We chart the history of the beloved superhero – from humble beginnings in 1938 and learning to fly in the ’40s, to a multimillion-dollar franchise today
Celebrating 80 Years of Superman
His broad chest is emblazoned with a big S, his huge red cape billowing in the air as he picks up a car and smashes it against a tree. The assembled bad guys are dazed, cowering in fright. As introductions go, it doesn’t get much more heroic and more famous than the first-ever sighting of Superman 80 years ago this month, on the front cover of Action Comics #1. As the first page of his first story, written by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster in early 1938 trumpets: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!”
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And so a legend – and an entire superhero cosmos was born. “He took a mild-mannered infant industry and art form and revealed that it had the power to make imaginations leap tall buildings, to make hearts pound faster than a locomotive,” writes DC Comics’ Paul Levitz in a fascinating introduction to new book 80 Years Of Superman, the Deluxe Edition.
“The concept of the superhero is crystallised here,” he continues, “combining elements from science fiction, the pulps and even prose historical novels into a form that would invade and conquer virtually all forms of popular media for the next 80 years.”
Levitz is right about that. Forget Batman or Iron Man, Spider-Man or the X-Men for a moment. Superman’s adventures alone have been adapted into six blockbuster films, novels, radio shows, video games, musicals, television shows, songs and even theme park rides. Just last month, American television was treated to an origins story, Krypton.
And yet look back at that very first strip, which has been republished in 80 Years Of Superman along with other important comics from across the decades, and there’s something quite obviously different from, say, the image of Christopher Reeve racing across the Metropolis skyline, finest fist forward. There is no one uttering the immortal line “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” – not least because in his first iteration, Superman couldn’t actually fly. He didn’t have X-ray vision and couldn’t freeze lakes with his super-breath – as famously witnessed in Superman III.
He could, however, “leap one-eighth of a mile, hurdle a twenty story building and raise tremendous weights… and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!”. The flying would have to wait until the 1940s – as would the tales of saving the world. Back then, Superman was far more humble, rushing to the scene of a “wife-beating at 211 Court Avenue” after his journalist alter ego Clark Kent is tipped off in the office of the Daily Star. The miscreant in question, of course, does not get off lightly.
Still, this first comic strip laid the groundwork for what was to come. It’s not overstating Superman’s case to suggest when he swiftly became the star of his own stand alone comic – a world at war with Hitler was in need of someone to believe in. During the Second World War, Superman delivered ammunition, disabled a U-boat and helped wounded soldiers, so by the 1950s, the all-American Man of Steel was ready to become a radio and television star too.
Some of his appeal was undoubtedly because of the alluring dual identity device, meaning people could fantasise about leaving their humdrum lives to do something heroic. But more broadly, Superman has always been a blank canvas to soothe a troubled world, which is possibly why, when Lex Luthor plans to fire a nuclear missile into the San Andreas Fault in the first Superman film, it struck such a Cold War chord in 1978. But the more he changes – witness the navel gazing Superman of Man Of Steel (2013) sent to save America from itself – the more he seems to stay the same in the minds of people who fell for this virtuous, moral and endearing character. It’s why 2016’s Batman vs Superman was in the end such a disappointment because there’s no wit or fun to be had. It’s just two superhero franchises bashing each other before bashing a weird creature even harder.
There’s none of that in Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. The story ends with our hero grabbing a corrupt senator and leaping from the Capitol building. We don’t know if he’ll make it to the building on the other side of the street: the last image has Superman joking “missed – doggone it!”. But the wonderfully clear storytelling and artwork makes us want to find out.
“And so begins the startling adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time: Superman!” Siegel and Shuster could never have known when they wrote those final words in Superman’s debut that their creation which they sold to DC Comics for $130 (Dh477.53) would become that sensation. They died before a pristine copy of Action Comics #1 sold for a staggering $3.2 million (Dh11.75m). But as Laura Siegel Larson – Jerry’s daughter – writes in the book, they never doubted Superman would be loved all over the world long after they were gone. The brainiacs were right.
Action Comics: 80 Years Of Superman the Deluxe Edition (DC) is out now