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Strangers In Strange Lands:
Goldilocks, Winghead, And The Man Of Steel

essay by J.C. Hartley

The story of Superman is in essence the story of America. Both the America we suspect we know as a convenient abbreviation for the USA, and the America that exists as an idea or the subject of a quest, the 'America' that Simon and Garfunkel sang about in 1968. A vulnerable orphan, despatched from his doomed homeland, to make a new life in a new world where anything seems possible, the narrative of Kal-El is the shared narrative of European emigration to the United States. The covenant expressed in the poem The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, formerly on a plaque at the base of the pedestal of Liberty Enlightening the People, in New York Harbour, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," was an abiding offer of hope. Of course, the infant Kal-El, as he was named on his home planet of Krypton, proved invulnerable on Earth where we came to know him as Superman.

When Henry Cavill, an Englishman, was named as the new Superman for the film Man Of Steel (2013), there were the predictable complaints that Superman couldn't be English, he was as American as apple pie. Counter-arguments pointed out that Superman wasn't American at all he was actually an alien. To be honest, I have some sympathy with the protesters; as a long-time fan of the James Bond franchise I cringe whenever the latest American action-hero is suggested for the part of the typically-British spy. And those that claimed Superman for America were right for another reason.

There's a brilliant scene in the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter Of Life And Death (1946); conducting David Niven's defence in Heaven in order to win for him an extension of his life on Earth, Roger Livesey's character objects to the composition of the jury drawn from races and cultures who might be said to have an axe to grind with the British. The judge consents to the jury being changed and they fade away, but as they re-materialise they are revealed to be of the same origin, but now presenting themselves as Americans; distilled in that great melting-pot.

In his wonderful book Men Of Tomorrow (Basic Books, 2004), Gerard Jones shows the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating Superman; in his novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, Michael Chabon draws on the career of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon among others to show how Jewish kids born to immigrant European families in America were the creative force behind the comic-books industry. America for them was the land of opportunity and their garishly-garbed heroes stood for everything good about their adoptive country. In the prelude to the United States' entry into the Second World War, America had already joined the combat in the pages of its comic books as, directly flouting the non-interventionist stance; heroes like Captain America took on the forces of Nazism. The writers and artists were aware of what was happening in the countries of Europe that their parents had left behind.

Superman repays the debt of gratitude he feels he owes to the land - and indeed the planet - that offered him a new home, by becoming its protector, defending individuals and nations from natural and unnatural disasters, organised crime, destructive super-villains, and alien invaders from space. This theme of gratitude and obligation is stronger in the latest cinematic movie version, Man Of Steel, than in previous incarnations such as Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006), which have toyed with notions of self-sacrifice from Christian theology.

Superman's loyalty to his adoptive homeland has been deconstructed in the past, in comics and in prose fiction; Mark Millar's Red Son re-imagined Superman as a hero of Soviet Russia, and Kim Newman's Ubermensch took a Nietzschean path and considered him as a loyal servant of wartime National Socialism in Germany. But these 'what-ifs' only reinforced the power of the original narrative, that of a child raised to believe it is possible to live a life devoted to "truth, justice, and the American way" who, as a super-powered adult, repays with hope a debt of gratitude.

Of course, the other side of Superman's integration into American society is the tendency to conformity, a conscious choice often made by the outsider as particularly depicted in cinema in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), and Istvan Szabo's Mephisto (1981). Frank Miller addresses Superman's inevitable alliance with the forces of conservatism and reaction in his The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the series and graphic novel which, with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, from the same year, ushered in a new maturity in the presentation of the costumed hero.

Following the outlawing of masked vigilantes, Superman is the only superhero allowed to operate, but is more concerned with the conduct of American foreign policy while crime rages on the continental mainland, and is the subject of executive denial with the cooperation of a complicit media. Finally ordered to apprehend Bruce Wayne, who has brought his alter-ego the Batman out of retirement to fight crime, Superman is accused by Wayne of following the mid-western conservative values of his adoptive parents the Kents, and falling in line with the demands of an authoritarian government.

The fight between Superman and Batman in The Dark Knight Returns is being seen as a possible template for the confrontation between the pair in the sequel to Man Of Steel. Of course, the pair have fought before, as Ozymandias says in Watchmen about his confrontation with the Comedian, costumed heroes always clash on their first meeting. I remember an issue of the comic The Brave And The Bold (this title was later used for an animated series from Warners) where, abducted to a planet with a red sun, Superman is denied his powers and has to face the superior combat skills of Batman, and in The Omac Project (2005), Batman is pummelled almost to death by a Superman under the control of arch-villain Maxwell Lord.

