Cartoon Alley: Reviews and commentary #14… Gordon Campbell

My Favourite Comic (this month) : Thor Walks Across America

by Gordon Campbell

Don’t tell Glenn Beck or the citizens of Arizona but Superman is an illegal alien. Sure, as an adult, he grew up to do all sorts of good deeds. Yet Superman started out by being sneaked into the United States as a baby, as an illegal immigrant from the failed state where he was born – and it took a couple of decent hard working folks in small town America to recognise what that baby Clark Kent might one day be able to offer America – that melting pot nation built on the premise that people deserve a second chance to show the stuff they’re capable of.

All this came to mind when I read on the Net that DC Comics were about to reboot Superman, and put him back in touch with his American roots. For the best of 2010-2011, the Man of Steel will apparently be walking – not flying – across America, and taking the pulse of the nation and its current discontents as he goes. So far, he’s been walking around Philadelphia – where the writers managed to get the South Side of Chicago mixed up with South Street, Philadelphia – and to Detroit. Avowedly, the aim to refocus Superman away from his intergalactic concerns, and put him back where he was in the late 1930s and 1940s, among the everyday trials and tribulations of working America.

This isn’t a new idea. Various other superheroes – including Wonder Women – have at times been put back among ordinary folks, and their ordinary problems. The most memorable case would have to be the Green Lantern/Green Arrow sequence in the 1970s when writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams put the duo through the contemporary relevance wringer – with Arrow serving as a radical agent of revolutionary change in the face of injustice and poverty in America, while Lantern came across as more moderate, liberal advocate of gradualist change. It led to these sort of exchanges :

You call yourself a hero! Chum, you don’t even qualify as a man…. forget about chasing around the galaxy! And remember America. It’s a good country… beautiful… fertile… and terribly sick! There are children dying, honest people cowering in fear, disillusioned kids ripping up campuses. On the streets of Memphis a good black man died… and in Los Angeles, a good white man fell. Something is wrong. Something is killing us all! Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls. And you… sitting on your mudball, preening like a smug tomcat. How dare you presume to meddle in the affairs of humanity, when human beings are no more than statistics to you and your crew. Come off your perch. Touch, taste, laugh, and cry! Learn where we’re at… and why.

In one memorable story called Snowlbirds Don’t Fly” Green Arrow’s teenage sidekick Speedy developed a heroin addiction. Anyways, that Green Lantern/Green Arrow sequence lasted only 14 issues, and it didn’t sell – partly because the stories were so bleedingly preachy. But it got a lot of media attention, and did break down barriers. And it does serve as a distant cousin to the current series of Superman stories, where – in the second installment ( # 702) Clark Kent does grapple once again with the issue of immigration, although it is in such a tentative half-assed fashion that Green Arrow for one, would have despised for it.

It wasn’t the first time Superman has dropped the ball on this issue. In 2008, there was an episode of the television series Smallville called “Subterranean” where a teenage Clark Kent and his mother Martha, debate the rights and wrongs of being an immigrant, in modern America.

Martha: I wanna help this boy as much as you do, but I took an oath to uphold the law.

Clark: All he’s trying to do is find his mom.

Martha: I know, but we have to go through the proper legal channels.

Clark: Was it legal when you forged my adoption papers? I’m an illegal immigrant, Mom. You’ve been harbouring me for over 17 years.

Martha: Your situation was entirely different. We had to protect you.

Clark: And I need to protect Javier. If I don’t defend him, who will?

So far, this current attempt to put Superman back in touch with what’s ailing the heartland of America hasn’t been particularly successful, either artistically or in generating major sales action. There’s still time for them to get it right. In the meantime, my favourite comic this month has been this spoof of the entire idea – whereby Thor walks across America, and by the look of this panel doles out cardiac surgery with his hammer. This is from the excellent Bullyscomics site