Thanks to the dreams of two seventeen year olds, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, an enduring American icon and mainstay of the comics' industry was born in the pages of Action Comics #1, June 1938. Although some results of that birth would later prove bittersweet to Jerry and Joe, Superman would become one of the most powerful and popular folk heroes in American fiction. Superman has been featured in countless comic books, has been imitated in countless comics books, has starred in numerous films, animated specials, Broadway musicals and TV series, and has launched an endless profusion of collectible merchandise, including games, T-shirts, lunch boxes, toys, puzzles, and novelties.
As I previously mentioned, Superman certainly owes a debt to Philip Wylie's Gladiator and Lester Dent's Doc Savage. He is, however, the first of the comic book super heroes, a super star that has powered the entire industry. Just what is it about the "son of Krypton" that has inspired such loyalty? In our imperfect and sometimes threatening world, human imagination has always sought out the heroic powerhouse, from Samson to Atlas and Hercules. But in by 1938, the old warrior virtues of brawn, fortitude, and bravery --values encouraged by the Nazis!-- were no longer enough: there was also a need for heroes who had the ability to think not only intelligently, but also humanely. Add in an element of science fiction in the mix, and Superman zoomed to popularity.
There's also been a lot of Freudian analysis and talk of Nietzshean philosophy, but the simplest explanation is that Superman initially appealed to little boys, powerless little boys who would enjoy the fantasy of someone who had supreme control over his environment. On the other hand, a demi-god with "powers far beyond those of mortal men" would quickly become a bore: enter Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper!
The alter ego of bookish, mild-mannered Clark Kent was an inspired stroke. After Martha and Jonathan Kent have passed away, their foster son seeks work in the city of Metropolis. Gaining his job as reporter at the Daily Planet (originally the Daily Star) in Superman #1 by rescuing an innocent man from the electric chair (the early Superman was a progressive reformer: his first cases involved fighting crooked politicians, corrupt munitions manufacturers, and greedy mine-owners), the super powered son of Krypton must put up with the 9 to 5 routine just like the rest of us. Superman can rule the world but because of his morality he chooses to live as a normal citizen, becoming more human than alien. Of course, working as a reporter has definite advantages in a life devoted to truth, justice, and the American Way.
Another advantage of working for a large metropolitan newspaper is the company you get to keep, namely Lois Lane, perhaps the most well known woman in comics, rivaled only by Wonder Woman. Lois, who eventually gained her own comic book in 1958, was another inspiration, creating a love triangle between her, Superman, and Clark Kent. The tension of her professional rivalry with Clark, her fierce independent spirit coupled with an ability to get into numerous jams, and her crush on Clark's alternate identity, all created elements for endless plot variations.
(An interesting and ironic sidelight to the Lois Lane story is that Joe Shuster's model for Lois, Joanne Carter, would eventually meet Jerry Siegel at a costume ball and marry him in 1948. And due to recent changes in the copyright law, Mrs. Siegel now owns one-half copyright in "each and every work in any medium that includes or embodies any character, story element, or indicia reasonably associated with Superman or the Superman stories." Including, of course, Lois Lane. Great Krypton!)
Behind every great hero's success stands (or slithers) a great villain. Batman had his Joker, Captain Marvel had Dr. Sivana, and Superman had Lex Luthor, who first premiered in Action Comics #23, April 1940. In his decades of infamy, the brilliant criminal scientist has gone through many changes of garb and powers. When he originally was introduced in the series he sported a full head of flaming red hair. But almost a year later the hair was gone and Lex now resembled Superman's first great foe, the "mental giant" Ultra-Humanite, a scientist who would switch his brain into the body of a beautiful movie actress only to later die in a volcano.
Lex was no slouch at science himself and during his career would drain the world's oceans, block the sun's rays, create Bizarros, and finally rescue a planet's population from extinction. Because of a major continuity revision in 1960's Adventure Comics #271, it was explained the original 1940s Luthor was actually Alexei Luthor of a parallel universe, Earth 2. (Confused? I know I am.)
Another media can also share the credit for spreading Supermanís popularity. That familiar chant that every schoolboy used to know, "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!," originated on the airwaves not in the panels, first heard on the radio on February 12, 1940. The show's producer, Robert Maxwell, also came up with Jimmy Olsen as well as green Kryptonite, and the phrase "Up, up, and away!" The radio show would go on for another six years and Maxwell would go on to create the very first Superman movie, Superman and the Mole Men (1951), featuring George Reeves, which would later serve as the pilot for 1953 television show The Adventures of Superman.The forties also saw one of the best-animated series ever to come out of the Max Fleisher studios.
Created by Max's brother Dave, the studio (famed for Betty Boop and Popeye) employed elaborate production values and rotoscope techniques added to the realism of Superman cartoons budgeted at $100,000 each. Bud Collyer, Superman's voice actor for the radio was recruited to add to the authenticity of each cartoon. The series, which included The Mechanical Monsters (November 1941), Arctic Giant (February 1942) and The Bulleteers (March 1942), holds up remarkably well today and is regarded as a milestone in the history of animation.
Early Superman art employed little use of sophisticated camera angles, visual effects, and dynamic anatomy we see today, often seeming forced and stilted. It was, to be honest, really crude! But so was most comic art at the time; comics were still in their infancy. The stories were not much better, with elementary plots, little morality plays with Superman frequently going to bat for the "little guy," subduing natural disasters, and (naturally) rescuing Lois.
Around the time that Jerry Siegel went into the army, his character went to war, sinking enemy battleships and striking terror into the hearts of the Axis. Just why Superman, with his vast powers, didn't bring the war to a halt within a few days is unclear (although there was a pre-war sequence when Superman brought both Hitler and Stalin to an international court). As my Comics Channel Manager Ted White explained in an essay in All In Color For A Dime (The Spawn of M.C. Gaines, 1970), the answer was ingenious: "As Clark Kent, Superman went down to his local draft board to enlist. But in his nervous desire to get into the Army, he accidentally employed his x-ray vision during the eye test. Instead of reading the chart before him, he read the one in the room beyond! He was flunked out as a 4-F. The shame!"
After the war Superman assume a more polished
look under the pencils and brushes of artists like Curt
Swan, Irwin Hasen and Wayne
Boring, and an increasing sophistication thanks to writers like Edmund
Hamilton, Otto Binder, Horace Gold, and
Alfred Bester. Many of the changes were orchestrated by Mort
Weisinger, who had joined the DC staff in 1940 and is credited with
dreaming up some Superman staples --the Phantom Zone, Brainiac, the Bizarros,
red kryptonite, and (unfortunately) Krypto, the Super-Mutt. I hope to cover
the Weisinger era of Superman in a future feature.