It’s worth getting the story of how this whole mess started straight: one of the half-dozen backup features in this week’s Action Comics #900 is a one-off, nine-page story, written by David S. Goyer (who’s writing the screenplays for the forthcoming Superman and Batman movies) and drawn by Miguel Sepulveda, with the unpromising title “The Incident.” Its plot is that Superman comes to Camp David to meet with the President’s National Security Advisor–not the real one (Thomas Donilon), but a character named Gabriel Wright. (Well, there’s some question of who the current President is in the DC Comics universe, but let’s not get into that.)
Superman, it turns out, has recently visited Tehran, where he joined a demonstration and stood, silently, for a day, in solidarity with the protestors. The government of Iran has decided that Superman’s acting on behalf of the U.S., and that his presence was an act of war; Superman responds by saying “I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. citizenship. I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy… I’ve been thinking too small. I realize that now.”
(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Action Comics #900 and The Mighty Thor)
Now, this is a poorly thought-out little story for a number of reasons. Since when, for instance, has anybody thought Superman was an agent of U.S. policy, rather than a private citizen, especially since he just spent a year living off-planet and commanding a New Kryptonian army? How is an entirely nonviolent demonstration of solidarity an “act of war”? Why was this story staged as a conversation with flashbacks, rather than showing us the more dramatic thing Superman tells us he’s going to do tomorrow? Is this supposed to be the endgame of the still-ongoing “Grounded” arc that J. Michael Straczynski started writing and then largely abandoned–in which Superman decides to walk across America to get back in touch with his roots–or is it unrelated? Is this even a story that’s going to get followed up on, given that Goyer doesn’t seem to be writing any other comics any time soon? And, if it is, what kind of decent story can possibly come of Superman deciding he’s “thinking too small”?
Still, the political froth that’s been kicked up around this insignificant slip of a story is about something else entirely: how dare Superman renounce “the American Way,” why do comics hate America, and so on. The Drudge Report linked to a Comics Alliance story about “The Incident,” which has so far yielded well over a thousand comments, many of them outraged and many of them betraying an astonishing variety of strains of ignorance, not least about comics. The most indignant yelps of betrayal are coming from people who didn’t care a whit about Superman until it was gently hinted that perhaps this particular alien shouldn’t be construed as a tool of blind nationalism; if Steel were waving an American flag, they’d be demanding to see his long-form birth certificate.
If by some chance Superman does decide to expand his efforts to real-world global justice, though, what then? It’s sometimes possible to make a good story out of putting superheroes in a difficult real-world situation and seeing what happens–which is, inevitably, that they end up taking over the world, betraying their ideals, or both. (See, for instance, Miracleman or The Authority: Revolution, or for that matter the recently ended Ex Machina, in which a superhero who saves the second World Trade Center tower and gets elected mayor of New York ends up as John McCain’s Vice President, utterly compromised.) But that’s a story with an ending; it’s not conducive to more stories that come after it.
(More on TIME.com: The First Superhero Comic Book Hits #900)
If you’re dealing with a character like Superman, though–a character whose battles are neverending–you have to address geopolitics more obliquely to avoid giving away the game. For years, the all-purpose unstable Persian Gulf country in DC’s comics was “Qurac.” The ’80s-era super-team series All-Star Squadron was set during World War II, which raised the uncomfortable question of why Superman, the Spectre, et al., didn’t simply fly across the Atlantic and kick the hell out of the Axis. (As it turned out in that series, Hitler happened to possess the spear that pierced Christ’s side, whose magic powers prevented superheroes from… and so on.)
Plenty of stories before “The Incident,” from Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s Superman: Peace On Earth to the beginning of “Grounded,” have tried to address why Superman doesn’t simply solve the world’s genuine problems. The real answer is that that’s not what Superman stories are about. The point of Superman stories is to wildly distort the world as we know it: to provide a huge, fun perspective on alienation, on leading a double life, on the struggle to understand what truth and justice are before one starts fighting for them. And anyone who purports to be offended by “The Incident” should bear in mind that it happens in the same world where, in 2000, Lex Luthor was elected President of the United States.