Making Fun of Superman Is Tradition

Calvin Ellis as he appears on the cover of Infinite Frontier #1.

Calvin Ellis as he appears on the cover of Infinite Frontier #1.
Screenshot: Bryan Hitch/DC Comics

As part of DC’s new Infinite Frontier relaunch—meant to build on the foundation laid by its Death Metal and Future State titles—the comic publisher’s set to put out a new miniseries. It kicked off with the massive Infinite Frontier #0 featuring a bevy of creative talent ahead of writer Joshua Williamson and artist Xermanico’s takeover for the following five issues later this summer.

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In press releases, DC Comics explained that Infinite Frontier’s meant to explore the dynamics of its new multiversal status quo now that essentially all of the publisher’s different realities have been brought back into the canonical fold. Tangled and messy as DC’s various Crises had previously left the multiverse (something that’s always made it difficult to jump into DC’s comics), the promise of Infinite Frontier is a fresh start where the possibilities are seemingly endless. One of those possibilities was Calvin Ellis, DC’s Black Superman from Earth 23, being put front and center in a new story exploring his place in the larger world. Early solicitations for Infinite Frontier #1 made clear that Calvin would factor into the plot significantly, but what really caught a number of peoples’ attention about the character’s big return to DC’s comics was one of the comic’s variant covers from artist Bryan Hitch.

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Calvin Ellis as he appears on the cover of Infinite Frontier #1.
Image: Bryan Hitch/DC Comics

Ahead of Infinite Frontier #1’s upcoming release, an Aquaman fan account on Twitter posted an image of Hitch’s variant. Though some were glad to see Calvin back in action, many were quick to voice their distaste with the odd placement of the character’s hairline. Of course people’s specific jokes about Calvin’s fivehead were all different, but they were all ways of expressing disbelief that a Black man who was also the President of the United States and the most famous superhero on the planet would be caught in public with a haircut that made him look like Sinestro.

The predominantly white mainstream comics industry is well known for its history of doing a piss-poor job when it comes to illustrating Black characters with respect and beauty. This is also what made it so disappointing, though not exactly surprising, when Hitch himself chimed in with a now-deleted post on one specific thread telling a couple of people to “fuck off” for dragging his illustration. It’s easy to understand why people’s comments might have gotten to Hitch, who is a white British man—but it is also very easy to understand why people made fun of Hitch’s drawing of a fictional Black man with a truly outlandish way of styling his hair.

What was particularly telling about this entire situation is that Hitch’s illustration does actually bear a general resemblance to artist Valentine De Landro’s (who is Black) take on the character recently seen in Infinite Frontier: Secret Files #1. The overall shape of Cal’s hairline is similar in style between De Landro and Hitch’s art, with the key difference being the hair’s placement, which reads as unnatural in Hitch’s piece. It’s also worth noting that Hitch also drew Infinite Frontier: Secret Files #1’s cover where Calvin is again shown to have a hairline that arcs upwards in ways that most Black people’s hair simply doesn’t grow, or at least not how they would choose to cut their hair.

Superman coming down to help a family find their dog.

Superman coming down to help a family find their dog.
Image: Valentine De Landro/DC Comics

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Even if one were to excuse the variant cover’s oddness as more of a perspective issue, what was immediately lost in Hitch’s snap reaction to people’s valid and relatively tame criticisms was the fact that making fun of Superman is a major part of the tradition surrounding the 80+ year old character. DC’s Superman has always been as silly and ridiculous as he is noble and indestructible. That duality is a part of the character’s charm that some have come to appreciate over time as we gain a better understanding of how archetypical characters like Superman can contain multitudes. People who like to pretend that they’ve never cracked a dumb joke about Superman wearing his underwear on the outside, or understand how fans frequently poke fun at the character’s Boy Scout energy are lying to themselves. Beyond the actual text of stories where characters jab at Clark Kent for those sorts of things, Superman occupies such a prominent space in pop culture that it’s very common for people to hold him up as an example of a character worthy of derision for one reason or another.

It’s hard to argue that people were really punching down by raising an eyebrow at Calvin’s Fourth World hairline because, at the end of the day, feedback is simply that. In this instance, that feedback wasn’t just honest and straightforward, it was part of the much larger, longstanding roast fans have been putting the Superman brand through for years that Calvin Ellis now has a special place in.

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Infinite Frontier #1 hits stores on June 23.


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