The first and most important comic-book superhero, Superman looms large not only in comic books but also in all of twentieth-century popular culture. Among the few American characters instantly recognizable in virtually every corner of the globe, Superman is truly a pop culture icon. Certainly there is no purer representative of the fantastic possibilities inherent in the comic-book medium.
Birth of a Superhero
Superman sprang from the imagination of two Jewish teenagers growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, during the Great Depression. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both lower-middle-class sons of immigrants who believed in the American dream. Avid readers of science fiction and pulp magazines, the two youths aspired to write and draw their own adventure comic strip. In 1934, after several tryouts in their school newspaper, Siegel and Shuster hit upon the idea that they suspected would be a marketable comic strip.
In his striking red-and-blue costume with flowing red cape and red S emblazoned on his chest, Superman was the ultimate strongman, capable of achieving almost any physical feat. He was a fantastic being from a doomed alien planet (later revealed to be Krypton), come to apply the superhuman blessings of his native home in the service of his adopted world. And, perhaps most importantly, he assumed the persona of an undistinguished, mild-mannered newspaper reporter named Clark Kent. Unpretentious and seeking no glory, he was a superhero who would retreat into the anonymity of society when his spectacular deeds were accomplished. Here was the crucial point of reference for a Depression-era culture that extolled the virtues of the common man.
Superman was a brilliant creation—ingenious in its very simplicity and instantly accessible to a mass audience. It was, of course, not an entirely original concept. Superheroes of various sorts had a long history in popular myth and folklore. But the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy was original as a contemporary expression of adolescent wish fulfillment. Siegel and Shuster, both of whom wore glasses and admitted to being shy, insecure, and unsuccessful with girls in high school, put much of themselves and their fantasies into the character. In truth, the essence of Superman’s appeal was almost universal—especially to young males. Any boy or man who has felt in any way inadequate in a society of formidable male gender expectations has at times wished that he could transcend his human frailty as easily as Clark Kent removed his glasses.
Such a concept was destined to be a popular one with young people. But the middle-aged men who ran the newspaper syndicates failed to recognize Superman’s appeal. After several years of failing to sell their idea to the newspapers, Siegel and Shuster reluctantly sold it to a fledgling comic-book company called Detective Comics (DC), for whom they had done some freelance work. As part of the contract, the two young men would write and draw the series as long as DC allowed them, but they also forsook all rights to the character in exchange for $130 ($10 per page for the thirteen-page story). It proved to be one of the most infamous contracts ever signed in the history of the U.S. entertainment industry.
Superman debuted in the first issue of DC’s Action Comics, dated June 1938. The cover of the classic issue, which fetches prices of more than $50,000 from collectors, showed the costumed hero lifting an automobile over his head as stupefied criminals flee in terror before him. It was a harsh image that DC’s publishers feared would only confuse readers. But the audience responded positively and quickly. Only a few issues into publication, Action Comics became the best-selling comic book on the market, and the reason—confirmed by informal newsstand surveys—was obvious: Superman was a winning concept.
In later years Superman evolved into a character who was stoic, morally beyond reproach, and frankly rather humorless and dull. But Siegel and Shuster initially portrayed him as a feisty character who most closely resembled a super-powered, hard-boiled detective. He was a wise guy who took to crime fighting with an adolescent glee, routinely took time to mock and humiliate his adversaries as he thrashed them, and did not shrink from breaking the law when it stood in the way of true justice. It was a macho world into which only the glamorous reporter Lois Lane intruded. Although she had no time for the plain Clark Kent, she was, of course, infatuated with Superman, who rarely had time for her.
Siegel and Shuster cast their superhero as a populist champion of the oppressed, who defended common U.S. citizens from the evils of big money, political corruption, and greed in all its forms. As the United States drifted into World War II, Superman turned his attention to foiling spies and saboteurs on the U.S. home front, although his creators deliberately kept him away from the actual war so as not to upstage the real-life heroes in uniform.
At a time when most successful comic-book titles sold between 200,000 and 400,000 copies per issue, each issue of Action Comics—featuring only one Superman story—consistently sold around 900,000 copies. Mindful of these figures, DC featured the character in a second title, Superman, which established industry records by selling a staggering average of 1.3 million copies per bimonthly issue. The Superman phenomenon was not limited to comic books either. By 1941 Superman was featured in a syndicated newspaper strip, a series of short animated films produced by Paramount Pictures, and a highly popular radio show that opened with the immortal lines: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Superman!” Within a few short years of his comic-book debut, Superman had become a cartoon figure almost as widely recognized as Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
The influence that Superman has had on the comic-book industry has been huge. Before his appearance comic books hardly constituted a medium distinct from newspaper comic strips. Most featured either reprinted newspaper strips or derivative variations of such strips. Superman was the first original character to exploit the fantastic creative possibilities of the comic-book medium—possibilities limited only by the imagination and skill of writers and artists. Images that would have been technically onerous or impossible to represent in motion pictures or radio could be easily adapted to the comic-book format. Superman’s improbable adventures demonstrated this, and he single-handedly gave the comic-book industry a reason for being. Superman became the most widely imitated character in comic books, spawning a host of costumed superheroes from DC and its competitors. These superheroes established the comic-book industry as a viable commercial entertainment industry, and they have been the mainstay of comic books ever since.
