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Superman is widely regarded as the first superhero. That’s not entirely true: The Shadow, the Phantom, Doc Savage, the Spider, and a handful of others preceded him in the mid-1930s. Those costumed or superpowered crime fighters may have beaten Superman out of the gate, but not to the punch. This “Man of Steel” and his astounding abilities caught an unsuspecting readership by surprise in 1938. Generations later, Superman has become indelibly etched into the annals of American folklore. Today, most historians call Superman the first superhero because he defined a distinct hero type, clearly breaking away from the masked adventurers who preceded him.
Superman’s origin is nearly as recognizable as the hero himself. Moments before the planet Krypton explodes, its chief scientist rockets his infant son to safety. The baby’s spaceship lands on Earth and is discovered by the Kents, a childless couple that adopt the tiny extraterrestrial. The boy exhibits astonishing powers, and the Kents teach the lad, whom they name Clark, to use his abilities to “assist humanity.” Upon adulthood (and the death of his Earth parents), Clark Kent dons a caped uniform as Superman, “champion of the oppressed.”
This tale was first revealed in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), published while the United States was in the stranglehold of the Great Depression. In his earliest outings, Superman was enormously brazen as he caved in walls, slapped dictators, and spanked sharp-tongued heiresses. By stark contrast, his alter ego, the bespectacled Kent, was outrageously diffident, and on this dichotomy hinged the hero’s audience appeal: Kent was the downtrodden “everyman,” while Superman personified physical power. Superman was an unabashed intimidator you could cheer for, a figure of hope when many Americans felt hopeless. Readers found in Superman a hero who represented “truth, justice, and the American way,” and his colorful escapades, told in the vibrant new medium of comic books, captured their imaginations. Superman not only initiated his own career with Action #1, but single-handedly launched a new industry—comic book publishers sprouted instantly, and scores of new superheroes followed, truly exemplifying the “American way” (capitalism).
And to think, Superman started on the wrong side of the law. Throughout the early 1930s, his creators, author Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, high school chums from Cleveland, Ohio, were habitually rejected by professional publishers. So they started their own mimeographed fanzine, Science Fiction, in which they printed Siegel’s prose story “The Reign of the Superman,” about a misshapen human who acquires superpowers and turns evil. Siegel and Shuster later modified the concept into a proposal for a newspaper strip, featuring a caped Superman with an “S” on his massive chest, who uses his powers—augmented strength and stamina, bulletproof skin, and the ability to leap an eighth of a mile—for good. They ambitiously marketed their creation as “The Smash Hit Strip of 1936,” but the syndicates balked. Maintaining unwavering faith in their concept, the persevering pair submitted their Superman idea to comic book publisher Detective Comics, Inc. (DC), who took a chance on the property for their start-up title, Action. Siegel and Shuster sold DC the rights to Superman for a reported pittance of $130, but they didn’t mind—it was a gig, and, most importantly, their hero was in print.
Action Comics starring Superman sold phenomenally well, and DC Comics wasted no time in exploiting the character. In January 1939, Siegel and Shuster realized their earlier dream by producing a Superman syndicated newspaper strip. Distributed by the McClure Syndicate, the feature ran successfully through the 1940s. Siegel and Shuster (before turning the reigns over to writer/artist Wayne Boring in 1940) expanded the hero’s origin by giving the baby a Kryptonian name (Kal-L, later Kal-El), and by naming his biological parents (Jor-L and Lora, later Jor-El and Lara). The Man of Steel was awarded his own title with Superman #1 (Summer 1939), and soon began appearing in World’s Best Comics (later World’s Finest). In a few short years, Superman rocketed into ubiquity. DC introduced a “Supermen of America” fan club and licensed the character’s likeness to manufacturers of toys, puzzles, novels, coloring books, bubble gum—almost every product imaginable. The Man of Steel burst into radio in 1940, in the long-running The Adventures of Superman program, with actor Bud Collyer lending voice to the hero, and into movie theaters in 1941, in a celebrated series of seventeen animated shorts from the Fleischer Studios. Superman became big business. Some joked that the “S” emblazoned across his chest should be changed to a “$.”
