Happy Birthday, Superman: the Man of Steel Through the Ages

By April 18, 2013
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Today in 1938, seventy-five years ago, the world changed forever. I can say that without a shred of hyperbole, because the creation that burst off of the vibrant full-color cover of Action Comics #1 managed to bring with him an entirely new genre, and the freshest take on mythology since Homer. Action Comics #1 was the first step in what would become the timeless legacy of a character that one of my all-time favorite writers called, “our greatest-ever idea as a human species.

A good friend of mine also put it very succinctly: “Raise your hand if you ever wished you could fly. Now raise your hand if you remember wishing you could fly before you first heard of Superman.” When you look at everything that’s been brought about by his creation all those years ago, it becomes pretty easy to understand that the world would be a very different place if we never had the Man of Steel: Superman.

Although many perceive him to be a static representation of a bygone era, fans of Superman know that he’s evolved and changed over time almost just as much as his friend from Gotham City. Those changes haven’t really been in TV or movies as much as the comics, but they’re just as valid, just as interesting, and maybe even a little more grounded than the Dark Knight’s. This is Superman through the ages.

His Creation, and the Superman of the 1930s-1940s

Superman was created by two kids from Cleveland: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jerry was a writer of adventure stories and science fiction, and Joe was an artist. Although their first conception of Superman was as a villain who used his superiority to terrorize people, by 1938 the concept changed into a hero reflecting the times. Less than a decade earlier, the stock market crashed and brought about the Great Depression. This new character would be a hero, a champion of the oppressed and someone who gave voice to the voiceless.

In early issues of Action on the heels of the character’s debut, Superman was often found being that voice. He razed tenement houses that threatened the health of their occupants, to force their rebuilding. He grabbed mine owners by the scruffs of their necks and beat them up when they mistreated their workers. He even barged into a couple’s home during a domestic disturbance and pummeled a wife-beater through a wall!

In 1939, Superman’s popularity proved to be so heavy that National (later to be called DC Comics) had done something unprecedented: they gave a single character his very own comic book, entitled Superman. Through the 1940s, after the creation of Batman and Robin, Superman would often be seen standing alongside those two in efforts to drum up support for the Allies during World War II. Several issues across National’s whole line saw the three heroes encouraging you to buy war bonds and support Uncle Sam’s battle against the Axis, and it proved effective. While story content in Superman’s titles would rarely touch on the war, on the covers Superman was often seen defeating Hitler and Hirohito while embarrassing them.

It was in the 1940s that Superman started being adapted into other mediums as well, with the 15-chapter serial Superman starring Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill premiering in 1948.

George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and the onset of the Silver Age: 1950s-1970s

There would be one more Superman serial produced in 1950 starring Alyn before someone tried to bring Superman into the living rooms with that snazzy new invention known as television. The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves premiered in 1951, and proved to be one of the most popular shows on the air. George Reeves brought a great sense of dimensionality to Superman and his alter-ego, with his classical training and winning smile making the character truly real for the first time in his existence.

The show was successful throughout its entire six-season run, but the tragic death of Reeves ended it prematurely. Even though the show ended, though, the comics continued. Superman stories of the 1950s saw a greater expansion of titles relating to the Man of Steel’s supporting cast. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen were given their own books, but Superman as a whole had cooled off a bit. In 1960, the election of President John F. Kennedy seemed to bring with it a Superman that was completely lock-step with the times: an optimistic start to this decade seemed the ideal environment for this classic hero.

With Kennedy’s assassination and the onset of the Vietnam War, though, Superman’s sales slumped as comic book characters were now largely perceived to be silly. A lot of attention was focused on the new characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over at Marvel, and as a result Superman was a bit lost in the mix for the next decade.

By the end of the 1970s, though, a powerful new vision of the character made its way into movie theaters, and made millions of people the world over “believe a man could fly.” 1978’s Superman film starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner breathed new life into the character, and ensured his popularity for generations to come.

Crisis, Relaunch, Death, and Return: 1980s-2000s

Although the decade started well for Superman on film, those films would quickly dwindle in quality and burn the franchise out by the end of the 80s. In the comics, though, the medium was receiving new attention for their rapid increase in quality brought about by creators like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, George Perez, and Neil Gaiman. By the mid-1980s, DC decided to revamp their 45-year old shared universe in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event, necessitating new relaunches for some of their most timeless characters. British creator John Byrne was tasked with reimagining Superman for the modern era, and he did it in his 1986 mini-series The Man of Steel.

