Superman, having passed his 85th birthday this June, has meant a lot of things to a lot of people over the years. He’s been a standard bearer for American ideals, a universal symbol of American pop culture, and the other side of the long-lived argument about who would win between Batman and Superman. Throughout all of this, though, one of the stories that has stuck with the Man of Steel is that of the immigrant. Clark Kent looks and sounds like an all-American guy, but he wasn’t born in the United States. He wasn’t even born on planet Earth. He was born on the planet Krypton, sent via spaceship to Earth as the planet collapsed beneath his parents’ feet. This story even sticks with Supes in his latest iteration: Adult Swim’s My Adventures with Superman.
History has shown that any number of changes can be made to the Superman character–his outfit, his skin color, where he crash-landed, what year he arrived on Earth–but he always begins life as a boy from Krypton who crash-landed onto Earth. He has always been an immigrant, even when stories handled that aspect differently–think of Red Son, when Superman’s pod crashed into Russia instead of America, or Flashpoint, when he was kept underground as a lifelong prisoner of the government.
Now, My Adventures with Superman has found some important new ways to explore this idea.
It’s important to note that everyone who immigrates to the United States (or elsewhere, really) has their own story, and no superhero story is going to match up perfectly, so this shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for telling those stories. That said, Superman’s status an an immigrant is so closely tied to the character throughout history, making it powerful and accessible.
There’s a whole spectrum of reality between the best-known versions of growing up in an immigrant family in the Western world though. In one, the new character grows up in two worlds. They’re a Western person with a Western accent to match while they’re out at school, but at home (whether that’s just their home or their whole community) they speak the native language of the adults around them. In another, though, the parents come to America with the hope of their child integrating completely so that they can have the best chance at advancement and not be seen as token diversity hire or something like that. In those cases, the child likely speaks English not just out in the world, but at home as well, with the whole family adopting as many Western customs as they can, leaving their history back in their home country.
Superman’s experience will be familiar to many. He came to the United States as an infant, adopted from a faraway place to be raised in America by American-born parents who have no real way to help him connect to his original culture and lineage.
This Man of Steel who viewers get to know in My Adventures With Superman is pretty different from the Supermen we tend to think of. When he discovered his powers as a child, he was as scared as he was excited–especially when the ship that brought him to Earth lit up and a big, scary holographic man appeared out of it. He didn’t embrace his powers right away, and in fact ran away from them. It wasn’t until after he graduated college that Clark Kent embraced his special abilities and powers and, even then, much of his actual heritage remains a mystery to him even as the first season came to an end.
As he begins to explore it, though, on three separate occasions Clark comes up against a hologram of a man in Kryptonian armor and cape, with the House of El “S” symbol on his chest, and long flowing white hair. The man speaks in tongues. As viewers who use subtitles, we get the translation for who we can assume is Jor-El, the biological father of Kal-El/Clark Kent.
In 1978’s Superman, Clark finds a green crystal after Jonathan Kent’s death that leads him to the Arctic and acts as a seed for the character’s iconic Fortress of Solitude. There, a hologram of Jor-El spends literally over a decade educating Clark on everything he needs to know about his background and his abilities. It’s possible that the Jor-El of Adventures had a similar plan for his son, but it never came to pass after Clark re-buried the ship and stuck his metaphorical head into the sand. Other versions of Superman take a similar path or often just gloss over the information–it seems to almost be an inborn talent or something not necessary to address. It’s handwaved away or just not considered.
And so we meet a grown Superman who really has no idea who he is. When he encounters that same artificial intelligence as an adult, it continues to speak to him in a language he doesn’t know.
Much of the season is spent humanizing Clark, and this only makes him more sympathetic. While Clark does have a father figure in his life in Jonathan Kent, Kent is his adoptive (but no less loving) father. He’s taken on the daily responsibilities of raising Clark alongside Martha Kent.
But this other side Clark is discovering, neither Jonathan nor Martha can do much to help him understand where he comes from. As a robot army led by Brainiac attempts to invade Earth through a portal, Kal-El stands before his father, and his assumptions about Krypton interfere just as much as inability to understand the language. Even as the season ends, Clark has only heard one intelligible sentence from his father: “Kal-El, my son. Live.” The ship that brought Kal-El to Earth is destroyed, and we have no way of knowing whether this young guy will ever be able to find out more about his own origins.
If Clark is going to figure out who Kal-El is–who he is–it’s going to be a very conscious, manual exploration of his heritage. It will be something he has to seek out, even if that’s only a matter of building the Fortress of Solitude and accepting the education his holographic father is offering. It’s not something that’s just happening to him.
All of this makes it impossible to forget that Superman is from somewhere else–while he looks as American as anyone else, he’s from another world, an immigrant and a foreigner living in America, determined to protect his found home. While all too often, Superman stories seemingly forget that the Man of Steel’s status as an immigrant is as important a piece of his origin as his alien ancestry, My Adventures with Superman makes it impossible to skirt around.
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