Superman’s superpowers grew with his acclaim: Soon he was flying instead of leaping, he became invulnerable, and supersenses like X-ray vision and superhearing were added. Of course, every hero needs a weakness, and Superman’s was kryptonite, radioactive meteorites from his homeworld, a story element that first appeared on his radio program. He quickly developed a rogues’ gallery including Lex Luthor, the Ultra-Humanite, and the Prankster. Upon the advent of World War II, Superman was anointed as DC Comics’ standard-bearer of patriotism, and on several occasions even took on the Axis forces.
Superman’s Kent identity was Siegel and Shuster’s in-joke. As a reporter for the Daily Planet (originally the Daily Star) in the city of Metropolis, Kent frequently winked at his readers to acknowledge that they were in on the gag (the first comic book hero to do this, by the way): that the people around him couldn’t see through his flimsy disguise of eyeglasses and a business suit. His spunky colleague Lois Lane wasn’t fooled for long, however. Suspicious over Kent’s disappearances during Superman’s feats, she spent decades unsuccessfully trying to prove that Kent and Superman were one and the same. Kent’s association with the newspaper placed him on the ground floor of breaking events in which Superman’s presence might be required— and often that meant rescuing the daring Lane from danger. Kent’s boss in the earliest tales was George Taylor, who soon morphed into crusty managing editor Perry White, a cigar-chomping, old-school newshound, often agitated by the antics of his staff. Jimmy Olsen, a copy boy (and later “cub reporter”) whose enthusiasm frequently got him into trouble, became famous as Superman’s pal.
Most superheroes withered from view after World War II, but the Man of Steel kept going strong. In 1945, DC amended its continuity with the creation of Superboy, in “The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy.” His wholesome adventures took place in Smallville, a geographical slice of America’s heartland, where young Kent lived with his parents, Jonathan and Martha. Neighbor Lana Lang was introduced as the teenage equivalent of Lois Lane. Meanwhile actor Kirk Alyn brought Superboy’s adult counterpart to life in a pair of live-action movie serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), the latter of which adapted Luthor to the big screen. During this period of super-profit, Siegel and Shuster lost a legal battle to regain the rights to their creation.
In the 1950s, as Americans enjoyed postwar prosperity and pride, Superman was redefined from the burly bully of comics’ Golden Age (1938–1954) into a helpful scoutmaster, instilling virtues into the childish Lane and Olsen—and the readers. Actor George Reeves, who portrayed the Man of Steel in the live-action theatrical release Superman and the Mole Men (1951), starred in the movie’s syndicated television spinoff The Adventures of Superman (1953–1957). Reeves became beloved in the role: He pitched Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as Superman and appeared on I Love Lucy as the Man of Steel. (Who could forget the episode in which he flies in to save Lucy from her high-rise widow-ledge shenanigans?) A Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics title was launched in 1954, followed by Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in 1958, and Superman and Batman formed a regular partnership in World’s Finest. Superman was also developing a family—enter the family superdog, Krypto—another survivor of the hero’s homeworld. The Man of Steel was DC Comics’ best-selling and flagship character, so important to the publisher that it changed its company logo to “Superman-DC Comics.” As the decade closed, the atomic age zapped science fiction into a place of prominence in Superman’s comics: Luthor flourished high-tech weapons against the Man of Steel; new villains like the android Brainiac were established; the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes joined the supporting cast; and Superman’s cousin, Supergirl, showed up in a Kryptonian spaceship.
The 1960s were a turbulent decade of escalating global tension, civil unrest, a bloody and unpopular war, and social disorder, but for much of the decade, Superman turned a blind eye to it all (tough to do with his super-vision). Mort Weisinger, editor of the Superman comics, continued to expand the Man of Steel’s family: Joining the already cumbersome cast were mermaid Lori Lemaris; loopy inventor Professor Potter; superpets Beppo the Supermonkey, Streaky the Supercat, and Comet the Superhorse; Superman’s biological parents Jor-El and Lara (via frequent flashbacks and time-travel tales); Kryptonian survivors in the Phantom Zone and in the miniaturized Bottle City of Kandor; and a whole world of wacky Superman mutates called Bizarros. Traces of the real world occasionally crept into his comics—President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was too big for even Weisinger’s Super-sanitized Man of Steel to ignore—but mostly, the Superman titles offered an escape from, not an exploration of, political issues. And no one seemed to mind: Superman’s fame reached global status, as translations of his comic books were being gobbled up in numerous countries.
