The one thing that’s always fascinated me about 1940s alien superheroes in American comic books is that they were always created to fit the mold of white America, even if they wouldn’t fit the mold otherwise. The Martian Manhunter is a green person from Mars, yet he was drawn in disguise as a white person. (He could also be a subject for a future “Color Coded” post.) The same goes for Superman, but in an even more intense fashion. Superman came to Earth with light skin. He didn’t need to cloak himself like the Martian Manhunter. Therefore, he could have been easily picked up by a white family and raised with all the privileges skin color affords in this country.
I’ve read before how Superman appeals to a large swath of Asian Americans and it’s easy to how. As the Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow and current Superman writers Gene Luen Yang and Greg Pak state in The Hard NOC Life, Superman exhibits the immigrant experience, which includes being taken from place of strife (Chow gives the example of “the fall of Saigon”), adapting to another country and (in some cases) becoming “a transnational adoptee.” Yang also brought up the concept of Superman being able to “pass,” which I something I’ve felt was one of the prime factors of Superman’s personality and point of view.
Superman’s passing ability, as Yang suggests, reflects the experiences Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster might have had as members of America’s Jewish immigrant population. But that passing ability also relates to other ethnicities and races.
To speak for my African American people, those of us that have been able to pass have done so just to be able to live a productive life. Taking a look at history and films like Imitation of Life and Pinky show how dire the situation was; if you could pass in order to get a job and buy a house and get some sort of upward mobility, why not? Even if you didn’t pass, a lighter-skinned black person could use their skintone to “pass” to a degree and get more respect from both black and white counterparts. More could be achieved if you were able to put on the “class=light skintone” cloak. That same cloak is something Superman’s able to wear, which allowed him to wear America’s colors without anyone questioning him as to his true racial or ethnic identity.
“Passing” is something unique to biracial or multiracial Americans as well, along with the idea of living between two worlds, as it were. Just like how Superman has to reconcile his extraterrestrial self with his earthly self, biracial and multiracial people often feel trapped between two or more groups, feeling like they don’t belong to either. Like Superman, they eventually come to find their own identity, making peace with all sides of themselves.
To go back to the Asian American experience, I also felt Superman exhibits a wrestle with the Model Minority stereotype. Asian Americans are often labeled with backhanded compliments, such as being “respectful” or “efficient,” “play by the rules,” or are “extremely smart,” when all these “compliments” do is 1) set up an impossible standard no one can reach and 2) acts as a buttress to white supremacy, suggesting that Asian Americans are the “better” minority and “deserve” white supremacy’s vote of confidence. When people say things along the lines of Asian Americans “play by the rules,” what they’re really saying is that they believe Asian Americans don’t challenge the ills of white supremacy in society.
Superman embodies this to me because he is an immigrant who can go unnoticed, in a sense, in white society. Because he has the ability to do that, it’s assumed that Superman will always play by the rules and uphold the ladder of racial privilege. But in many ways, Superman’s journey is very much one of a person who slowly becomes much more empowered by their ancestral history, not the storyline Metropolis might try to write for him. In his own way, he does his best to assert that he’s his own person, not a pawn of society.
Superman artwork. Credit: DC Comics (and respective artist)