Superman also established DC Comics as the industry’s leading publisher. For a time, even his creators benefited financially from Superman’s profits. But Siegel and Shuster saw diminishing returns for themselves even as their creation continued to generate massive revenue for the publisher. In 1947 they sued DC, trying to secure the profits that they claimed Superman should have earned them over the years. The court ruled against them, claiming that under the original 1938 contract, they had no rights to the character. For the next several decades they saw no royalties from the comic-book industry’s most lucrative property. In the late 1970s, after the news media reported that Superman’s creators were living in poverty, DC relented and paid them a yearly stipend for the remainder of their lives. A notorious tale well known to comic-book creators, the plight of Siegel and Shuster helped to rally writers and artists to push for new royalties and financial incentives, which the major publishers subsequently introduced in the 1980s.
The Superhero Evolves
Superman remained the most popular and best-selling comic-book character well into the 1960s. Under the close editorial direction of Mort Weisinger, Superman evolved into a character befitting his status as the elder statesman among superheroes. Abandoning all semblance of his rambunctious younger days, he became a staid, predictable, and paternalistic figure, always adhering to the strict letter of the law. He also gradually acquired an array of powers that made him almost invincible: flight; X-ray vision; telescopic vision; super-hearing; super-breath; the ability to move through time; the strength to move planets; and invulnerability to virtually everything except Kryptonite, the meteoric remnants of his native world Krypton.
Weisinger created a fairy-tale Superman mythos that incorporated Superman’s youth (as Superboy in the midwestern town of Smallville), his friends (Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson were featured in their own comic books), villains such as Lex Luthor and Brainiac, and spin-off characters such as Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog. To overcome the creative limitations of the virtually omnipotent superhero, Weisinger also conceived a variety of imaginary stories that explored such questions as, “What if Superman had gone to another planet besides Earth?” and even “What if Superman had died?” These simple and entertaining stories were clearly aimed at children, and they sold well.
Airing from 1953 to 1957, the highly successful Adventures of Superman television series, to which Weisinger was a consultant, kept Superman in the public consciousness and served to promote his comic books to the new generation of baby boomers. In the mid-1990s an ABC television series called Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman introduced the characters—played by Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain, respectively—to a new generation of viewers.
Superman’s popularity among comic-book readers waned in the late 1960s. Faced by intense competition from Marvel’s wave of more human superheroes such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, Superman’s irreproachable Boy Scout image had become a commercial liability for new generations of young people grown expectant of antiestablishment trends in youth culture. By the mid-1970s the character’s comic-book sales were at an all-time low, although his image remained the most lucrative comic-book licensed property for toys and other products. The pinnacle of the character’s earning power came in the late 1970s and early 1980s in a series of major Warner Brothers Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve in the title role. Success in other media, however, did not translate into impressive comic-book sales, which continued to lag well behind those of trendy morally ambivalent superheroes such as the X-Men; the Punisher; and even DC’s Batman, who began as a follow-up to Superman and proved to be far more adaptable to changing times.
The history of Superman in comic books during the last several decades of the twentieth century was largely shaped by DC’s periodic attempts to revitalize the character by making him less super. In 1971 Superman’s powers were halved. In 1986 DC contracted popular writer/artist John Byrne to rewrite Superman’s origin, hoping to spark fan interest. Surely the most blatant of these efforts came in 1992 with the much-hyped “Death of Superman.” The event produced a short-term boom in Superman’s sales and concluded in the “Rebirth of Superman.” In 1997 Superman got a radical new costume change. While nostalgic fans disapproved, DC responded that it had little choice but to try new things to reverse Superman’s steady commercial decline.
Superman’s popularity in other media continued into the twenty-first century. There was no shortage of entertainment featuring the comic hero. The long-running television series Smallville, which followed the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman, aired from 2001 to 2011. In 2006 yet another Superman film was released: Superman Returns starred newcomer Brandon Routh as the man of steel. The film reportedly cost about $260 million to make and enjoyed strong, if not stellar, box-office returns.
Superman’s legacy in the world of comic books continued as well, although with changes. In September 2011 DC Comics relaunched all its comic-book titles, including Action Comics. The new version of Action Comics, written by Grant Morrison, featured a Superman not in tights but in jeans, T-shirt, and the requisite cape. The new Superman was also a bachelor. The original Action Comics proved to have worth too, and in November 2011 a copy of the first issue of Action Comics sold at auction for a reported $2.16 million.
Superman’s popularity throughout the decades might have waned, but that in no way diminished his significance. As the archetype for the superhero genre so intrinsic to U.S. comic books, he deserved his stature as the industry’s de facto world ambassador. His presence was firmly etched into a global popular culture, encompassing motion pictures, television, advertising, music, and common language. And for the generations weaned on his adventures, Superman would forever remain the quintessential champion of truth, justice, and the American way.