By the mid-1960s, Curt Swan’s crisp penciling style helped him emerge from a pack of talented illustrators as “the” Superman artist, a title Swan held until the 1980s. Superman’s comics may have looked good, but they didn’t read well: The burgeoning ensemble of superpeople and superanimals was neutering the hero’s individuality. Weisinger and his writers were running out of ideas, resorting to gimmicks rather than characterization for Superman’s adventures. “Imaginary” stories—tales appearing outside of the regular continuity—became commonplace, allowing Superman to die, to marry, and to have offspring, but return to the status quo with the next adventure. His superpowers intensified to a ridiculous level: Superman gained microscopic vision, heat vision (previously he had melted objects with the heat from his X-ray vision), and even superventriloquism! As Superman’s faculties increased, his enemies simply could not pose a credible threat, and his stories lost dramatic intensity. Only the energy-siphoning Parasite, the creation of writer Jim Shooter, gave Superman a run for his money, but he surfaced too late to stop the hero who was “more powerful than a locomotive” from derailing. By the end of the decade, Superman’s adventures had grown stale and his titles’ readership had dwindled. Similarly, the Superman newspaper strip was canceled in 1967.
Carmine Infantino, former artist of The Flash and Batman, had recently been appointed DC’s editorial director and was revitalizing the company’s line. The Man of Steel was slated for an overhaul, with editor Julius Schwartz, who had successfully resuscitated the Batman titles from near-cancellation in 1964, assigned to helm the revisions. In 1970, DC house ads trumpeted an impending change: “There’s a New Kind of Superman Coming!” Superman #233 (January 1971) was where it began: Kent, now bolder and hipper, became a television news reporter, kryptonite was eliminated, and Superman’s powers were weakened. Pioneering young writers like Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, and Cary Bates invigorated the tales with realism and new villains. None of this mattered to the world at large, however, where Superman’s status was now iconic: His “S” insignia was appropriated by the lead character (a Christ allegory) in the rock opera Godspell (1971); singer Jim Croce immortalized the Man of Steel as a tough guy in his 1973 hit, “You Don’t Mess around with Jim” (with the recurring line, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape”); and Superman was featured as one of television’s animated Super Friends (1973).
Halfway through the 1970s, two major events occurred: DC joined forces with competitor Marvel Comics to co-publish a best-selling crossover, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man; and film producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind signed a deal to produce a big-budget movie (and a sequel) starring the Man of Steel. The impending film and its promise of profit inspired Neal Adams, superstar illustrator and advocate for artists’ rights, to lobby DC to provide financial restitution to Superman’s architects, Siegel and Shuster, both of whom teetered on the brink of destitution. DC and parent company Warner Bros. obliged, bowing to media pressure; they established pensions for both and inserted their names into all Superman comics as the creators of the character. In 1977, as part of a promotional campaign for the upcoming motion picture, the Superman newspaper strip was revived, beginning a sixteen-year run. The Salkinds’ Superman: The Movie was the blockbuster film of 1978: It made actor Christopher Reeve a megastar and raised the special effects bar by several notches.
As with any successful film, sequels followed, and the first half of the 1980s for Superman was demarcated by Reeve’s interpretation of the hero—the Man of Steel as a “friend,” a sincere Boy Scout who never told a lie, earning his merit badge by saving the world. Editor Schwartz’s Superman comics suffered during this period. The radical changes he implemented in the early and mid-1970s had been jettisoned, and the resulting stories were reminiscent of the material he’d been hired to eliminate. Superman needed a shot in the arm.
