The concept of Superman, at its core, is that of a god. He is a supernatural, infallible being who protects and serves humanity at a level that would be impossible for any other singular person. However, behind Superman, exists a man. Clark Kent, the humanity which motivates Superman, drives him to be the hero, has became such a cultural milestone. Due to this, Clark is where most of the internal conflict originates throughout the various iterations of the character, since his conception in 1938. A large portion of this conflict is derived from these conflicting personas. Clark, a humble, kind child of farmers from Kansas, and Kal-El, the superpowered ‘Last Son of Krypton’, battle for dominance in the life of Superman. His attempts to balance these two identities is what creates the majority of his internal struggle.
These identities represent the two worlds, the two origins, he has to balance. On the one hand, Superman is a farm boy from Smallville. The only son to his parents, he is a quiet reporter, an All-American father and loving husband. On the other, he is Kryptonian. He is one of two survivors of his home planet, and depending on the specific run, the sole owner to the knowledge of Krypton. He exists in an ever-present struggle between his lived history: the knowledge of where he has come from, and the knowledge that he will never truly experience the land which he is supposed to call ‘home’.
This struggle is one faced by many who immigrated at a young age, particularly those who were adopted into their new home, as Clark was. This has not gone unnoticed by writers either, many new recent issues depict Superman protecting and aligning himself with immigrants faced with violence or deportation to violent or unfamiliar lands. As well as this, fans and creators alike have taken to referring to Superman as a “DREAMer”, a young immigrant who is fully assimilated to American life by adulthood, who arrived to the United States without documentation, and followed the specific “DREAMer” path to gain citizenship.
Superman’s Kryptonian identity remains a background feature throughout his multiple iterations, creating internal drama surrounding his guilt for not engaging with it enough in his day to day life. Writers typically alternate between neglecting visits to the centre of Kryptonian history on Earth, and most recently, his internal debate over how much of his Kryptonian identity he wishes to pass on to his half-Kryptonian son, Jonathan. However, these underlying conflicts are ever present as moments for introspection in an otherwise action heavy comic. This conflict is seen far more clearly in one of Superman’s main companion comics, Supergirl.
Supergirl, which tells the stories of Kara Zor-El, Clark’s elder cousin and the ‘last daughter of Krypton’, is typically depicted as arriving to Earth five to ten years after the emergence of Superman. Clark typically being in his mid-to-late twenties at the time of her arrival. She is in her late teens when we first encounter her, escaping Krypton upon its demise. Immediately, she struggles to find a place in this new and confusing world she finds herself in. She cannot speak the language, has no friends or support network, and her only existing family is twenty-five to thirty years older than she is. Her story is that of a struggle for assimilation, of the complexities of finding your way in a nation you have no idea how to navigate or how to communicate in. Due to this, Kara struggles to find a place on Earth while still maintaining her heritage, an intrinsic part of herself. To her, to give up her heritage is to give up Krypton, a land to which she can never return. This struggle is absent from Clark’s story, as he grew up in the heartland of America, only discovering his heritage later in life.
Both narratives are easily discernible, as are the complexities of the aftermath of immigration, the settling and the settled, those who are detached from their heritage by circumstance and those who have to find a way to balance it with their new life. It serves to create internal tension for the work, to create a more rounded story than ‘Godlike Character Saves the Day #978’, by adding a level of political commentary that comics are seldom without. Without this, the stories would never have withstood the test of time and would likely have faded into obscurity, along with countless other superhero stories which lacked the internal conflict to make their tale eternal.