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).
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.
However, stories did cover Clark’s adoption. As summarized in 1986’s “Secret Origins” #1 (based on “Action Comics” #1, the Superman newspaper strip, and 1948’s “Superman” #53), John and Mary Kent found Kal-L after his ship landed on Earth. They subsequently took Kal to the Smallville Orphanage, formally adopting him and naming him “Clark.” Later, the Kents learned Clark possessed various powers.
“Secret Origins” also states Clark 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).
By the Silver Age, Superman and Clark Kent’s citizenship statuses became more fully clarified.
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 took Clark to, and adopted him from, the Smallville Orphanage, and later learned of his abilities.
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 includes 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.
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 came up in a 1991 non-canon story where the US elected Superman 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 flawed about this version, which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that Manhunter robots causing the snowstorm is the least of its problems.)
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 either were vague about his adoption status or went with the Golden/Silver Age version.
Superman’s origin changed again in the 2000s. 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, or as far as I can find, adoption 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? As for renouncing one’s citizenship, the blog Law and the Multiverse touched on this subject.
The New 52/Rebirth
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. The story delves into the Kents’ history of attempts at having children (naturally or via adoption).
Beyond this, however, the New 52 version of events don’t seem to discuss how Clark was actually taken in by the Kents. Still, assuming he’s presented as adopted, Clark would still be considered a citizen by default.
Superman’s citizenship status isn’t discussed. Still, 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.
DC’s Rebirth revisions in 2016 confusingly merged the New 52 and post-Crisis versions of Superman together. As far as I can tell, the current status quo is presumably the post-Crisis version of Superman (as of 2011), with some New 52 elements.
The 2000s CW primetime series “Smallville” offered a variant on Clark’s adoption. 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 plot point during the show’s run.
Oddly, the comics didn’t really use this idea, as far as I can find. “Superman: American Alien,” a 2016 non-canonical miniseries, did use it, though no indication of Lex’s father being involved.
“Superman: The Movie”
The Christopher Reeve movies showed Clark passed off as the son of a relative of Martha’s. As such, Clark would still be assumed to be a US citizen by default.
The varying origin versions complicate analyzing things. However, for most versions of his backstory, Clark Kent would be considered a natural-born citizen, under the US’ citizenship laws about abandoned infants. As for how the Kents took in Clark, traditional versions show him as formally adopted. Modern versions are either vague or greatly vary.
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; thus, 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!
Image from "Limited Collector's Edition C31." Art by Curt Swan. (DC Comics)