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It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Superman protects an undocumented worker in this week’s issue of DC’s Action Comics. Beyond the fact that he is the long-standing defender of truth, justice and the American way, he also took a stand against racial intolerance in a recent DC promotion that restored an anti-bigotry image from the 1940s. “THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN,” the 1949 image, originally created for an offshoot of the Anti-Defamation League — helpfully explains with appropriate emphasis.
Superman has, of course, literally made a career out of standing up for the little guy — as recently as 2015, the character made headlines for standing with citizens of Metropolis against police brutality. But when it comes to the issue of immigration and racial intolerance, the superhero is almost uniquely placed to offer metaphorical commentary on the subject.
Superman, as envisioned by his creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel back in 1938, is not only the literal embodiment of the immigrant dream, he’s the perfect example of those currently at the center of the decision to rescind the DACA program: someone who arrived in the United States as a child as the result of his parents’ actions, without paperwork or going through the right channels, who had dedicated his life to not only fitting into U.S. society, but making U.S. society a better place.
The immigrant part of Superman’s origin is often glossed over, or outright ignored, by those who see the hero as being “all-American” in every way — in 1986, his origin was even rewritten, temporarily, so that he was actually “born” in the U.S. with his spaceship being reclassified as a “birthing matrix” because Kryptonians weren’t brought to term biologically — but it’s an important piece not only of his history, but of the vision of the United States that Superman represents.
In some ways, Superman is, at heart, an optimistic story about the United States itself. The fact that the character comes from “out there” (Metaphorically, another country, as represented by another planet because, well, comics) can not only come to be accepted by America, but be seen as representing the best of America, an inspirational figure that everyone looks up to — that’s the American dream in action, isn’t it? (In Action Comics, at least, if you’ll excuse the pun.) That’s the way things are supposed to work, according to the United States advertised on the Statue of Liberty’s “New Colossus” plaque and the one that lives in its citizens’ hearts.
Or perhaps merely some citizens’ hearts, at least these days. After all, certain members of the current presidential administration seem disinterested in the “The New Colossus,” and the idea of letting immigrants who arrived illegally as children stay seems to be frowned upon in general.
In this current climate, it’s not just noteworthy that Superman stands up to someone angry at immigrants, but that Superman remains seen as an inspirational and patriotic figure at all, standing as he does for concepts and acceptance that all too many would disagree with.
For years, Superman was often considered a dull figure, a square representing the establishment who paled in comparison to other superheroes who could stand more easily for counterculture narratives: Batman, with his outsider melancholy, or Green Lantern as he traveled America to find the “real” country in the 1960s.
Today, because of the changes in popular culture in general and political culture in particular, Superman feels more at odds with the mainstream than he has in decades. And, because he has never stopped standing up for tolerance, acceptance and the belief that anyone can succeed no matter where they came from if given the chance, he might be more necessary than at any time since his creation.
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