In The Forever People Of Supertown, the great Jack Kirby's response to the 1970s counter-culture, Superman, guesting in the new comic, acknowledges his loneliness and isolation by imploringly the Forever People on the front cover, "Wait! This is my only chance to find my own kind! You must tell me how to reach Supertown!" At one point in the comic, Superman, the pinnacle of straight-laced conformity among the garish youth, even in his baby-blue superhero suit, is admired by one of the young women for his good looks. This sort of admiring aside, made by attractive young women commenting on the 'dreaminess' of the titular hero, was common in comics and probably nowhere more prevalent than in the pages of The Mighty Thor.

Was the unlikely success of the Thor comic because of his physical attractiveness, his flowing blond locks, at a time when men were going unshorn? In the TV comedy, The Big Bang Theory, while Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard are at Comic-Con; Penny, Amy and Bernadette try to work out why the boys are fixated on comic-books. Visiting the comic-book store they ask owner Stuart to recommend something, he starts to eulogise about a new graphic-novel but Penny spots something else and interrupts with "Oh, Thor! He's hot!"

Hailed as the unlikely hit of (deep breath) Marvel's cinematic universe Avengers 'phase one' releases, the success of Thor (2011) directed by the equally unlikely - and yet ultimately obvious - choice, Kenneth Branagh, must have encouraged Marvel to believe anything would be possible. Avengers Assemble (2012) largely delivered on the promise of the earlier films that had introduced in solo outings the origin stories of the eventual members of the 'Avengers Initiative'. But how had Thor, the Norse god of thunder, come to feature in the Marvel universe anyway?

Created by Stan Lee, in 1962, as a way of ramping-up superhero powers without recourse to gamma rays and super-soldier serums, Marvel's Thor got around the issue of a human having god-like powers by being just that, a god. In The Dark Knight Returns, President Reagan tells the people of America not to worry about the escalating foreign policy situation as they have God on their side, "or the next best thing." An abiding problem for Superman scripters was the character's invulnerability, hence the invention of Kryptonite; how else do you convince the reader of the existence of peril if the hero is, to all intents and purposes, the strongest being on Earth and cannot be harmed?

Thor came with all the accoutrements of power but some very real failings. Exiled on Earth, or Midgard, by the all-father Odin, for starting the war between Asgard and the giants of Jotunheim, and brawling in taverns, Thor is imprisoned in the body of disabled doctor Donald Blake. This curious arrangement led to a lively letters page debate during the 1960s. Imperilled by an invasion fleet of the Kronans, the Stone Men from Saturn, Blake, while hiding in a cave, discovers an ancient gnarled stick which he strikes against a rock. The stick transforms into Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, and Blake transforms into Thor himself. Although Thor learns humility, his affinity for Earth and its people is a source of contention with his father Odin. Although the book often progressed in typical superhero fashion, the mythical element provided by Thor's Asgardian origins added an extra dimension.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, writer Tom Wolfe, charting the career of author and LSD-campaigner Ken Kesey in the late 1960s, acknowledges the popularity of comics within the youthful counter-culture. Wolfe cites the science fiction and fantasy storylines, the fact that superheroes were sometimes marginalised or in opposition to the establishment, and of course the bright primary colours and far-out artwork. Jack Kirby's visions of Asgard as a city-state blending the futuristic with the medieval must have contributed to the popularity of the title. Thor's long blond hair gave him some affinity with his youthful reading public, and the Hollywood-medieval speech, and fantasy-world of trolls and giants, would have resonated with a generation re-discovering Tolkien. Similarly, the success of the Thor movie is less surprising given the popularity of TV re-imaginings like The Tudors, and outright fantasy series like Merlin, Robin Hood, Once Upon A Time, and, of course, Game Of Thrones.

