What’s Superman’s citizenship status? How was Clark Kent adopted?

Superman given honorary citizenship by the United Nations

Back in 2011, “Action Comics” #900 made a brief media splash when a story had Superman decide to “renounce” his American citizenship. The story stated Superman didn’t want his actions interpreted as those of the United States. DC quickly forgot about this story, while the New 52 reboot later that year rendered it moot. However, it did spur a lot of discussion on Superman’s citizenship status. Related to such comes the question of how the Kents managed to take in and keep little Clark.

Superman’s adoption and citizenship status have changed greatly over the years, reflecting both DC’s and real life’s changes. Thus, I thought I’d look at how each major era of comics has treated both. I’ll also look at some spin-off media (movies, TV, etc.).

Golden Age/Earth-2

The Golden Age Kents at the Smallville Orphanage.
Superman (vol. 1) #53. Art by Wayne Boring.

There doesn’t seem to be any Golden Age stories, or post-Golden Age stories set on Earth-2, that really went into what Superman’s citizenship status is like. Presumably, it’s similar in status to his Earth-1 counterpart’s below.

As for Clark Kent’s citizenship: as summarized in 1986’s “Secret Origins” #1 (based on “Action Comics” #1, the Superman newspaper strip, 1948’s “Superman” #53, and other early stories), John and Mary Kent found Kal-L after his ship landed on Earth, and subsequently took him to the Smallville Orphanage. Kal stayed there until the Kents adopted him a short time later.

“Secret Origins” also states Kal-L landed on Earth in the late 1910s. Adoption standards at the time were likely more lenient versus today. Clark presumably would’ve been accepted as a citizen by default. Citizenship standards for adoptees were clarified in later laws (see the Silver Age entry below).

Silver Age/Earth-1

The Silver Age Kents at the Smallville Orphanage
“Limited Collector’s Edition” #C-31 (1974). Art by Curt Swan.

By the Silver Age, Superman and Clark Kent’s citizenship statuses became more fully clarified.

Foundling laws

Clark Kent from the Silver Age through the present would be covered under the “Nationality Act of 1940“, a US law that clarifies nationality standards. Of interest is a “foundling statute,” which states: “a child of unknown parents is conclusively presumed to be a U.S. citizen if found in the United States when under 5 years of age, unless foreign birth is established before the child reaches age 21.”

Clark fits all of these as far as anyone who isn’t in on his secret’s concerned. The Kents found him as an infant or toddler, and there’s no sign of his birth parents.

As far as I know, there aren’t any Superboy-era stories where someone claims Clark was born outside the US. Thus, Clark’s a natural-born US citizen as far as anyone’s concerned. Similar to the Golden Age, the Silver Age Kents adopted Clark from the Smallville Orphanage.

Honorary citizenship

The Kents watching TV, from New Adventures of Superboy #12
“New Adventures of Superboy” #12 (1981). Art by Romeo Tanghal.

As for Clark’s Superman identity, Congress (and the President) has the right to grant an honorary citizenship to any non-citizen of the United States. Congress did just such at the dawn of Clark’s Superboy career in “New Adventures of Superboy” #12 (December 1980).

In that story, Superboy’s interviewed about his alien origins (for the first time) by then-“Daily Planet” reporter Perry White. At one point, Perry asks Superboy: “Er, this may strike you as funny—but have you registered as a resident alien?” Superboy responds: “President Eisenhower assured me I had nothing to worry about when I confided in him! After all, where could I be deported, since Krypton no longer exists?”

Accompanying and reinforcing this is 1974’s “Limited Collector’s Edition C-31” (a retelling of 1961’s “Superman” #146). There, the adult Superman is granted honorary citizenship in every member nation of the United Nations. This includees the United States, of course. The story’s intention was that Superman’s a character and concept that belongs to the entire world, not just America.

Post-Crisis

Among the other changes made to Superman’s backstory with Byrne’s “The Man of Steel” miniseries in 1986 is that Superman was “born” on Earth. In this origin, Jor-El placed Superman’s “genetic material” (read: fetus) in a Kryptonian “birthing matrix,” attached a rocket engine, and launched it to Earth. Upon landing, Kal-El had fully gestated into being an infant.

This aspect came up in a 1991 out-of-canon story where Superman was elected President. In that story, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled he’s a “natural born” US citizen. However, in regular post-Crisis continuity, there’s no indication if the US Congress granted Superman an honorary citizenship as they did pre-Crisis.

As for Clark, shortly after the Kents found his rocket, an improbable and ludicrous five-month-long snowstorm bound the Kents to their farm. After this time, the Kents claimed Martha had given birth to Clark, passing him off as their naturally-born child. Thus, in this version, Clark is viewed as a natural-born citizen of the United States.

(As a near-lifelong Midwesterner, there’s a million things I find wrong and idiotic about this version, which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that Manhunter robots causing the snowstorm is one of the less stupid points.)

At the time, DC wanted to divorce Superman from Krypton as much as possible (beyond his origin’s requirements), thus the above changes. This was the opposite of pre-Crisis stories’ frequent mentions of Krypton.

