Iconography in the U.S. – It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s Superman!


I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out which American icon I should choose for this assignment. There are so many options, yet I cannot think of one. Finally, I decided to go with the classic, American superhero:  the one and only Superman. Since his emergence in DC Comics in 1938 by author Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman has become a national, cultural icon. This hero first debuted in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938 and his image and sound has since been reproduced in radio shows, television programs, featured films, newspaper comics, and video games (Holt, 2004). Furthermore, his distinctive costume helps create his iconicity; sporting a blue costume, red cape, and signature red and yellow “S” on the front of the costume, Superman’s outfit itself it iconic. Americans everywhere can identify Superman just from this insignia. Moreover, Superman helped establish what we know as today as the superhero genre and the American comic book (Philippines News, 2006).

The early Superman stories were heavily influenced by the Great Depression of the United States in the 1930s. Superman assumed the role of a social activist, combating corrupt politicians and lying businessmen. Later, towards the mid-1940s, Superman even went on to battle a variation of the Ku Klux Klan. Attempting to take the role of the man trying “to fit into American culture as an American” helped foster a great sense of American identity (Bowers, 2012). Furthermore, even today as Americans we find great pride in Superman’s ability even as a fictional character. For instance, you often hear the idiom you’re not Superman, describing that everyone has weaknesses.

If Superman is a great American icon and represents a sense of American identity how well could this character do outside of the United States? It is good to consider Superman’s identity himself even as a fictional character. Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego and secret identity, was born Kal-El. He was born on the planet Krypton but was sent away in a vessel by his parents to planet Earth forced to assimilate himself with the rest of the planet. These feelings of disconnect could foster a sense of identity for those diasporic groups within the United States. While this does not quite cross over international borders, these small communities within the United States could find at least some cultural proximity in Superman considering his origins.

Furthermore, Superman is a very well-known superhero outside of the United States and has been localized to accommodate various languages across the globe. For example, there have been several Turkish films featuring or including the character of Superman (as the copyright laws do not necessarily apply in certain countries). These films include a series called Kilink where an evil scientist gets killed by his creation Kilink. In this series, Superman is often referred to as “the flying man” and wears a different costume than the traditional American Superman. Furthermore, another Turkish film called Demir Yumruk: Devler Geliyor features a sort of Super-Batman (Wikia, 2012). I could not find any audience responses to this Turkish version of Superman, but I assume that if they continued to reproduce this image then the viewers must have reacted positively to the material.

I am not so sure that there could be a more culturally relevant icon in place of Superman. As previously stated, Superman is an American cultural icon. Although it has been localized to fit into other countries, the concept of superheroes in itself is a very American idea. The United States is and seems to have to always remain a superpower in the global power structure. Superman only emphasizes these ideals and accentuates our need to consistently validate our position in the Global North.



Bowers, R. (2012). Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.

Holt, D. B. (2004). How brands become icons: The principles of cultural branding. Harvard Business School Press.

Philippines News. (2006, July 21). Designing Man of Steel’s costume. Manila Standard.

Wikia. (2012, March 12). Superman in foreign films. Superman Wiki. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from    http://superman.wikia.com/wiki/Superman_in_Foreign_Films