Despite his exile, Thor forms a soft-spot for Earth, and particularly America; this affinity for Earth is later explained as it is revealed that his mother is Gaea the Earth goddess. During his stint as writer and artist in the 1980s, Walt Simonson drew heavily upon the mythology of the character, and enemies of Asgard such as the demon Surtur, and Malekith the dark elf, a narrative path that the new film Thor: The Dark World seems to be treading. Thor fought the Midgard serpent and, at one point, adopts a new fictional secret identity on Earth as a Scandinavian construction-site worker, even toying with a pair of spectacles as a disguise because, as SHIELD's Nick Fury states, they worked "for the other guy." In a nice joke, Thor bumps into Clark Kent who double-takes and muses "Wasn't that... naw, couldn't be." Similarities between Thor and Superman are apparent but, while the latter often seems trapped in a creative cul-de-sac, hence DC seeing the necessity of killing him off at one point, Thor has flourished, despite the clear incongruity of a Norse god operating on Earth as a superhero.

Captain America and his alter-ego Steve Rogers does not at first sight appear to fit within this consideration of super-powered exiles finding a home in America. Created by Joe Simon and drawn by Jack Kirby in December 1940, the character was the manifestation of the creative team's revulsion at the activities of Nazi Germany at a time when America was still officially non-interventionist. Revived in the 1960s, quite literally, as the Avengers discover his body frozen in suspended animation, Captain America took his place alongside the team but was "haunted by past memories, and trying to adapt to 1960s society," as Bradford W. Wright effectively summarises it in his Comic Book Nation: The Transformation Of Youth Culture In America. Captain America's struggle, one might say failure, to adapt, has been an abiding theme of the comic since 1964.

A patriot, Captain America has been both the staunchest defender and fiercest critic of America but clearly, given the character's origins in opposition to his country's official policy, this is what he should be. Frank Miller, who offered Batman and Superman as opposing symbols in The Dark Knight Returns, did the same with Daredevil and Captain America in his 'Born Again' story-arc for the former character in 1986. When the Kingpin of crime, Wilson Fisk, discovers Daredevil's secret identity as blind lawyer Matt Murdock, he uses his power and influence to destroy the superhero's life and career. When Daredevil recovers, Fisk pulls strings with the US military to use their psychotic super-soldier Nuke in a murderous attack on New York's Hell's Kitchen. Captain America enters the fray and discovers the warped legacy of the super-soldier programme that originally created him. Daredevil's cynicism about the establishment and his belief in the 'rule of law' arising from his career as a lawyer, is compared with Captain America's unwavering belief that America is a symbol of what society could and should be. With crime and corruption, political graft, and America's involvement in questionable activities in the last 50 years, Captain America's unwavering convictions have taken some hard knocks.

Mark Gruenwald's 10-year stint as writer through the 1980s and 1990s addressed many political and social issues, while restating Captain America's convictions. The anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher was introduced to directly question Captain America's patriotism. Steve Rogers resigned as Captain America when ordered to place himself under direct US government control, but still operated as the vigilante called the Captain. This oppositional thread in Captain America's career was continued in the Civil War series when superheroes divided into factions in response to the 'Federal Registration of Super-powered Beings Act', which Captain America saw as an infringement of civil liberties and therefore un-American. It is a fascinating dichotomy that a character symbolising the tenets of the American Constitution so often finds himself at odds with that Nation's administrators.

At times unfashionably patriotic, and with moral values established in the 1930s, Captain America is as displaced in time as Superman and Thor are in space. Captain America also carries a burden of guilt about the death of his youthful sidekick Bucky Barnes during the war. An old comic-book joke was that every character that had ever died was brought back to life eventually, except for Bucky Barnes. However, Barnes was later shown to have survived his apparent death, and to have been employed by the Soviets as the assassin called the Winter Soldier. Ultimately, he would inherit Captain America's mask and shield when Steve Rogers was shot. The second cinema outing for Captain America, post-Avengers, will be Captain America: The Winter Soldier, presumably picking up plot points from these storylines.

What these three characters, Superman, Thor, and Captain America, share is a form of physical exile, and a sense of alienation expressed as loneliness and the feeling that no one else has the same set of experiences. These themes have been explored to a greater or lesser degree throughout their narrative arcs. What the best writers have managed to achieve in the telling of these character's stories is an interrogation of the image of a country America, from 'promised land', welcoming sanctuary to the disenfranchised exile, through social and cultural upheaval, to a state possibly out of touch with the doctrines enshrined in its foundation. What is never far away, however, is the sense of optimism and the belief that America can always aspire to the qualities invested in it by its people.

Superman and Lady Liberty

The Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones

Red Son by Mark Millar

Superman vs. Batman, The Dark Knight Returns

The Mighty Thor

rainbow bridge to Asgard

Captain America

Thor: The Dark World poster

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Superman with shield and hammer

See also:
The Krypton Factory: Superman's Return

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