Up, Up...In the Air: The Symbolism of Nationality and Globalization in Superman’s Allegory

Hope Scheff

Authors:  Hope Scheff

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Louise Newman

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


This project explores American nationality via in-depth readings of the literary and scholarly canons of Superman. Much of my analysis will outline how multidisciplinary scholars from 1978 to present-day have interpreted Superman as an essentialized allegory of Americana: a celebratory figure of American nationality and individuality. Yet by ignoring Smallville–Clark Kent’s hometown—this scholarship has misinterpreted the socio-cultural relevancy of America’s first superhero. My close readings of Superman canon’s iconic narrative elements—Superman’s powers, kryptonite, the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s suit, Metropolis, and Smallville—will explore the lost connections between Superman’s Kryptonian and Clark Kent’s Smallville personalities. For much of Superman’s publication history, the character was unable to reconcile his Kryptonian and American identities—as seen through the latter’s stunted development in comics and films, in addition to its scholarly disregard. Through the insertion of Smallville into Superman’s allegory, the superhero becomes representative of the United States’ struggles with national identification in the face of globalization and increased world power. By forgetting Smallville, both Superman and America gave into their anxieties and disavowed the roles their complicated histories play in their developments of the future.

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6 Responses
  1. Hope Scheff

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  2. Morgan

    Hello Hope!

    I am curious about one aspect of your conclusion: the nationalistic foils between Smallville and Superman’s home planet, Krypton. Could you expand on what exactly these foils are and what commentary they may provide on America’s nationalistic views?

    1. Hope Scheff

      Hi Morgan!

      Thank you for your question!
      Unfortunately, not much narrative information is given in the comic books or television shows to describe Smallville (except that it “the heart of this nation,” etc.) So, in lieu of direct descriptions, I looked towards Krypton–which features prominently in almost every comic book issue, television episode, and film–as an indirect source of information about Smallville. In Superman’s narrative world, these places are as tangible to the characters as Florida is to us readers. In this way, I approached Krypton and Smallville as real places and geographies. Their foils pop up around the issue of geology and topography: Kryptonian geology (i.e. kryptonite) harms Superman in various ways, whereas Smallville geology does not; Kryptonian topography (i.e. the Fortress of Solitude) aids Superman in his adventures as a source of indefinite knowledge, whereas Smallville is an emotional space that prevents Superman from achieving his destiny. By looking at this and other examples of Superman’s nationality crisis, I found that these foils express an anxiety about nationalism and the political responsibilities associated with world power.

  3. Hi Hope,

    I loved your project, and I’m really curious to know what inspired such a unique topic of research? I would also love to know how you feel these two worlds, Smallville and Krypton, combine to make Superman a more appealing figure from a story perspective.

    1. Hope Scheff

      Sorry, I had a typo in my previous reply. “Krypton makes Superman’s intrigue indefinite because more information CAN always be added to describe the planet without the pitfalls of fact checking…”

  4. Hope Scheff

    Hi Jake!

    Thank you for your comment!

    “Smallville” (2001-11) actually sparked my interest; I have binged the show on and off and on repeat for the past ten years. Last year for my senior paper in History, I did my project on Superman comics (i.e. “The Reign of the Super-Man” [1933] and Action Comics #1 and #23 [June 1938 and May 1940]). From there, I started to think about Superman and “Smallville” as allegorical historical subjects, rather than mere forms of entertainment.

    Unfortunately, I am not an English major, so I cannot speak with certainty about the structural appeal of Superman’s two homes. However, I think that Smallville helps endear Superman to American readers by placing him in a location and under political and social conditions that are relatively familiar to his readers–albeit, Metropolis (Superman’s adopted home and a big city akin to Chicago or NYC) functions better in this manner than, to quote Chloe Sullivan from “Pilot” (2001), the “leafy little hamlet” of Smallville does.
    Krypton, on the other hand, provides science-fiction inspired adventure, curiosity, and unknowns that cannot likewise be found in the readers’ “known” universe of Metropolis. Krypton makes Superman’s intrigue indefinite because more information cannot always be added to describe the planet without the pitfalls of fact checking–for Krypton, readers will always suspend their belief, which consequently allows for Superman’s continued popularity in American pop culture.

    I hope this helped!