Ain’t No Such Thing As a Superman: Gil Scott Heron, Action Comics, and Global Superpower

This weekend, we lost the legendary badass Mr. Gil Scott-Heron at the age of 62.

Gil Scott-Heron was a Jamaican-American composer, musician, poet and author whose writings and recordings provided a vivid, and often stinging, commentary on social injustice and the black American experience; his declamatory singing style, allied to the overtly political content of his work, made him widely recognised as one of the inspirational figures of rap music.

Dude was only 18 when he wrote what is perhaps his best known piece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised– an attack on the mindless and anaesthetising effects of the mass media and a call to arms to the black community:

You will not be able to stay home, brother/
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out/
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip/
Skip out for beer during commercials/
Because the revolution will not be televised

Gil Scott-Heron’s Aint No Such Thing as a Superman

This reminds me of last month’s abdication by DC Comic’s Superman, of his American citizenship in Action Comics #900

The key scene takes place in “The Incident,” a short story in Action Comics #900 written by David S. Goyer with art by Miguel Sepulveda. In it, Superman consults with the President’s national security advisor, who is incensed that Superman appeared in Tehran to non-violently support the protesters demonstrating against the Iranian regime, no doubt an analogue for the recent real-life protests in the Middle East. However, since Superman is viewed as an American icon in the DC Universe as well as our own, the Iranian government has construed his actions as the will of the American President, and indeed, an act of war.

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

… or within American borders for that matter. The truth is that rather than fighting for justice, Superman has always fought for the American Way, which encompasses a hegemonic cosmology of what exactly counts as ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’. Why did an inter-galactic super-being align himself with an imperialist Superpower in the first place? Oh yeah, he was raised in Kansas and indoctrinated (in the 40s and 50s of all moments!) into a fundamental belief in the supremacy of the American Way, and the perspective that US domestic and foreign policy was totally where its at.

Now while I understand that everyone (left and right) is getting excited (knickers in twist), about Superman’s renunciation of US citizenship, I want us all to think on the analysis of Gil Scott-Heron and keep a few things in mind:

1) The motivation for this move does not stem from a sudden realization that the US is a problematic imperialist power, and should therefore be counter-balanced in some way. Rather, Superman doesn’t want his independent actions to reflect poorly on US diplomacy. He is doing this to aid the State, not to critique it. J Edgar Hoover would have lobbied Superman to do the same thing, if he could, and if we imagine this as some parallel to our very real world, I’d bet Hillary Clinton had something to do with this abdication. Now Superman can show up in the streets of Tehran without his presence being tantamount to a declaration of war.

2) Clark Kent, our grand hero’s alias, remains a US Citizen, and therefore, all of this rhetorical posturing is empty. A super-being with the power to fly and the asylum of a Fortress of Solitude on a stateless continent of ice has little need for citizenship in any event, and certainly needs no assistance to navigate national borders. Beyond this, however, the very real powers of a US Passport, and all the rights associated with American citizenship are fully retained by Our Glorious Hero, so all of his “I’m a global citizen” bullshit is just that. I’d like to see Clark Kent go ex-pat and pursue citizenship in Palestine or Taiwan, or Tibet for that matter, and then Action Comics can claim some sort of political solidarity for what thats worth. What we should be asking ourselves is what is it that Kent’s US Citizenship allows Superman to do, that renouncing it entirely would not?

3) The power, legitimacy, and resource hoarding that once was unflappable behind the seal of American citizenship has dissolved somewhat in the 21st Century. Anyone, including Mulit-national corporation and the US State Department itself, wishing to maintain such command has made strategic shifts to re-brand from “American” to “Global”, “International” or “Worldly”. In the globalized, post-colonial world, power is hard-pressed to get away with much exertion of force or influence without waving some UN, World Bank, IMF, or “coalition” cred- and this is just Superman doing the same.

I won’t pretend for a minute that the editors at DC Comics are as savvy and strategic as all this. In DC’s attempts toward verisimilitude, however, they’ve come marvelously close to capturing the zeitgeist of global power, transforming Superman into just another heuristic for understanding the multi-lateral shifts of imperialist power.

In our own world, then, Scott-Heron remains correct that there ain’t nothing but a superman, afterall, what would an all powerful being need with a US Passport and a stable position in a major media firm in New York City?

Up Up and Awaaaaaaaaaay!
Sunshine Superboy

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One Response to “Ain’t No Such Thing As a Superman: Gil Scott Heron, Action Comics, and Global Superpower”

  1. Interesting development. Have you read Red Son? Kal-El’s ship lands in the Soviet Union (and Kal-El is raised by farmers in the Ukraine) so he grows up to fight for Stalin, Socialism, and the expansion of the Warsaw Pact. Other classic characters get re-envisioned in interesting ways as well.

    You bring up some good points. Now that I think about it there are other ways in which the comic books are portraying the relationship to global power. Apparently Batman has gone global in Batman Inc.

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