As DC Comics reinvented itself in the mid-1980s with its continuity-altering Crisis on Infinite Earths series (in which Supergirl died valiantly), Marvel Comics writer/artist John Byrne was hired to recreate the hero. Byrne’s opening volley was The Man of Steel (1986), a six-issue, biweekly miniseries that cleaned the slate for the character, while preserving the best aspects from previous incarnations (mostly the movies). Superboy was no more, Krypton was antiseptic, and Luthor became the 1980s version of evil incarnate—a corporate CEO. Byrne’s Reeve-like Superman would kick ass when necessary. There were also significant changes involving Kent’s personal life, perhaps the biggest being that his parents, Jonathan and Martha, were now still alive, lending compassionate support to their adult super-son.
Since Superman’s 1986 reintroduction, an army of writers, artists, and editors have expanded upon the revised mythology, reintroducing classic concepts and characters (with new twists) and introducing potentially lethal menaces to imperil the Man of Steel, usually in lengthy and sometimes inaccessible story arcs. Three highly publicized events affected the character in the 1990s: his January 1993 death (at the hands of a brutish behemoth appropriately called Doomsday) in Superman #75 and subsequent resurrection (surprise!); his controversial transformation into a pure energy being with a different costume than the bankable classic (another headline-grabbing but short-lived innovation); and Kent’s 1996 marriage to Lois Lane in Superman: The Wedding Album #1.
Since The Man of Steel, Superman has maintained a consistent television presence: in two animated Superman cartoons (in 1988 and 1996), and on the Cartoon Network’s Justice League (2001–2004) and Justice League Unlimited (2004–2006); in the live-action programs Superboy (1988–1992), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993–1997), and the teen-oriented Smallville (2001–2011); and as a regular topic of discussion among the characters of the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. His movie prospects haven’t fared as well since the failure of Reeve’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). The revival of the Superman movie franchise has passed through multiple hands.
In recent years, DC Comics has repeatedly revisited, retold, and presented a variety of revised or alternative versions of Superman’s origin and early career, including Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman for All Seasons (1998), and Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright (2003–2004). Writers Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, and Geoff Johns collaborated on a new canonical origin story in Action Comics #850 (2007); Johns and artist Gary Frank then did the more elaborate Superman: Secret Origin (20092010). This was followed by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’s alternative history in Superman: Earth One (2010). Writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely created the acclaimed series All Star Superman (2005–2008), an alternative to the official continuity: not only were Clark and Lois not married, but Morrison devised contemporary variations on various concepts from Mort Weisinger’s Silver Age Superman stories.
Superman has also been regularly appearing in direct-to-video animated films, including Superman: Doomsday (2007), based on the “Death of Superman” saga; Justice League: The New Frontier (2008), based on Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comics; Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009); Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010); and All-Star Superman (2011), based on Grant Morrison’s series. Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, directed the 2008 film, appropriately titled, Superman Returns. It was intended as a sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II, and starred newcomer Brandon Routh as Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey (from Singer’s film The Usual Suspects) as Lex Luthor. The movie did not perform commercially up to Warner Bros.’ expectations, and the studio canceled its plans for Singer to direct a sequel. Instead, Warner Bros. turned to Christopher Nolan, the director of the extraordinarily successful relaunch of the Batman film franchise with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). The result is that Nolan produced the film The Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder (who directed the 2009 Watchmen movie), which reboots the Superman saga on film, with an expected release of late 2013.
In September 2011, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of comics, including starting Action Comics and Superman over with issue 1. The new Superman series was initially written by George Perez, with art by Perez and Jesus Merino, and the new Action was launched by writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales. The early issues of the new Action provide yet another reworking of Superman’s early career. This may be significant in light of a recent legal decision.
In 1999, a legal ruling granted the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel fifty percent of the Superman copyright. Then in 2009, another court ruling decreed that the Siegel estate had recaptured rights to the Superman material in the original Action Comics #1 (1938), including the first version of his origin. The estate of Joe Shuster (he has no heirs) will legally recapture their share of the rights to the same material in 2013. At that point, the Siegel and Shuster estates will own the entire copyright to the Superman story in the original Action Comics #1, and could license and publish their own version of Superman. The long-range effects of this decision on the future of Superman, in comics and other media, remain to be seen. —ME & PS