Written by Ibtisam Ahmed
Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
Illustration by Iara Silva
Before I delve into this part of the Utopian Curriculum series, I must offer some thanks. First and foremost, to the incredible team at Project Myopia for their patience and compassion for me as an individual. The past several years have been difficult for so many of us and it is encouraging to see a publication actually embody the ethos of care and utopianism that we collectively agreed to explore when this series was first pitched. It is rare and makes all the difference. Second, specifically to Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevodo for your feedback and nurturing editing. It has been a real joy being asked to delve deeper into my thoughts in a way that was constructive and empowering. Third, to Iara Silva for your incredible artwork. Arresting visual media is a wonderful way to express complex thoughts – all the more relevant for this particular essay given the graphic nature of the source material.
And finally, to you dear reader, for sticking with this endeavour. It feels serendipitous offering my gratitude halfway through this curriculum, especially as so much has changed since it was first pitched. Part of this change is the actual source material itself. When I first included Superman as an example of utopia, it was a more generic take on the character and his history. But Superman has evolved since then and it is the specific take on his latest iteration – an openly queer child of a refugee with intentionally inclusive politics – that I will be exploring here.
The Difference Between Utopia and Utopian
In the previous parts of this curriculum, I examined the idea of utopia as a noun – with the specificity of space and place. In this part, I shift the analysis to consider utopian as an adjective – the idea of how to take action that moves towards creating a utopia. The distinction may seem pedantic, but it is necessary to understand how utopia can be embodied in action or in personhood rather in space and place. Theoretically, this understanding draws on the work of two key utopian ideas.
The first of these is the framing of utopia as function. Many scholars of Utopian Studies have explained this in great depth and I like to look at the definition offered by Lucy Sargisson in her 2000 book Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression. (My choice of Sargisson is a subjective one; this is the first text that introduced me to the idea of utopian function, but others like Lyman Tower Sargent, Ruth Levitas, Raffaella Baccolini, Krishan Kumar and Tom Moylan have equally useful – and overlapping – definitions, some of which predate Sargisson’s work and some of which build on it.)
In Sargisson’s view, representations of utopia – whether fictional stories or thought experiments – moved away from simply describing an imaginary and idealised land towards a more nuanced understanding of how to create a better future. That is to say, the conversation actually grappled with contemporary debates and offered alternative solutions, thus fulfilling the function of critical engagement and change. Thus, utopia no longer had to refer to a static locality or narrow context but could come to stand for the broad aspiration towards an equitable future.
This functionality helps provide the basis for reading a character as utopian rather than having to read a location as utopia. Incidentally, a common motif of literary utopias is also the character of the outsider looking in (someone who either explores an idealised society or criticises a broken one). Both the original Superman – an alien refugee – and his successor – the queer child of a refugee – comfortably fit the mould of the outside wanting to enact change.
The second piece of Utopian Studies theory is based on the work of Tom Moylan around critical mass. The idea stems from Moylan’s work in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1987, republished in 2014). In it, he posits that impactful change can only occur when there is enough engagement to create the necessary explosive reaction. In other words, while critique of systems is a necessary starting point, there needs to be an actual impetus for creating a new way of life.
In the real world, this could take many different forms, such as protest movements, grassroots community initiatives, experimental communes, and challenges to the political status quo. Fictional utopias tend to go down the route of revolutionary overthrow, but it can also be described through analogy and metaphor. I argue that the superhero tradition provides this metaphor because the impact comes not from the superpowers of characters but what they do with them. In this case study, therefore, Superman considers the problems being faced by society (the function of Sargisson) and then enacts change using his abilities (the critical mass of Moylan).
The Superhero Politic and the New Superman
It is important to acknowledge that this interpretation of Superman, and superheroes in general, is a subjective exercise. After all, the very existence of an overpowered individual feels antithetical to the idea of equity and leans far more towards the Nietzschean notion of the Übermensch – the superior man – which can be seen in many nihilistic takes on the superhero genre such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s cinematic version of Superman.
