When Superman entered his fifth decade as the United States’ premier comics superhero, DC Comics president Jenette Kahn enthused: “He’s better known than the president of the United States, more familiar to school children than Abraham Lincoln.... Who else so purely embodies male consciousness at its highest, most protective, most intensely spiritual peak?” Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison included Superman among the five fictional characters most universally known, along with Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Robin Hood. Many comics scholars echoed them, studying Superman as embodying the “American Monomyth,” “The Man of Tomorrow.” As William W. Savage succinctly put it, “The impact of the Superman character upon the subsequent development of the comic book would be difficult to overestimate.” None of this could have been predicted when teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster had their inspiration about a costumed character with a secret identity in 1934 and prevailed on Harry Donenfeld to publish Action Comics #1 in June 1938.

Although what moved Siegel and Shuster was an adolescent power fantasy, and most costumed comics superheroes shared this appeal, Superman quickly surmounted the limitations of the genre to become an iconic figure whose adventures were followed by adults as well. Both academics and aficionados celebrate his significance to popular culture. Though the two creators struggled for recognition and recompense, they would be challenged not only by the contract they had signed, but also how greatly and rapidly in others’ hands Superman would transcend their own visions.

Siegel and Shuster’s early Superman stories differed in two respects from what would follow. After experimenting, during the depths of the Depression, with a “Reign of the Superman” story in which a derelict developed telepathy and mind control for evil, they turned their protagonist into a paladin of New Deal–era social justice, confounding petty criminals, lynch mobs, corrupt lobbyists, and corporate arms dealers. During World War II, Superman’s patriotic stances would still fall short of cosmic fantasy: he encouraged the civilian war effort as well as foiled saboteurs and fifth-column spies. Their Superman also possessed relatively limited powers compared with what would soon follow. He could leap but not fly (he traveled by train from Metropolis to Washington) and used X-ray vision sparingly. Over the next decade his speed and strength would increase, he became immune to atomic bomb blasts, could time travel, and was invulnerable to all but kryptonite.

Superman, a superhero dreamed up by two teenagers, is shown on the cover of this 1939 comic book in costume. His alter ego, Clark Kent, wore glasses and a business suit but could change into Superman in a phone booth.

Superman, a superhero dreamed up by two teenagers, is shown on the cover of this 1939 comic book in costume. His alter ego, Clark Kent, wore glasses and a business suit but could change into Superman in a phone booth. (DC Comics/Photofest)

Yet even in the earliest years, Superman would outdistance other costumed crusaders trailing in his wake; he appeared in three different titles, and their sales quickly took off. As the pioneer comic book superhero, appearing as a newspaper strip as well as in books, others would be measured against his lead. By 1941, Action Comics alone was selling 900,000 copies a month. A blitz of merchandising, with at least 33 licensed products by 1941 made Superman toys, games, and other products as ubiquitous as those of Walt Disney characters. DC Comics arranged for a “Superman Day” at the 1940 World’s Fair. During World War II, the Army’s Library Service purchased and distributed only Superman comics to servicemen among their approved “magazines,” accounting for at least 10 percent of its sales. Superman also led in other media. As early as 1940, Mutual Radio broadcasted 15-minute adventures; during the next three years, the Max Fleischer studio produced 17 animation shorts. There was a 1942 novel, by George Lowther. Later in the 1940s, Columbia Pictures would create cliff-hanger serials and a feature film. Then during the 1950s, the pathbreaking television series Adventures of Superman starred Steve Reeves. Superman would eventually make it to Broadway, in a 1966 musical “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane—It’s Superman!” which managed 129 performances. In July 2010, a regional theater company revived and “retooled” the musical in Dallas, Texas. Finally, four Superman films during the 1980s made Christopher Reeve as much a noble and iconic figure as the character he portrayed.

Further, Superman was unique among superheroes. As Jules Feiffer explained: “The particular brilliance of Superman lay not only in the fact that he was the first of the superheroes, but in the concept of his alter ego. What made Superman different from the legion of imitators to follow was not that when he took off his clothes he could beat up everybody—they all did that. What made Superman extraordinary was his point of origin: Clark Kent.... Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman.” Other superheroes wore costumes and masks for disguise; Superman wore glasses and a business suit as his! This led not only to Lois Lane’s perpetual attempts to discover Superman’s “real identity,” but to the more profound question of what Superman was, and the consequences as well as ironies contained in that identity. In this, Superman would strike chords far more resonant and attract audiences more diverse, than only the vicarious power fantasies of a “geek culture.”

There has been a spike of recent scholarly speculation about Superman’s ethnicity: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, Danny Fingeroth, Arie Kaplan, and Gary Engle are just a few who have proposed Superman’s “Jewishness” using etymological studies or the circumstance that the early comics business was as dominated by Jewish immigrants or their children as was the early motion picture industry. A generation of young comic book writers and artists anglicized their names, which may have contributed to the proclivity of “secret identities” among superheroes. Some go further, seeing similarities between Kal-El’s surviving Krypton’s destruction and either the Moses story or the Holocaust. Others, like Arie Kaplan, suggest that Clark Kent’s character represented a “burlesque of Jewish stereotypes.” Some early episodes had Superman rescuing Lois from the Third Reich and defeating fascist athletes at a “Sports Festival,” which prompted Josef Goebbels to denounce Superman as a Jew. In later books, both Superman and Kent would be in Europe during the Holocaust, having Clark help to ignite the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Much less controversial have been analyses of Superman’s origins as an orphaned immigrant, a doubly orphaned one at that. Gary Engle has written that his powers “protect and preserve the vitality of the foster community in which he lives in the same way that immigrant ethnicity has sustained American culture linguistically, artistically, economically, politically, and spiritually.” In this formulation, as Superman becomes aware of his powers and extraterrestrial origin, he is imbued both with the ideals of Kryptonian culture and with the rural American values of Jonathan and Martha Kent. Even as “Clark Kent,” Superman becomes a “stranger in a strange land” when he enters the bustling Metropolis, having to adapt from a rural pastoral to an urban culture and balance pride and self-confidence, with an immigrant’s integrity both within his persona and his true self. His accomplishments both as Clark and as Superman make him an exemplar of the American immigrant experience.

