Friday, May 13, 2011

ACTION COMICS 900: A Closer Look

(Originally Published at Superhero Babylon)

In my previous post I discussed a story in Action Comics 900 (entitled "The Incident,"), which has Superman renouncing his citizenship in an out-of-continuity scenario, was vague enough to be read, in true Babylonian fashion, in different ways by different people. My own take, after an initial reading, was that it was pseudo-Libertarian:

If read out of focus, combined with the vagueness, different people can read and project different things into it, which only highlights how undivided we really stand. My personal take is that it could be seen as quasi-Libertarian, as Superman stands with the Iranian protesters against a theocratic government. But, again, that’s read out-of-focus. By its own internal logic, it seems to make sense, given that Superman, who has visited many worlds (and in this continuity, can see micro-universes, apparently), would see a "bigger picture" than us mere mortals. But as for the writers, they're bound by the same earth-bound, human philosophies, so it's presumptuous for them to inject their own politics into a god-like figure. In short, they limit Superman's metaphysical view to "Democracy." In one way, this is important, because it suggests a universal principle that guides Superman (and it is admirable that he stood on the side of the Iranian protesters when the U.S. Government did not); on the other hand, the "multiculturalism" extends beyond countries to planets and dimensions, and his "American Way is not enough" limits his understanding of America the idea to America as mob rules. (Never mind that America was not meant to be a democracy, but "a republic, if you can keep it...")

But what can we objectively gleam from it, based on the actual content? In concrete essentials, Superman stands with the Iranian protesters, in an act of passive civil disobedience. (It's important to note that he could have taken out the Iranian soldiers single-handedly, but didn't.) The U.S. government takes offense, and arranges a meeting with Superman (complete with snipers armed with Kryptonite bullets). The government is concerned that Superman has gone "rogue." Superman explains that he had been following the news, and the threats of violence against the protesters by the Iranian government, and yet, the protesters were ready to risk their lives for their freedom. Superman talks of all the tyrants he's fought, human and alien, and remarks that he's never been any good at fighting ideological battles, like "dying of thirst, hunger, and people being denied their basic human rights," but that he wants to be. His act of nonviolent resistance against an oppressive authority was an act of solidarity with the protesters. This, in turn, inspires others to join in. He details the varied reactions of the people, ranging from adoration to animosity.

Notably, the Iranian soldiers never fire a shot. As the rally peacefully ended, Superman wonders if his presence helped, noting that the regime did not institute democratic reform. The U.S. agent laments that his actions created an "international incident," and that the Iranian government considered it an "act of war." Superman concedes, and then withdraws his sanction…from the U.S. government, leading to the renunciation of his citizenship, and the now-infamous claim that truth, justice, and the American Way is "not enough anymore." He claims that the world is "too small, too connected," and that his alien origin and abilities help him see the "bigger picture." As a result, he believes that his actions, while not effective on a large scale, did make some small difference. He relates that, as he flew away, he witnessed a protester offer a flower to one of the soldiers, a gesture meant to mirror the famous incident of the Vietnam protests in the sixties. The soldier accepts the flower, suggesting that there is, indeed, hope.

"Moral" of the story?

• "Democracy" is offered as the answer. It is not defined, but it is associated here with the notion of freedom and representative government (incorrectly, I state, but this is a common misnomer promoted by our own statesmen.)

• Superman is presented as a "citizen of the world." It is unclear if his "American way" comment is meant literally or ironically, meaning that it's unclear whether or not he is acknowledging that the ideals are not enough, or that the ideals have been betrayed.

• The U.S. government is presented as being more concerned with politics and appearances, while Superman is presented as being concerned with truth and justice, and the American way, not just for American, but for the entire world.

Your ideological mileage may vary, but, despite the political lack of sophistication and the resulting contradictions, on a sense-of-life level, I have to sympathize with Superman here. If anyone is guilty of abandoning the American way, it's the government that chastises him for his actions.

I can offer two avenues to explore for further understanding of both the vagueness, and the specifics. I think that the seeming mix of political readings can be attributed to the way the story links the Iranian protests to the Summer of Love. In order to understand this, consider that the protests of the sixties, despite being commonly conceived as led by radical leftists, had a libertarian strain, as detailed in Jeff Riggenbach's In Praise of Decadence, which was informed by the Libertarian and Objectivist movements, and claims that the true American spirit is not to be found in the patriotic flag-waving of Father Knows Best-era jingoism, but in the radical spirit to "question authority." On this, many Objectivists and libertarians have found common cause with those on the left on social freedoms that many Conservatives and the Religious Right would claim are "anti-American." (While I don't accept all of Riggenbach's arguments, this aspect of his thesis goes a long way to understanding the current contradictions and schisms.)

The second, related avenue is the topic of civil disobedience and passive, non-violent resistance, which Superman practices before both the Iranian and American government. (I've already discussed this in relation to Captain America's own troubles with "the American Way.") Gandhi and Martin Luthor King, Jr. come immediately to mind, but it's an idea that has a history in early American politics, most notably in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. This passive resistance is at odds with the violence of the founding of the nation itself, and that is essential to understanding Superman's use of it, while rejecting "the American Way." It is said that America was the first nation founded not by conquest, but on an ideal of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," yet those principles were betrayed by the government, not only in the continuation of slavery or the exile and genocide of native Americans, but in the actions towards Americans via taxation and imprisonment that resulted in battles like the Shays and Whiskey Rebellions. This goes back to the Federalist/Anti Federalist debates, and the centralization of power that replaced the Bill of Rights with the Constitution. Bringing this back around to Superman, his actions in this story have roots in the ideas of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Lysander Spooner's No Treason. This debate tears apart, to this day, those would-be-allies of Libertarians, Objectivists, and Conservatives, who all would claim the path to the true "American Way."

I must stress that my take is certainly not meant to be definitive; not only do I not know the author's personal intent, but I also cannot ignore the recent trend in DC Comics to cater to Muslims, as anti-Jihadist comic book artist Bosch Fawstin has already discussed. (And, I have to wonder if the same writers would have Superman make a similar stand with the Tea Party protesters in our own country, in contrast to what happened with Captain America 603.) I only hope to explain the "Babylonian" aspect by explaining the history that makes such different interpretations of this standalone story possible. Like Superman, I don't know if my post will have an effect on the macro-scale. But hopefully, I've offered a flowering of knowledge to at least make things a little less vague.

Of course, it's always best to see for yourself:

(click images for larger view)


Joe Maurone said...

When I think of the Superman as the "Man of Tomorrow", I can't help but think that his ideals were full of contradictions of good and bad from the past. Rand noted a similar contradiction in Victor Hugo that sums up the current "Superhero Babylon":

"Hugo the thinker was archetypal of the virtues and the fatal errors of the nineteenth century. He believed in an unlimited, automatic human progress....Feeling an enormous, incoherent benevolence, he was impatiently eager to abolish any form of human suffering and he proclaimed ends, without thinking of means: he wanted to abolish poverty, with no idea of the source of wealth; he wanted the people to be free, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom; he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom, he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea that force and terror will not establish it. He took reason for granted and did not see the disastrous contradiction of attempting to combine it with faith–though his particular form of mysticism was...closer to the proud legends of the Greeks, and his God was a symbol of human perfection, whom he worshipped with a certain arrogant confidence, almost like an equal of a personal friend."