Comics culture is very caught up right now with Superman renouncing his American citizenship in last week’s Action Comics #900.* David Goyer’s story, “The Incident” is perhaps the most noteworthy addition to the anniversary issue, but it’s not because of the citizenship controversy; it’s because “The Incident” is maybe the worst and most out-of-character Superman story I’ve read in recent memory.
In “The Incident,” Goyer writes a Superman that is acutely aware that he is not human. He is all about showy uses of his power (he pre-diagnoses the national security advisor with skin cancer), veiled threats and several other reminders that he is not one of us and nothing like us – he is Superman and he is above us.
How the Man of Steel should interact with terrestrial politics is something that many authors have played with over the years, and while no answer truly feels satisfactory, Goyer’s is especially so. Taken in the context of the other stories in Action #900 (by current scribe Paul Cornell and screenwriters Paul Dini, Richard Donner and Damon Lindelof), Goyer’s story is the odd man out. The theme of the issue, when considered in aggregate, is that, for all his cosmic power and limitless potential, Superman is “just” a man, that his unwavering dedication to his morality and his compassion are the things that really set him apart from his foes, his peers and everyday humanity. That very topic is the theme of “Grounded,” the misguided and critically lambasted Superman-Walks-Across-The-Country-Because-He-Has-Sad-Feelings story that is also currently being serialized.
There is a kernel of an excellent Superman story within “The Incident” – inside the controversial frame of the story, Superman attends a peaceful protest in Iran in solidarity with the protesters. He does not speak or move, but the impact of his very presence bolsters the demonstrators, boots their numbers to over one million, and communicates a message of unity to at least one of the Iranian soldiers present to keep the protesters in line. If that were the beginning and end of the story, it would perfectly communicate what Superman is and what Superman means, much like this oft-cited page from All Star Superman #10 does:
Instead, Goyer chooses to leave us with a characterization of the character that runs counter to other depictions of him in the same issue in order to make what I’m sure he believes is a very valuable point that Superman shouldn’t focus on the small stuff, ignoring that he’s at his best when that’s exactly what he chooses to do.
*This is the only time that I can recall this particular subset of people being angered by the removal of an immigrant alien’s citizenship.