Superman, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow turned 75 this year. The Kryptonian has lost none of his vitality though and after all this time he is still one of the pillars of the DC Universe.
While Superman first appeared in 1938 in Action Comics #1, his origins go back a few years further. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster met around 1930 and seeing as they both shared a love for sci-fi stories the two became friends. It also helped that one was an artist and the other an aspiring writer so that they could complement each others work. Jerry wrote stories that he tried to get published without much success, while Joe drew for the local papers and businesses. In 1933 they came up with a story of a ‘superman’, a bald villainous man who wanted to take over the world. Joe and Jerry kept working on the character over the years, and superman went through various incarnations. They sent their stories out to publishers but nobody would bite. At the time comic books as we know them today didn’t exist yet, what you had were comic strips about swashbucklers, detectives or Tarzan in the newspapers next to the funnies. You didn’t have superheroes back then. Comic books started coming into their own from 1933 onwards when collections of comic strips were being bundled and published. It was a way of making money out of recycled material. Publishers who didn’t have the money for established characters, attracted artists with new material. National Allied Publications, a publisher that would one day turn into DC Comics, launched Detective Comics in 1937 and the next year they wanted to launch a new title. They contacted Siegel and Shuster, saying they were interested in doing Superman. Siegel and Shuster were excited that finally somebody was interested in their creation and they sold Superman for 130$.
In June 1938 Action Comics issue #1 came out, introducing Superman to the world and it was an instant hit. This was something new and word spread fast. Since the name Superman wasn’t anywhere on the cover before people had to ask about it at the newsstands. Superman was a guy with incredible abilities who stood up for the little man. He went after crooked politicians and people who exploited their workers and so on. At the time the New Deal was in full effect, trying to revive the economy so of course people latched on to Superman, the people’s hero! Not before long Superman started appearing in the newspapers and he got a second comic book series under his on name. Seeing as Joe and Jerry had sold the rights to their character they had no control over the expansion of the character and they didn’t participate in the profits made off of Superman. And skyrocket Superman did! By the forties he was even on the radio and on tv.
So now 75 years after his debut Superman has appeared in over 9900 different comic book issues. And that doesn’t include all his adventures on radioshows, TV-shows and movies. I’ll give you a moment to let that number sink in. Superman’s exposure exceeds that of any other character in the entire history of human culture. Superman, who as Grant Morrison points out brilliantly, wears his own logo on his chest, has become part of the world’s cultural heritage. He is known and beloved everywhere.
So after 75 years and thousands of adventures, does Superman still have a future? How long does it take before the well of a character like this is tapped out? I think a very long time. You see, Superman owes his longevity to his flexibility. Superman’s world and character are adaptable to the times and the preferences of the writer. Different writers have delivered their version, their vision of Superman, resulting in wildly different portrayals and adventures. Superman’s powers regularly increase and decrease, affecting the dynamic of the story to keep things interesting. While Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, Perry White and the Kents stayed, hundreds of support characters came and went. So as long as there are writers out there with active imaginations and something to say, Superman will live on!
Over time Superman has become a symbol of the good qualities of man. He is a reminder that there are a lot of honest, brave, morally decent people out there, willing to stand up for what is right. So as long as Superman remains the moral character that he was from the beginning he will remain in the collective consciousness, inspiring people to make the world a better place.
Seeing as I was born at the beginning of the eighties, Superman was part of my life growing up as well. My mother used to buy me comics (I think Superman was been translated in about every language out there) and I remember having a VHS cassette with the old Fleischer cartoons at my dads house that just blew me away. So I’m familiar with the wackier Superman stories as well, like where he split in a red and blue version for example. Despite the plethora of Superheroes available to me at the time, Superman still stood out. I think my Clarkkenting outings here and here stand as a testament to my enduring love for the character!
See you in 25 years for your centennial!
I want to hear from you out there what your relationship to the Man of Steel is!