This is Part 4 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.
Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).
–MORNING IN AMERICA–
The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.
Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”
Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”
Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).
In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.
At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.
And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).
Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:
Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!
This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.
Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.