However, I think the superhero figure can be read from a progressive liberation perspective. I particularly think of the works of Marc DiPaolo, Liam Burke, Ian Gordon, and Angela Ndalianis, who concerned with character action rather than character capability. Politically speaking, superheroic figures like Superman are aspirational precisely because of the good that they can do with their abilities, not because of their abilities in and of themselves. While the extent of this aspiration may vary between different stories and different creative takes, I want to focus specifically on the ongoing run Superman: Son of Kal-El by Tom Taylor.
In this storyline, Jonathan Kent, the son of original Superman Clark Kent and reporter Lois Lane, takes on the mantle of Superman. Like his father before him, he is shown to have a strong moral compass and he grapples with the dilemmas that are part and parcel of learning how to use his abilities responsibly and ethically. Within the fictional United States that he inhabits, he takes on active political stances that are critical of his in-universe status quo.
He is shown to rescue and support people fleeing violence and persecution in other lands, reaffirming a commitment to protect the most marginalised. He explicitly takes a stance that is pro-refugee, citing not only the morality of saving others regardless of their place of origin but also his own heritage as the son of an alien refugee taken in by a rural couple from Kansas. He connects the personal with the political, recognising the injustice of the existing system and taking action to force change, including willingly getting arrested when his rescue of stranded refugees is seen as aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
Furthermore, he is shown to consider the interconnected issues of anti-fascism, environmental sustainability, disability rights, and queer liberation as part of his support for the fleeing refugee population, really driving home a holistic approach to superheroism. What pushes these actions into being utopian rather than simply progressive (which utopianism can be) or neoliberal (which utopianism is not) is that he is working outside the limits of the system, offering radical new ways of uplifting communities in a way that leverages his access to resources (superpowers) without speaking over the needs of those he is helping.
The Real-World Criticisms
Art and literature are not created in a vacuum. Utopian representations are usually responses to contemporary issues with the stories offering a different way forward (or, in the case of dystopia, highlighting the dangers of staying the course). Superman: Son of Kal-El is being published by DC Comics at a time of increasing political polarisation in the USA. On the one hand, we are seeing a growing shift of one party further and further towards the right. On the other hand, we are seeing the other party trying to hold firm in the centre. Migrants’ rights, disability rights, environmentalism, queer liberation, and anti-fascism are all being undermined on a daily basis.
Truly transformative and radical politics from the left have been abandoned, and the new Superman run criticises this directly. making an eloquent argument for exactly that kind of thinking. Not only is this seen from the actions of the characters but also in the lived identity of Jonathan Kent. In addition to proudly declaring his refugee heritage, he has also openly explored his sexuality. With nuanced queer representation under threat and meaningful visibility having a tangible impact, this is not just representation for the sake of representation, but a conscious choice by the creative team to stand up against prejudice – especially given the death threats received by the writer.
As such, while my theoretical argument has been to consider the figure of Superman as an embodiment of utopian politics, my final plea is to remind ourselves of the importance of critical literature and the protection of the voices that create them.
Taylor, T. (2021, ongoing), Superman: Son of Kal-El. DC Comics.
Burke, L., Gordon, I., and Ndalianis, A. (eds.) (2020), The Superhero Symbol: Media, Culture & Politics. Rutgers University Press.
DiPaolo, M. (2018), Working-Class Comic Book Heroes: Class Conflict and Populist Politics in Comics. University Press of Mississippi.
Moylan, T. (2014), Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. Peter Lang UK.
Sargisson, L. (2000), Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression. Routledge.
Ahmed, I. (2013), “How do Superheroes Problematise Morality?”, Undergraduate Essay in e-IR. Available at https://www.e-ir.info/2013/05/28/how-do-superheroes-problematise-morality/
Garlington, I. (2012), “R for Reappropriation: The Function of Utopia in the Superhero Narratives of Alan Moore”, in Osaka Literary Review, 50. Pp. 67-84.
Yockey, M. (2008), “Somewhere in Time: Utopia and the Return of Superman”, in The Velvet Light Trap, 61. Pp. 26-37.
Ibtisam Ahmed (he/him) is the Head of Policy and Research at LGBT Foundation, a founding member of the House of Spice queer arts collective, and an alumnus of the University of Nottingham. His research specialised in utopianism and decoloniality. A queer disabled migrant of colour, his focus is on uplifting marginalised voices and fighting for tangible change. He tweets at @Ibzor.