Created by: Jerry Siegel (writer) & Joe Shuster (artist)
For: Detective Comics, Inc
Currently owned by: DC Comics
First appearance: Action Comics #1
Real Identity: Kal-El (originally Kal-L)
The original, the archetype, Superman established the concept of the super-hero, gave it his name, and introduced many of the conventions, from the cape to the secret identity.
Like the character himself, the story of Superman’s creation has passed into mythology. Jerry and Joe were quintessential outsiders – two shy Jewish teenagers in the provincial city of Cleveland, both what would now be described as geeky sci-fi fans... So they invented a consummate wish-fulfilment figure, the ultimate teenager (or, to some, the ultimate immigrant): ordinary, even despised, on the outside, but awesome underneath, in his true self. The concept seems so iconic now, yet publishers and newspaper syndicates rejected it for years until publisher Harry Donenfeld (himself a Jewish immigrant) saw enough potential in the crudely-drawn samples to make Superman the cover star of his new comic book, Action Comics #1, coverdated June 1938.
By the fourth issue, sales were soaring, and the anecdotal evidence was that this was down to Superman. Donenfeld tested the theory by putting Superman on the cover for only the second time in Action #7. The cover spot was soon his permanently, as well as an unprecedented second title, Superman Comics, from June 1939.
A syndicated newspaper strip had already appeared (January 1939), and a radio serial followed (1940-51). Both added several key elements to the mythos, the latter including Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Kryptonite. In 1941, Superman appeared on screen for the first time in a series of 17 cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios (later Famous Studios) for Paramount. Superman was played by Bud Collyer, the same voice actor as in the radio serial. The budgets were astronomical for the time ($50,000 for the first episode, then $30,000 each), and the results a landmark – the first in the series was nominated for the Academy Award.
The first live-action Superman serial didn’t appear until 1948, and even then struggled to depict his super-feats on screen. The animated flying sequences are primitive even for the time, but the serial was a smash and made a star of Kirk Alyn, despite the fact that he wasn’t even given a screen credit for the title role. A TV series, starring George Reeves, was commissioned in 1950, with the pilot released in cinemas in 1951 as “Superman and the Mole Men”. The series ran for 104 episodes between 1951 and 1957, and then for another decade in syndication worldwide.
With all these stories in all these media, the Superman mythos grew like topsy. The familiar basics had been laid down very early on – last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, rocketed to Earth as an infant, powers and abilities beyond those of ordinary men – but details (and more powers) were added in haphazard fashion to suit the demands of the moment. By the mid-50s, Superman was invulnerable to everything... except Kryptonite and magic.
These two elements (several flavours of the first) therefore featured prominently in the comics of the time. Under the influence of one or the other, Superman would regularly lose his powers or his memory, or encounter fantasy creatures immune to his powers. Under Mort Weisinger, editor of the comic books from 1946, Superman faced not physical challenges but puzzles to be solved, such as how to trick the other-dimensional imp Mr Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards, the only way to end his mischievous magical rampages and send him back to his own dimension. Stories soon began to revolve around such whimsical matters as how Superman could cut his fingernails, shave or trim his hair when no earthly scissors could possibly be up to the task. (Solution: he uses his own heat vision and a mirrored part of the Kryptonian vessel that brought him to Earth.) All too frequently, they involved thwarting Lois Lane’s constant ingenious attempts to prove that Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same.
In Siegel and Shuster’s earliest stories, Superman was brash, with a dangerous edge – and the body count proved it. As his powers grew, paradoxically, he became steadily more restrained, a big blue Boy Scout as “mild mannered” as his alter ego. Little changed, except in a few “imaginary stories”.
In 1970, Weisinger handed the editorial reins to Julius Schwartz, who with writer Denny O’Neil attempted to refresh and humanise Superman: his powers were reduced, Kryptonite vanished, and Clark Kent moved from newspapers into TV reporting. But the inertia was too strong, and in the 1978 movie and its sequels everything is old-school again.
