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Friday, April 29, 2011

Superman renounces U.S. Citizenship or how to write badly

So, in the historic Action Comics 900, which invented in many ways the Superhero genre when it introduced Superman in 1938 with Action Comics 1, one of the short pieces has Superman declaring that he will "speak before the United Nations . . . and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. Citizenship." The story was written by David S. Goyer and titled "The Incident."

There has been all kinds of reaction all over the net and cable TV and plenty of stupid things have been said. The analysis has been shallow on both sides and focuses on the act, rather than whether the story itself holds together.

My thesis here, is that it is a bad story that does not hold together. My thesis can also be summed up as "you don't pull on Superman's cape." Superman is a character with a lot of history and who is quite embedded in the American psyche. He exists in a imaginary universe where by dealing with larger than life issues, he illuminates things about our real world from kindness, to humanity, to heroism, to sacrifice. Superman has been done well and done poorly over his run. Superman seems to work best when his stories are told in the world of fantasy of the DC Comics universe. Bringing in more of the real world has to be handled very carefully. When you just throw in "real world" elements without carefully considering how to integrate such elements into a fictional universe you end up with a discordant and quite possibly silly outcome.

It can be done, but you can't just throw it out there. I would cite Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, which focused as much on her role as Ambassador to the U.N. from the island of the Amazons, Themyscira, as it did on her role as a superhero. If you read those stories, you see how carefully the stories are plotted to blend the gonzo universe of superheroes with mythic, alien, magical, super science, etc. etc. orgins, with a discourse about political, ethical and religious beliefs. Not easy, but, when approached carefully, very satisfying.

I have to say that Goyer utterly fails. The central plot revolves around Superman flying over to Iran (not one of the DC Universes made up countries, but a real country where things are really happening) to witness a protest. He does not do any intervention other than appearing on the ground. This then supposedly causes an international incident as Iran accuses the U.S. of an act of war by sending Superman. Superman is confronted by a member of the U.S. administration who chides him, and he responds that he is going to announce that he is renouncing his U.S. citizenship in order to work more on a global level.

Dumb.

In my opinion, just dumb, unearned and poorly thought out.

Why?

When you write any iconic character, you have to serve the character. You don't bend it to your will to make your point. That does not mean that you can't make your point, if it is in line with the character, but you have to be subtle and respect the source material. Goyer fails.

If you are talking about having Superman intervening in real world events, you start down the road of wondering where Superman is for all the real world events. Why didn't he stop 9/11? Why hasn't he seized Gadaffi. Why wouldn't he disarm nuclear armed countries? You have to live with the conceit that Superman exists to deal with out sized threats to the earth, but he does not exist to solve all of the world's problems. He is not our dictator or ruler or supreme interventionist. He is Earth's protector and servant, but we all still have to do the hard work of making and not breaking our world.

Goyer story paints a Superman who has decided to start meddling in messy, complicated international affairs. But he does so out of the blue. No ground work, no development, no thought. And then, he delivers the punchline, sure to churn the news cycle and to go into reprints, but that makes no sense, the vow to renounce U.S. citizenship.

Superman is a genius, he would have thought a few things through and remembered his history. Goyer is clearly not at his best here, and has not done his homework.

For Superman to renounce citizenship, you have to go through the gyrations of figuring out what citizenship he has. That opens another can of worms that Goyer just doesn't consider. Lots of versions of Superman's origins exist. In some, he is born on Krypton and then sent to the Earth, crash landing in Kansas to end up in an orphanage, or to be taken in by the Kents, or found by the Kents, taken to an orphanage and then adopted by them. At least one version had him in a "birthing matrix", which did not actually "birth" him until it landed in the United States (thus Superman is "born" on Earth in the U.S.). If there is going to be citizenship to renounce, Goyer has to settle which story of Superman's origin gives him any citizenship of the U.S. in the first place. Interestingly, there are considerations of this our on the internet -- link.

A number of legal theories could give Clark Kent, the person that Superman really is, U.S. Citizenship. And that is another thing that Goyer has forgotten. Greg Rucka (one of my favorite authors), has cogently said that Superman is the alter ego, but Clark Kent is the real person, who Superman really is. Whereas for Bruce Wayne, Batman is who he really is, and Wayne is just someone he has to pretend to be to do his job. So, if Superman is renouncing his citizenship, what about Clark (not to mention Mrs. Superman, Lois Lane)? Now, maybe, Goyer could have salvaged this by dealing with the "honorary citizenship" route. At one point, I believe, Superman was granted honorary citizenship in all countries who were part of the United Nations. His story could have had Iran revoke that honorary citizenship and still be provoked by Superman as a tool of the West and the U.S. and then Superman, for a more global perspective, might renounce all his honorary citizenships before the UN, to say that he, as Superman, would always act as some sort of "world citizen." Still not the best, but not nearly as dumb and in the weeds as this story.

Further, Superman can't renounce his citizenship without Clark Kent renouncing. And, it is not a straight-forward process. Generally, you need to leave the U.S. and renounce before a consular official of the U.S. Just making a speech before the UN has no effect. There is paperwork and there are interviews, and there would be a confirmation of identity and a confiscation of any passport.

Well, does Superman have a passport? Clark Kent probably does, but Superman? Would Superman out his secret identity to renounce? What really could happen? Why is Goyer dragging us into the bureaucratic weeds? Superman filling out paperwork and having us ask whether he has a passport is lame.

Goyer not having thought this through when Superman, who is brilliant and extremely well-informed, has failed the character.

Epically failed in my estimation.

The whole thing falls apart.

And after the news cycle churn and the second and third run of the comic happens, then, I expect that it will be mostly forgotten or soon taking out of continuity as if it had never happened.

Because it is dumb.

A smarter more careful writer might, just might have made something of this, but there are better stories to tell and a way to make the points without miring the Man of Steel in the messiness of real world immigration paperwork.

Superman is American, and born of dreams and imagination that happened in America. But he represents the best in humanity, and the irony is, of course, that he is not human, but a "strange visitor from another planet." Superman stories have to capture the strength, the brilliance, and the vulnerability of a person who can move planets, but who knows he cannot do it all alone. Goyer lost Superman's sense of wonder and power and moral authority in his story. And, for Action Comics 900, that is a shame.