PREFACE: I should say a few things before I get into this article. One, I am a white woman, so I come from a place of privilege. Two, I coming to this story nearly a month late, not being a regular Marvel/DC reader by any means. And the third is that if this article is problematic in any way, call me the hell out. I want to actively listen to the voices of people of color, and those voices carry real weight and influence to me.
Does this scene look familiar to you? Cops dressed for war, bullying the populace they supposedly serve? People trying to reason with them, but that reason obviously falling on the deaf ears of those who can’t hear over the sounds of their own authority complex? It’s a familiar sight, even if you’ve even barely kept up with recent events. It’s happening all over America, in cities where the cops have murdered people like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many more. The police have been one of the many fists of white supremacy, slaughtering people of color for no reason other than it seems it gets their racist asses off. Despite most of their victims having not committed any crime whatsoever, much less violent crime, the police routinely use “excessive force” (aka murder, intimidation, assault, etc) against black people. And yet, somehow, white people who actually commit horrific violent crimes like the mass-murdering militant racist Dylann Roof or Aurora Shooter James Holmes are imprisoned and brought to trial without being subject to the violence police use against black people. As ever, the police are militarized enforcers of racism. But where does Superman get involved in this?
In Action Comics #42 by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, Superman lost his powers for an unknown reason. He’s back in town, and he’s getting a “welcome back” neighborhood block party. The first half of the issue takes place with a depowered Superman fighting off a shadow-monster, but that’s irrelevant. As the same time as this fight is occurring, the police come to harass the townspeople throwing the welcome back block party. In this storyline the police have an obsession with taking Superman down because supposedly he attracts supervillains to Metropolis. Regardless, the police harass and intimidate the “unlawful assembly”. This is where the parallels becoming chilling, as the police and several government organizations have routinely monitored, threatened, and attacked peaceful protesters, journalists, and other citizens. In fact, government “security” organizations like the FBI and CIA have done this for a long time, citing “black extremists” (which, translated from the lingo of racists, means black people who protest against racist police and state violence.)
But it doesn’t end there. Superman comes back from the fight to discover the situation has escalated further. Now to be fair I haven’t read the full issue, as I don’t read this book and don’t have a lot of money to spare at the moment. But from the numerous reviews and partial summaries I’ve been able to find, what essentially happens amounts to the police firing off tear gas maybe on accident, a citizen gets “unruly” (a direct quote from a few different review sites), and super-swat gets called on the depowered Superman (maybe not in that order). Then this happens:
This is the most important image of the whole comic, and of this article. The story itself, at face value, is not about the police’s violent history against people of color, especially black people. Yet with all of the parallels, one cannot be faulted for crafting such an interpretation. Many made such an interpretation, and the responses have been either generally positive or just really racist. And now, regardless of if it was intended to be a commentary on racist police brutality (though I believe it was), it has become that by the nature of art. And here’s what I see:
A Superman who is standing up against police bullshit. An American icon, crusader of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, actually living up to what he’s been proclaimed as. Or, at least, the “American way” it should be, and not the hellish landscape of cishet white patriarchy that it frequently is. This is not just any character; this is an iconographic figure who ranks up there in American icons alongside the likes of Coca-Cola and bald eagles and the American Flag. This very well known icon is putting its foot down, saying enough is enough. This is an icon of America, telling America that if this is what America is, then it can go fuck itself. It’s like a bald eagle flying down and yelling at police officers and government officials to get their shit together. Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder have jacked an American icon and put it to good use doing what American pretends it is doing.
Now to be fair, this isn’t nearly as important by any means as direct action, whether that’s participating in protests, donating, signing effective petitions, or other direct action (which you can do here, here, here, and numerous other sources.) Or even as effective as a narrative that had been allowed to very explicitly be about Blacklivesmatter. But narratives hold power. The fact is, narratives hold up everything, and white supremacy/racist police brutality/etc is no exception to this. One way to help is to dismantle the old narratives of racism, and another, oft connected way is to then establish new narratives of resistance. These narratives won’t dismantle deeply entrenched racism and especially anti-blackness on their own, but the discourse they create, the suggestion of the potential for a better world they create, those are steps–albeit very small ones–towards perhaps something better.
If nothing else, Superman has been taken from racist white police state and reclaimed, by public interpretation, into a symbol for #blacklivesmatter. It’s at least one creator of color using this “All-American” symbol to say enough is enough. And that’s fucking rad.
Black Lives Matter. We better start acting like it.