In those pages, Byrne rebuilt Superman from the ground up. He dialed back his power level a bit (which had grown to near-omnipotence during the Silver Age), he made his costume destructible, he modernized Metropolis, he reinvigorated Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, and gave the Man of Steel the modern symbol of power: the physiques of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Byrne would go on to write all of Superman’s titles for the next few years, before handing the reins off to a couple of newer creative teams.

These new teams, headed by editor Mike Carlin, were thrilled at the possibilities of the new continuity, because now they had a plan for Lois Lane and Clark Kent to finally get together. Beyond that, Superman would reveal his identity to his on-again, off-again girlfriend of fifty years, and actually pop the question. The writers were very proud of what they had planned.

Unfortunately for them, DC came down and said that the comic book marriage would have to coincide with the marriage as it would happen on the new TV show, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. With the writers a bit bitter at the fact that they’d have to come up with new stories, the writers threw their hands in the air and said, “let’s just kill him!” But, what was a joke would soon become reality.

Editor Mike Carlin expressed some thoughts on the Death of Superman in an interview a few years back, feeling that the world had lost some of its appreciation for the character. So what does he do? He takes that character away. In Superman (vol. 2) #75, Superman was killed in the middle of Metropolis, and it proved to be a sales explosion. The real story, as Carlin would intend, wasn’t so much about the death as it was about the aftermath.

Superman’s adoptive parents would struggle, Lois would grieve, and the world would be in a bit of chaos. While the character’s return wouldn’t prove to be as successful as his death, it still turned an entire generation (including yours truly) into devoted followers of the Man of Steel, and would also define that era in comics. 1996 also saw the first episode of Superman: The Animated Series, a great take on the character from the creators of the critically-acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series.

The 2000s would see some interesting things happen in the comics, such as the ascension of Lex Luthor to the presidency of the United States, the “Imperiex War” where Superman struggled to fight an enemy that indiscriminately murdered people across the world, and Infinite Crisis, which saw a new, softer relaunch take place in the comics. 2006 saw the release of the Superman Returns film directed by Bryan Singer, which was met with a lukewarm reception, which I think was a result of trying to bring the 1970s Superman into modern times in spite of the character’s great evolution since then.

2008 saw the release of what I feel is one of the best Superman stories ever told: Grant Morriosn and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman, where a dying Man of Steel has 12 tasks he needs to accomplish before his time is up. The end of that first decade of the new century would be a relatively stagnant one, but the beginning of the 2010s would prove to be pretty eventful for the world’s first superhero.

Superman of Today: 2010-Now

In 2011, Action Comics #900 was released with an all-star array of talent giving their takes on the Man of Steel. That same year, it was announced that DC Comics would be cancelling all of their ongoing superhero titles, including their time-honored Action Comics, and relaunch everything at number 1. Superman’s costume was redesigned by comics superstar artist Jim Lee, and the new Superman made his debut in August’s Justice League #1. The next month, the new Action Comics #1 by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales debuted, bringing Superman back to his Golden Age roots as a champion of the oppressed. This Superman was younger, brasher, and a bit more open to physicality than his immediate predecessor.

In last month’s Action Comics #19, the new Superman put his attitude in his thoughts, saying, “I’m here to protect, not to provoke. I won’t throw the first punch, but I will throw the last.” It’s this mentality that, according to Henry Cavill, is feeding the interpretation of the character for this year’s film Man of Steel, produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder.

Superman has been given a great number of reinventions over his storied history, and this piece is really just the briefest glimpse at his time on the planet so far. Superman is important to me because he is a figure to aspire to, not necessarily in physical feat, but in emotional strength. The Man of Steel has taught me how to be a good person, and how that, in and of itself, is its own reward.

Each generation has its Superman. Being a comic book aficionado, I have friends that prefer his 70s conception, his 90s, conception, George Reeves’ interpretation, and so forth. The Superman I feel most inspired by is actually today’s, because it has the benefit of combining the best of previous eras with the modern difficulties and issues of today’s society. We need a great hero, but the oppressed could also use a champion like him, and an unparalleled symbol of hope that the Last Son of Krypton always proves to be. He is also a symbol of power, but that power is tempered by his unwavering sense of right and wrong. In my opinion, that’s the best kind of power to wield.

I have my Superman, and my friends have theirs. When choosing yours, you can ask yourself the same question that Superman asks Lois in the trailers for the upcoming film:

My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready…

“…what do you think?”

Happy birthday, Superman. For a seventy-five year old, you don’t look a day over thirty.

Which is your favorite Superman?

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.