Frank Miller's take on Superman is all about truth and justice, not so much the 'American way'

Key Points
  • In the hands of legendary comic writer Frank Miller and current Superman writer Brian Bendis, Superman and his backstory are being reshaped for modern times.
  • The two writers, who are working on different projects for DC, seek to put their own stamp on the iconic superhero going to far as to strip him of political affiliation and alter his origin story. 
Cover of Superman #1
Art by Joe Shuster | Wikipedia

In the 80 years since his first appearance in Action Comics #1, Superman has become one of the most recognizable mainstays of American pop culture. His slogan "Truth, justice and the American way" has become more than just a catchphrase, but the linchpin of the Man of Steel's identity.

Until now.

In the hands of legendary comic book writer and artist Frank Miller and current Superman writer Brian Bendis, Superman and his backstory are being reshaped for modern times. The two writers, who are working on different projects for DC Comics, a unit of Time Warner, seek to put their own stamp on the iconic superhero going so far as to strip him of political affiliation and alter his origin story.

These fresh takes on Superman come as the character's commercial appeal has waned following years of film adaptations that didn't quite resonate with audiences even as comic book movies have exploded. Superman's sales haven't quite touched the levels of the early 1990s and the controversial "Death of Superman" storyline. Despite that, he remains DC Comics' second-biggest comic book franchise behind Batman.

That, ironically, makes the otherwise staid character a ripe target for experimentation.

For Miller, Clark Kent began as a character that sought out justice without affiliation. However, after the last few decades, his ideals shifted to be more Republican, he said.

"By the time I was first reading [Superman] as a child, he had just become a status quo hero," Miller said during a panel at New York Comic Con last week. "He wanted everything to stay the same as it was."

Before he was dubbed the Man of Steel, Superman was often referred to as the Champion of the Oppressed, according to Glen Weldon, author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." In the years after his 1938 debut, Superman was "a bit of a bruiser," using his fists to beat up people for picking on the little guy.

"He was kind of a socialist, or at least neo-socialist, ideal of equality," Weldon said. During that time, Superman took on crooked politicians, villainous oil barons and gangsters.

"And then World War II happened," Weldon said. "He went from being this challenger of the status quo, which is what he was created to be, to reinforcing it because America needed belief in the status quo. It was a very scary time. People were worried about America's fate and so he became a patriotic symbol."

Superman worked for Reagan

After the war, Superman continued on this path as the hallmark of American values. However, as comic book writers in the 1970s attempted to make Superman more relatable to audiences, they actually managed to make his differences from humans more apparent. Superman became a symbol of the establishment, a Boy Scout in a blue suit.

This identity carried into Miller's first depiction of Superman in his influential and infamous "The Dark Knight Returns" comic book miniseries. The four-part series published in 1986 saw an older Batman don the cowl in a dystopian version of Gotham City. In this world, Superman is a government agent and, at the behest of President Ronald Regan, is tasked with arresting Batman. While Superman does not like working for the U.S. government, he sees it as the only way he can save lives.

Miller's story changed the course of superhero comics. The bold reinterpretation of Batman gave way to more adult iterations of comic book characters, but also changed how some readers saw the Man of Steel.

Superhero stories have long reflected the politics and cultural debates of their time, but Miller's adaptation brought Superman's flaws to the foreground. In the context of Batman's story, Superman is a villain. He is portrayed as a naive henchman, driven by keeping his world just the way it is no matter the cost.

'Not so noisy about the American Way'

More than 30 years later, Miller is revisiting the character. In the works is a three-part series titled "Superman: Year One," that revolves around the early days of Clark Kent's life as he discovers his powers and the women that shaped him into a hero.

"What I want to do is to help bring him back to this iconic force and maybe play up the truth and justice and just not be so noisy about the 'American way' part," Miller said. "We've got plenty of that now."

Sixty-one-year-old Miller has never been shy about sharing his political opinions in his work or publicly. He's been vocal in blog posts and at conventions about such things as the Occupy Wall Street movement, immigration and terrorism. In 2011, he released a graphic novel titled "Holy Terror," in which a superhero named The Fixer battles against Islamic terrorists.

However, his newest comic isn't going to be a sermon railing against his ideological opponents, he said.

"[Superman's] not gonna tell you how to vote," Miller said. "He's going after much larger truths. The truths are going to be emotional and moral, not political."

Bendis, who is in the midst of his own Superman storyline with DC and shared the stage with Miller at New York Comic Con, echoed that sentiment. He said that some writers have used Superman as a soapbox to lecture the audience. Rather, he said, the hero should teach comic book readers through his actions.

"I'm writing Superman in a world where for the first time the ideas of truth, justice and the American way are not being taken for granted," Bendis said. "Truth is something that people are arguing about, justice is not for everybody, we have all now seen, and the American way, the idea that anybody can come here for freedom, is under siege."

Bendis, a comic writer and artist from Cleveland, Ohio, penned Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers throughout his career before transitioning to work with DC exclusively last year.

His debut with the company came in the form of Action Comics #1,000, which came out in June, and marked the start of his limited series with the Man of Steel. The comic, which retailed for $8, sold more than half a million copies, said John Jackson Miller, creator of Comichron, an online comic book database.

Refugee, immigrant, 'the ultimate American'

In Bendis' iteration of the classic hero, the author altered a key plot point in Kal-El's past: The destruction of his home planet Krypton. Superman was not the sole survivor of a natural disaster that devastated his planet, but rather he became the sole survivor of mass genocide, a cleansing of Krypton by another being.

"The world now sees him as a refugee and an immigrant and not just as a survivor," Bendis said at New York Comic Con.

Frank Miller was quick to chime in afterwards, saying: "[Superman] is the ultimate immigrant and thereby, folks, the ultimate American."

Bendis' tweak to Superman's origin story comes at a time when the United States is divided on how to deal with immigration. President Donald Trump's administration has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration that has resulted in the separation of children from their parents caught crossing the border and an uptick in the number of detention centers. Trump has also been pushing for stronger border protections, including a more comprehensive wall along the Mexican border.

This policy has further split the American public, raising questions about how the country should be handling immigration issues and, more so, how it should be treating immigrants.

"What more political statement could you make than having the immigrant coming in and save America, not undermine America?" Larry Tye, author of "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," said.

Superman has changed and evolved with just about every era, transforming into the superhero that America needed at that time. Weldon said that Superman appeals to our desire to be better than we are — he is not someone to identify with, but to aspire to be.

"He exists as the real personification of everything that America thinks it is, not necessarily what we are," Weldon said. "What we think we are is this immensely powerful entity that could do anything in the world and what we choose to do is use our power with tremendous restraint and help others. This is the America we keep telling ourselves that we are."