if he hadn't been an alien: it's an important part of his appeal. Further to what you say, I always like to think of him as a conflicted person who never gets to act the way he is: he's not quite Clark and not quite Superman, both identities are constructs. As Julian points out, you don't act the same way in front of your grandmother as you do with your drinking partners, but for him it's even worse - he always has to play a role.

Christopher Reeve once mentioned that the way he saw the character was as someone who was grateful (and probably a bit perplexed) at the opportunity that fate bestowed on him - if Krypton hadn't exploded, he'd have stayed there and become a taxi driver or something. In canon, this is unlikely, since he is the son of the foremost scientist on the planet, so he's kind of Ivy League rather than Justice League, but it's fun to entertain the notion of Kal-El being just some ordinary slob, even lower on the social totem pole than Clark is, not realising how he might have been a contender.
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TELLE
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« Reply #6 on: August 22, 2006, 12:37:03 PM »

Quick notes:

On Father's Day, Superman celebrates Kryptonian Father's Day.

Many academics in Superman's world have published work on Krypton and Superman.  Jimmy and Lois have written books and articles about Krypton.  There is also the Superman museum, Superman World amusement park (with replications of Krypton life), movies, etc.

Joe Shuster was also an immigrant --from Canada, a world very similar in language and culture to the USA.  

Here's what Elliot S! Maggin had to say about Superman's impact on Earth:
 
Quote
Superman was a public phenomenon without precedent.  No other public figure, even in the golden age of monarchy, ever so excited people's imaginations almost from the time of his birth.  From the fanciful reports of a flying baby in a red-and-blue playsuit twenty and thirty years ago, to the public appearance of a teenaged Superboy from a lost planet, to the conferring of international citizenship on Superman by the United Nations years ago, this alien had become the most famous man on Earth.  If a news show had lots of Superman film, it became popular.  If a magazine had him on the cover, it outsold everything else competing for rack space.  If he made a public appearance, the locals talked about it for years.

Children played in imitations of his red cape.  He made skin-tight outfits, especially in red and blue, a recurrent fashion among men not generally given to fads.  The symbol he wore on his chest, a stylized S in a symmetrical irregular pentagon, was the most widely recognized trademark in the world.  His crusade against crime, his awesome feats to minimize natural and man-made disasters, inspired millions of people to enter crime prevention, conservation, medical research, and similar fields.  He could fly under his own power, he was strong enough to juggle planetoids, indestructible enough to take a steam bath at the core of a star, and he had the ability to see through most solid objects and to hear for unlimited distances.  No other human could do what Superman could do.  Every other human aspired to be him.  He brought with him the birth of an age of humanitarianism on Earth; he reawakened the hope for peace.
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Uncle Mxy
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« Reply #7 on: August 22, 2006, 04:15:47 PM »

Right, but Maggin's characterizing Superman's impact as the premier super person on Earth, less so on the impact of Superman's culture on the Earth.   He's an alien who likes to talk about where he came from, by Rao.  He can process at super-speed.  Even if he makes a decision to not spread around Kryptonian technology (supposedly in the interests of their own safety, but really so the comic isn't too unrelatable for the casual reader), they'd want to know more of Kryptonian music, hairstyles, language, dancing, sports, architectures, plays, etc.  Superman as characterized could and probably would write the book on those things faster than anyone could get out the questions.  Why isn't the Lyla Lerrol film festival showing on the Krypton Channel...  are most people put off by the subtitles and waiting for the Earthly remake?  Instead of worshipping Superman, would some folks want to establish Rao-ism on Earth (to put pesky Jedi and Scientologists in their place).  

Imagine the dialogue that Maggin's anthropologist might really have with Superman if he weren't switched for the Old-Timer.  Or, think about the initial interview he'd have with a science guy rather than a lovestruck Lois.   (BTW Lois, a real woman wouldn't just ask Superman if he could eat, but whether or not he could cook, but then Superman would've had a good excuse to use his heat vision in Superman I Smiley ).
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