The Origin of the Super Hero
In a comic world currently dominated by Marvel, let’s take a moment to remember our roots. In 1938, National Allied Publications (now called DC) introduced a new title to their lineup, Action Comics; it was the first publication to include the newest idea in comics–the Superhero.
Comics are popular all over the world, but superheroes are overwhelmingly American, and although the concept seems obvious, Jerry Siegel (the author) and Joe Shuster (the artist) would be the first tell you it took nearly 5 years of shopping before the comic world was ready for their innovative character. Even then, their Super Man was only accepted because Action Comics needed filler for its first edition. Though Superman was on the first edition cover, he wasn’t on the cover again until Action Comics #7, when the covers began alternating characters. On the cover of Action Comics #19, Superman had earned himself a permanent spot. In 1939, DC released the Superman series, which were originally repeats of Action Comics but soon included new content. It was the first comic book title ever to feature a single character.
Post-war turmoil in Europe, the prosperity and decadence of the Roaring ’20s, followed quickly by the Great Depression which sparked the rise of Nazism all combined to create a deep need in people for a social activist who could not be taken down. Siegel and Shuster, high school pals from the Jewish projects in Cleveland–marginalized people in a marginalized place–dreamed up the ultimate worker for social justice. Superman’s original personality was more aggressive than the one we know today; in his inaugural appearance, he stopped a wife-beater and foiled a wrongful execution. In subsequent issues, it’s clear that the authorities considered him a vigilante rather than a hero–he broke up gambling rings, exposed bad mining practices, demolished run-down tenements (during which the National Guard opened fire on him!), fought crooked businessmen, and brought down corrupt politicians, all without concern about damages or implied fatalities.
By the mid-teen issues of Action Comics (16 or 17), Superman was drawn away from social issues and more toward science fiction with the introduction of a super-villain. Although the initial version of Superman shifted somewhat with the influx of imitators (everyone wanted to have a super hero) and the introduction of an early code of conduct by a new editor in late 1940, he never stopped fighting for social justice. In a 1946 broadcast on New York’s WOR radio, Superman still worked to combat anti-Semitism, veteran discrimination, and the KKK.
Superman has been around long enough that many details of his character have evolved over time, and the nature of comic book publishing has had a significant hand in the evolution of his powers. Over the years there have been numerous comic adventures, movie adventures, and re-boots of both.
A notable re-boot was the introduction of the second Superman in the 1960s when DC established a multiverse within its fictional universe—they created parallel Earths so that characters from the 1940s and characters from the 1960s could interact and to explain to their readers how Superman could be a member of the Justice Society of America in the 1940s AND a member of the Justice League of America in the 1960s.
In the last 40 years or so, the movies have diverged from the comics more than previously, and we often see the comics follow the movies, though not always.When they do, the comics will often not keep to the same canon for more than a few issues. DC held onto their multiverse for 20+ years until the 1980s (shortly after the Christopher Reeves Superman movie was such a huge success), when they decided to re-boot again. Their newest iteration of Superman did not include the notion of a multiverse; a new back-story was written which removed a number of previously established characters and conventions, including making Clark Kent’s adoptive parents a larger part of the story, and making a Superman who looked a lot like Christopher Reeves.
Since the mid-80s reboot, there have been at least three more, each one approximately 8-10 years after the last, usually closely following or immediately preceding a new film iteration of the superhero. Some things the comics and movies always have in common among themselves and within the reboots are the core concepts of Superman: the cape, the symbol, Clark Kent as the alter-ego, Lois Lane as the love interest, and Lex Luthor as the super-villain. Today’s Superman is a model of morality, justice, and righteousness – he is brave, kind-hearted, and invested in not breaking the law. No matter how many different versions of Superman there are at a given time, and regardless of the disparity between the movies and the comics, they all have the same underlying symbolism. They may ebb, but they flow back to each other.
Superheroes are often drivers of popular culture. They are our modern day legends and myths; their stories told and retold, changing in accordance with what’s contemporary. They are universally recognized as “the good ones,” and we are proud to call them ours.