So it remained until 1986, when fan favourite artist-writer John Byrne was given the task of rebooting the mythos in Man of Steel #1. Once again, Superman’s powers were curtailed, but this time Kryptonite remained, along with the core cast of characters, though modernised and more multi-dimensional. The new vision sustained the series through several concurrent titles, until DC felt another shot in the arm was needed. The result was the much-trumpeted “Death of Superman” storyline, with the actual demise occurring in Superman volume 2 #75, January 1993. It proved curiously hollow: in 20 full-page panels, he is unheroically bludgeoned to death by a bigger, stronger, more alien alien.
Despite the hype, Superman’s death proved only temporary and he reappeared, but DC had acquired a taste for doing the unthinkable: in 1996, Superman married Lois Lane; in 1998 he transforms into an “energy being”; and various aspects of his backstory are revised and re-revised in several “event” series of recent years. Much as in the 50s, the details now seem to be at the whim of each writer – but the core concept retains its potency. More than just a character, Superman is an iconic figure of mythic proportions transcending any of the stories or media he’s appeared in.
Initially Superman could “leap an eighth of a mile, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin”. The Fleischer Studio made him fly rather than leap, because they thought leaping looked clumsy. Bit by bit, in all media, abilities appeared as the plot required. By the 60s, he could fly into deep space, push planets out of orbit, and extinguish a star with a puff of his super-breath. Among other super-senses, he had telescopic, microscopic, x-ray and heat vision (so potent he could use it to vaporise a meteor beyond the Earth’s atmosphere). He could see though the time barrier. He had a super photographic memory and super ventriloquism. In the 1978 movie, he can fly so fast that time turns backwards. In the fourth, he repairs the Great Wall of China using some kind of telekinesis. In the 1986 comics reboot, his powers were severely curtailed (so that he could move only a small planet, and even then only if he remembered to take a really deep breath first), but since then they’ve kinda grown back. Basically, he’s super. As super as he needs to be.
CAREER LOW POINT
In the late ’50s, Superman was no longer the tragic lone survivor of his kind, just a kind of uncle to a whole clan of super-beings, including his cousin Supergirl, the entire population of the Kryptonian city of Kandor, Krypto the super-dog, Streaky the super-cat, Comet the super-horse – oh, and Beppo the super-monkey. Who together formed the Legion of Super-Pets.
Actor: Kirk Alyn
The first live-action Superman serial soon slumps into standard serial fare, though there was doubtless some excitement of a sort for the adolescent viewer in the trampy villain, the Spider Lady, who is no spider but no lady.
Atom Man vs Superman (serial)
Actor: Kirk Alyn
Another low-budget production but much more inventive than its predecessor, with many more ingredients from the comics: Lex Luthor (called “The Atom Man” for no discernible reason), the Phantom Zone (called “The Empty Doom”), and Kryptonite (as itself).
Superman And The Mole Men
Dir: Lee Sholem
Actor: George Reeves
The pilot for the TV series, given a cinema release ostensibly to test the waters. The Mole Men of the title aren’t really villains (or even very threatening), just a subterranean race threatened by mob violence when they accidentally come into contact with humankind.
Adventures of Superman (TV series)
1951-57 (104 episodes)
Actor: George Reeves
The first two seasons (52 episodes) are predominantly crime thrillers in which Superman battles thugs and gangsters, but the series grows steadily lighter and more humorous until the final series is almost self-parody. Reeves strikes a portly rather than athletic figure, but makes an affable Clark Kent and a rather avuncular Superman.
Superman The Movie
Dir: Richard Donner
Actor: Christopher Reeve
“You’ll believe a man can fly”, the posters proclaimed, and indeed the visual effects are on the whole pretty impressive. The story is an uncomfortable amalgam of portentous epic and ill-judged “comic relief”; Reeve’s performance is the still centre that holds it all together – and when you see him transform from the cowering, timid Clark Kent into the confident Superman, you accept for the first time that the whole secret identity thing could work after all.