Dennis O’Neil once complained that “if you read random Superman stories in chronological order, you get a sense of guys sitting around a campfire trying to top each other with tall tales; the yarns build from the extravagant to the preposterous to the silly... a maniacally accelerated version of the folk process.” There were periods, especially during the 1950s and 1970s when, in order to enliven a boringly invulnerable hero and create dramas worthy of his status, that Superman’s writers cluttered the stories with gimmicks. A rainbow of kryptonites produced grotesques, “Bizarro Superman” displayed crudity, cowardice, and ignorance, robot duplicates spread havoc—and Lex Luthor invented gargantuan monsters to grapple with his nemesis. The “What If...” or “Elseworld” stories assumed parallel universes or counterfactual situations, to vary what otherwise would be a repetitive series of situations. The one exception seemed to be “Mr. Mxyztplk,” who brought humor to the stories by testing Superman’s wits, not brawn. Periodically, a new crew of writers and illustrators would be brought in to clean house and simplify Superman’s universe.

Superman was given a new family of sorts, to replace what he had lost and retain the metaphor of an immigrant’s ties to the old culture: Supergirl, Superboy, even for a period a “super” dog. But Supergirl, who debuted in 1959, had an audience of young girls, and most of her stories (unlike the movie version) involved romance and school. Superboy debuted in 1946, despite the contradiction of a costumed super kid in a narrative where Clark had not become a champion of justice until he had grown up. In 1960, Superman joined a new family, the Justice League of America, comprised of Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, largely in response to Marvel Comics’ superfamilies.

But what truly reinforced Superman’s “immigrant” status, as well as providing a wide range of plot variants, were the many metaphorical reminders of “home” in his comic books. Most intriguing was the survival of Kandor, a miniaturized sector of Krypton, which Superman rescued and protected in his “Fortress of Solitude.” From time to time, he shrank in size to enter it, like an immigrant visiting the Old Country. There, no longer on “Earth,” he had no superpowers and had to solve problems with his wits. Another reminder of Krypton was the Phantom Zone, to which its arch-villains had been banished and from which time to time some would escape. While on Earth, they too would possess powers equal to Superman’s. Another device was the backstory, focusing on Superman’s father Jor-El, or a time-travel tale where Superman visited the home planet for poignant moments. Ironically, each of these devices underlined Superman’s increased humanity and integration into his adopted culture, giving him a dimension of personal growth uncharacteristic of most other superheroes.

Since Superman was doubly an orphan, writers also focused increasingly on the other back story: Clark Kent growing up. The 2001 television show Smallville was a surprise hit. Kent had no costume, no super kin, and could not fly. His developing powers were explained as arising from radioactivity due to a local kryptonite shower. Ma and Pa Kent were resuscitated for the plotlines, a young Luthor befriended Clark, and Lana Lang rivaled Lois Lane for Clark’s affections. Another surprise best seller was It’s Superman, a 2006 novel by Tom DeHaven, about Clark’s coming of age as a young adult, joining the newspaper in the 1930s, and finally accepting his mission and donning the uniform.

The final stage in fully integrating Superman into his host culture lay in his relationship with Lois Lane. Shortly after World War II, the newspaper strip had him married to Lois for some weeks, until someone at the comic book division noticed it and abruptly ended the story arc; it was explained away as a parallel earth. So for decades, Superman’s widening emotional range would reside in stories about friendships with Jimmy Olson, Perry White, and Lois as well as within the inherent pathos of the Kandor stories. And Clark’s bumbling relationship with Lois kept reader interest in the same way as Li’l Abner’s with Daisy Mae until they had finally wed. But Jules Feiffer was prescient, if premature and satiric, in a 1959 Playboy cartoon. Here Superman became part of the American “Establishment” due to the loving heckling of a woman he had saved. “I tried to tell her she shouldn’t judge me the way she judges earth people. She just patted my head and smiled.... Now I have a regular office job in the city and a house in the suburbs. We’re both very happy.” Brought in to clean house of complex plotlines, in 1977, writer Alan Moore had Superman lose his powers in consequence of killing off all his enemies at once in the Fortress. Allowing the world to think him dead, he lived in retirement with Lois. This, too, had to be explained away, as Superman was very much alive on the screen. But in 1992, Superman and Lois did become engaged, which inspired the 1993 TV show Lois and Clark, and they would marry in 1996. That year, the Kingdom Come miniseries found him in retirement, lecturing the UN not to be forever dependent on superheroes to solve earth’s problems.

New plotlines have developed in which he has resumed his mission, and Superman continues as the standard-bearer for superhero comics. As champion of law and order, he is sometimes seen as stodgy and obstructionist compared to vigilantes Batman and anarchic X-Men. But he still possesses the greatest powers, and during periods of conservatism he stands out as the spirit and savior of the nation. Clark, too, is stronger, more accomplished, a fully realized character also upholding American values.

—Kalman Goldstein


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