Super-American or Super-Alien?
In my last post I explored how various writers differed in their depiction of Superman, portraying him either as a god/God or mere mortal. This post will deal briefly with the issue of Superman's heritage and national identity. Does he see himself primarily as a fully assimilated American with minimal ties to his Kryptonian origin, or as a Kryptonian immigrant living in an alien culture? Throughout the decades writers have take one side or the other in this debate, which I refer to as Super-American vs. Super-Alien.
Among the proponents of the first position would seemingly be Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Though themselves the sons of Jewish immigrants, their Superman was never referred to as such, and it is more often speculated that his origin was written to mirror that of Moses rather than their own. It is notable that such a clearly Anglo-Saxon name as "Clark Kent" naturally afforded their protagonist greater chance for assimilation and acceptance in 1930s America than they themselves could aspire to achieve at the time. Additionally, given that the passing motorists which first discovered the infant Superman were not named in the earliest tales, the reader has just as much reason that "Clark Kent" is a name he chose for himself, suggesting that he self-identified with American culture rather than Kryptonian. Indeed, like the Kents, his home world is not even named in Action Comics #1, demonstrating its relatively low importance to the character's identity at the time.
Superman being first and foremost not an alien, or even an earthling, but an American, was the general assumption for the first decade or so following his debut. One iconic comic cover from prior to America's entry into the Second World War depicted a confrontation with Adolf Hitler, clearly demonstrating a Superman who was not above taking sides in international conflicts, as later became the case; America's enemies were his enemies. And it was at this time that the famous phrase, "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" was first coined.
It was not until the Silver Age under Mort Weisinger's stewardship that Krypton became more prevalent, and as a result greater emphasis given to its role in Superman's heritage. Notably, Kryptonian decor was depicted to resemble Superman's costume, thus implying that the reason for which he donned such apparel was in honor of his alien ancestors. Instead of conforming to the American culture as he had once done, now Superman was depicted as actively resisting it. From thence on the issue of why he wore that particular outfit as Superman was highly indicative of a writer's view on the matter.
This is especially evident when the trend of emphasizing his origin reversed once again under the historically strongest proponent of the Super-American position, John Byrne, who redefined the character for the post-crisis continuity. Under Byrne's version of the origin, Clark and his parents designed the costume years before any of them had known about his extraterrestrial origin (his parents had suspected that the craft which crashed was part of the USSR's space program, and the Clark was a mutant).
Even when Clark learns of Krypton in Man of Steel #6, he states in no uncertain terms "It doesn't matter." Even more revealing is a thought bubble in which he says "I think like an American" (as opposed to a Kryptonian or even an earthling). To emphasis the fact even further that he was a true and genuine American, both in regards to his beliefs and citizenship, Byrne changed the origin yet further so that Kal-El was not sent to Earth as an infant, but rather that his "birthing matrix" was, so that the child was actually born on American soil when the ship crashed.
The pro-American attitudes of both the character and those writing his stories saw a general decline for the two decades following Byrne's reboot. Mark Waid's Birthright made the "S" insignia a symbol of the Kryptonian race, as opposed to the Latin letter "S" standing for Superman (though in the Christopher Reeve movies it had been a symbol of the House of El). Geoff Johns in Secret Origin went further by fully restoring the suit as typical Kryptonian garb, with Martha suggesting Clark wear such specifically to embrace his alien heritage.
Throughout this time period, as anti-American attitudes increased abroad, an obvious effort was put forth not only to restore Superman’s status as an alien immigrant, but also to deemphasize his status as an American. The film Superman Returns had Perry White use the phrase “Truth, Justice… all that stuff” in specific omission of “the American Way.” Brian Azzarello’s For Tomorrow, published during the Iraq War, implicitly condemned Superman’s intervention in a Middle-Eastern conflict, with notable disapproval directed at him from the non-American members of the Justice League.
Recently, Action Comics #900 became infamous for Superman formally renouncing his American citizenship. And even as Superman conducted his walking tour across America in the Grounded storyline by J. Michael Straczynski, at the same time in Superman: Earth One by the same author Superman insinuates in an “interview” with Clark Kent that any particular association with America on his part would destabilize the world. Clearly the trend of emphasizing Superman’s immigrant origins and distancing him from America shows no signs of abating anytime soon.