Dir: Richard Lester (and Richard Donner, and Guy Hamilton)
Actor: Christopher Reeve
Superman demonstrates he’s a man in two different senses, bravely facing three super-powered adversaries but also surrendering his powers for a night with Lois Lane (though he then erases her memory of it after he’s regained them). Full of plot holes but also memorable set-pieces.
Dir: Richard Lester
Actor: Christopher Reeve
The cringy one, with a painfully unfunny Richard Pryor sub-plot, but still the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1983. Under the influence of synthetic Kryptonite, Superman goes bad and commits such heinous acts as straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa (now that’s evil!). He recovers following a confusing symbolic battle with Clark Kent when he discovers that Kent is really Luke Skywalker. (Or was that another movie?)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Dir: Sidney J. Furie
Actor: Christopher Reeve
If you had unimaginable power, would you spend your time fire-fighting, or would you do something grander to save humankind from itself? Superman rounds up the planet’s nuclear missiles. In a big net. Plus, Luthor is back and creates a Superman clone called Nuclear Man. Colossal conflict ensues.
Superboy (TV series)
Actor: John Newton, Gerard Christopher
Forgotten, but not at all bad show about the college years of Clark Kent that ran four season and incredibly improved throughout its run. Gerard Christopher replaced John Newton in the lead role from season two to four.
Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman (TV series)
Actor: Dean Cain
87 episodes, more character-driven than action-orientated, with much more of the Clark Kent side than super-heroics.
Smallville (TV series)
Actor: Tom Welling
Incredibly successful retelling of Clark Kent's teen years back home as he discovers his powers and destiny. Though now that it's been going nine seasons and its star is nearly 30 you wonder when he's finally going to don the blue tights. Superman with a huge dollop of teen soap.
Dir: Bryan Singer
Actor: Brandon Routh
Barely intelligible if you aren’t familiar with Superman II, to which this is a very calculated sequel, but lacking in any surprises if you are. Enough action to satisfy, but Routh seems to have been cast because of his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, not because he has the screen presence to carry the picture.
• Though they made a good living from Superman for a decade, the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had been obliged to sign away their rights to Superman from the start. In 1947 they sued DC and won compensation for the derivative character of Superboy, but not ownership of Superman. For the next 30 years they tried again and again (and their estates fight on to this day). In 1975, by which time they’d fallen on hard times and were both in poor health (Shuster all but legally blind), DC Comics was persuaded by the prospect of bad press before the opening of the movie to grant them a pension for life – and guarantee their byline on Superman forever after.
• The famous “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings” line originated in the Fleischer cartoons.
• In Superman III (1983), Clark Kent’s childhood sweetheart Lana Lang is played by Annette O’Toole. In the Smallville TV series (2001-2007), she plays Martha Kent, his mother. Freudian or what?
• Marlon Brando was paid the enormous sum of $3.7 million for two weeks’ work on Superman: the Movie (and barely ten minutes of screen time in the final cut). Instead of learning his lines, he had them stuck on cue cards just out of shot.
• For the big super-battle in Superman II, the producers built a life-size replica of Times Square at a cost of $10 million. The producers of Superman IV had so meagre a budget that they couldn’t even afford to film scenes on location outside the UN building. They made do with the council offices in Milton Keynes.
Lex Luthor: Brilliant scientist gone bad because he went bald (he blamed Superboy). More recently, ruthless and rapacious businessman (hiss!), then President of the US (boo!).
Mr Mxyzptlk: An imp from the magical fifth dimension. Amazingly, has survived all the revisions in Superman’s history and even appears in the live-action Lois and Clark and Smallville series.
Brainiac: Bald, green-skinned, super-intelligent alien, later a cyborg. Has undergone many revisions and retcons, the only unaltered aspect being his intellect.
Bizarro: A flawed duplicate of Superman, in early stories not evil but with an inverted sense of values (“us hate beauty, love ugliness”).