The conservative, Reagan-era 80s probably also explains some of the “he’s an American now!” tone and downplaying of Clark’s immigrant heritage. See Superman’s thought balloon in the final “Man of Steel” miniseries issue: “I may have been conceived out there in the endless depths of space…but I was born when the rocket opened on Earth, in America.” He also notes all of his memories of Krypton (implanted via a Kryptonian artifact) are “meaningless” and “curious mementos of a life that might have been.”

Byrne’s version stood in the comics for quite awhile. However, non-comics adaptions at the time ignored Byrne’s version. My guess is both its less-than-family-friendly aspects and complexity. Parents don’t want to explain to their kids about gestating “genetic material,” to put it mildly. Thus, the media spin-offs of the era (“Superman: The Animated Series,” “Lois and Clark,” etc.) stuck with the traditional version of his origin.

Birthright/Secret Origins

In the 2000s, Superman’s origin was revised yet again. The first revisions came in the 2003-2004 “Birthright” miniseries; a second revision came again in the 2009-2010 “Superman: Secret Origin” miniseries. Both origins reintroduced pre-Crisis elements of Superman’s backstory. The biggest elements to return are that Clark was born on Krypton and valued his Kryptonian heritage.

Neither story discussed Clark or Superman’s citizenship status. However, 2011’s “Action Comics” #900 has Superman declare his plan to “renounce” his American citizenship. Perhaps Congress/the United Nations granted him an honorary citizenship after all?

Clark was presumably formally adopted, similar to his Golden and Silver Age versions. The “foundling statute” mentioned above applies here as well for Clark’s citizenship. Presumably, any formal adoption was via modern child services, not through an orphanage.

The New 52

The 2011 New 52 reboot keeps with traditional versions above. Superman landed on Earth as an infant, and found/adopted by the Kents.

Differing in this origin (as shown in “Action Comics” (vol. 2) #5) is that the US military kept the rocket, after investigating reports of an unidentified object landing in Smallville.

Of course, the “foundling statute” still applies for Clark in the New 52, so he’s still a citizen by default.

Superman’s citizenship status isn’t discussed. Still, the US Congress might have granted him an honorary citizenship at some point. Or possibly not, given the New 52 DCU is a much more cynical and less idealistic place.

Other media

While most media spin-offs seem to go with the traditional versions outlined above (and thus the Silver Age/Birthright/Secret Origins explanations apply), “Smallville” gave one twist to the Clark adoption story. After finding Clark in the meteor shower that he arrived on Earth in, the Kents managed to get wealthy businessman Lionel Luthor (who they helped during the meteor shower) to forge adoption papers for Clark. This became a recurring plot point during the show.

Conclusion

To summarize, for most versions of his backstory, Clark Kent’s considered a natural-born US citizen under the country’s citizenship laws governing abandoned infants. Additionally, the Kents formally adopted Clark through an orphanage or child services.

As for his Superman identity, Congress does have the power to grant an honorary citizenship, as they did in the Bronze Age Superboy story noted above. There’s no reason they couldn’t have done the same in other continuities, so that plus the United Nations story seems as good an answer for Superman’s citizenship status as any.

So overall, Superman and Clark Kent are as American as any other fictional American character… and depending on the canon, he’s also as Canadian as his co-creator, artist Joe Shuster!

(Updated 1/19/17)

12 Comments

    • I noted that in the line following that statement. Doesn’t make it any less ridiculous, at least for me being a near-life-long midwesterner who’s lived in lake-effect snow country/dealt with plenty of snowstorms. The Kents wouldn’t be cut off from the outside world that long like “Little House on the Prairie”—Smallville like any place dealing with lots of snow would have snow removal equipment, etc. (plus radio, TV, phones, etc.).

        • True. But it still seems to beg the same question: what was so bad about Clark being adopted openly by the Kents, anyway? (Plus, fewer questions being raised/less hoop-jumping than bizarre Manhunter robot-spawned snowstorms.)

          • There is ball about food and shelter for five months.

            Could only pass him off as their own as a new born baby not a toddler.

            They wouldn’t risk adopting him through child services, seeing a baby with super strength.

            They could’ve used he’s Martha’s sister or cousin’s child.

          • In most versions, the Kents *did* adopt Clark formally through the Smallville Orphanage/child services. Some versions, but not all, show him displaying super-strength as a baby, but the orphanage authorities writing it off/playing it for laughs.

            Either way, formally adopting him wasn’t a concern, and seems like something people like the Kents would likely do. That, and seems more straightforward (“authorities couldn’t find this orphaned infant, so let local upstanding citizens the Kents adopt him”) than robot-spawned snowstorms. (Yes, they could’ve gone with “passed him off as a relative’s kid”, but for some reason didn’t.)

          • In the 30’s you could easily adopted a kid you found through child services without question but nowadays it would be more complicated.

            Adopting him through child services would be risky because they’ll likely run tests and if he shows off super strength call the feds.

      • In the 30’s you could easily adopted a kid you found through child services without question but nowadays it would be more complicated.

        Adopting him through child services would be risky because they’ll likely run tests and if he shows off super strength call the feds.

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