The following is part of Tom Owens’ ongoing series ‘Truth and Justice in a New American Century’, an examination of the exploits of Superman across North America.
This article is also hosted at Archive of Our Own.
THAT TIME WITH THE HEADS
To be able to understand what happened in South Dakota, I need to take you back a couple of months. At the time, I was covering Big Blue when he was over on the West Coast, checking out some hidden alien base a couple of miles off-shore of Catalina. Turns out that was a wreck from the 40s, around the time of the Battle of Los Angeles (look it up) and some of the crew were still alive.
After delivering them back to their homeworld, he did what he always does when he’s been active around a place and does a fly-over. It’s kind of a Superman PR move, making sure he’s kind of humanized for the city that sees him. That, and I think he honestly enjoys exploring new places in detail.
I’d managed to commit him to getting lunch at Philippe’s, a place downtown with these incredible french dip sandwiches and let me tell you, in a jaded city full of movie stars and high powered media personalities, there is nothing funnier than watching people freak out when Superman is in line with them getting lunch.
So we’re upstairs eating. I’ve got my notes and recorder out, asking him what he thought about Los Angeles, his impressions. He practically never starts with the landmarks or the environment. It’s always about the people.
For those folks who’ve only dealt with him for a short time, or who only see him in action, it’s easy to forget that he’s an alien. But when you get close up, it’s much easier to see. There’s some subtle differences, with the eyes, the teeth, sometimes even the hair, that scream different. If if wasn’t for the fact that he radiates calm, I’m sure some people would run for the hills. In fact, that’s probably why Luthor hates him so much. He just can’t get over the differences.
But Superman’s always the first to try and put people at ease. In fact, from what I gather, that’s one of the traits of his people. I asked him, point blank, why Kryptonians look so much like us and he immediately responded that they don’t. For the Kryptonians, at their level of technology, bodies were kind of like suits. Within reason (like size differences), they wore different ones for different purposes. Science bodies for science, military bodies for war, religious bodies for worship. But to keep their society together, they had to develop social practices that let them get along with each other.
The capsule that brought him here wove a body that would suit the people who found him. If he’d landed on the other side of the planet, well… it would be a different story, then, wouldn’t it?
I remember Superman telling me a story about how a group of white supremacists had cornered him, proudly claiming him as their Ubermensch. That meeting left the group profoundly disappointed as they found they had nothing in common with him and that Superman’s connections with the untermensch were far more robust and secure than any connection with them.
I’ve heard people describe him more as a force of nature than as a person. I suppose that works.
Over a slice of pie, Superman told me he had been flying over UCLA when he noticed a young man staring at him. That wasn’t unusual. What was different was that the young man was mouthing the words “I’m just like you.”
Big Blue took the opportunity to come down and talk with him. Turns out the young man was a member of the TLCEE program, an American Indian program that was part of the UCLA Law school. They talked about each other’s experience, about being orphaned, having no access to home, about being raised by outsiders. Sometime near the end of the conversation, the young man asked what Superman wanted, given he could pretty much do anything. Superman’s response was “I wish I could go home.” The young man, a Lakota, said he wished that too.
Coming up on the now, I get lucky. I’m off in North Dakota, doing a follow-up story on the Standing Rock protests (what happened then, what’s happening now), when I get the call to hoof it over to South Dakota right damned immediately. Something to do with Superman and an incident and I need to be first on the scene.
The designated spot is that big viewing area across from Mt. Rushmore. The one with the perfect place to take pictures of the monument. I have to get past three layers of security, including a freaking tank before they let me drive up. No recording allowed. I don’t understand the fuss.
Then I see Mount Rushmore.
And I understand the fuss.
The heads are missing.
Missing is kind of a misnomer. I mean, it’s not like they’ve been scooped out. It’s like the mountain has been repaired or reshaped. It’s like the heads were never really there.
There’s this huge mound of gravel that’s been at the base forever; that was leftover trash from the original carving when the artist wanted to build full bodies for the presidents but failed. The gravel’s gone too. The place is flipping pristine.
I’m having a tough time parsing out what the hell happened here. That’s when I spot the four-star general and my breath catches. They only call out the four-star generals when they’re really pissed with him.
On cue, here comes Superman.
He’s the absolute pillar of calm, which is great because the general is all-around losing it. Accusing Big Blue of destroying a national monument. Blue’s response is that they monitor him all the time. He asks if anyone saw him do this.
The general has to admit no one did. Supes has an alibi. He even casually lightly jokes that Luthor did it. That leads to another round of shouting from the general.
The general moves from there to threatening prosecution for a federal crime. Blue asks under which government would he be prosecuted and points to the Treaty of Fort Laramie as the legal precedent for the question. The general tells him to not get political, which leads Blue to smile softly.
The general calls it vandalism and Blue agrees, saying that it was. He then notes what a beautiful mountain it is. The argument then shifts to loss of jobs, tourism, the responsibility of the vandal to fix things. It’s pointed out that people visit landmarks even if there aren’t faces on the sides, that tourism can still flourish if the land is taken care of, and that the responsible thing to do here would be to take this in stride.
Besides, if the government didn’t want it, they could always return it to its original owners.
The general asked if that was Superman’s intent. He said it was the original owner’s intent, as stated to the Supreme Court in 1980 and in every year after.
This didn’t make the general happy.
Blue explained that it was only a matter of time. Sculptures fade, even governments fade, but the mountain remains. Then he quoted Shelley:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Seeing Superman standing there, arms folded, cape blowing behind him in a timely wind, I was reminded again how distant he was, how different, and how, sometimes because of that, how human he could be.
The general pulled his cap down and left soon after. Superman gave me a nod, and flew off into the sunset sky.
Next from Tom Owen’s ‘Truth and Justice in a New American Century’: That Time with the Wall