Superman - Comic Book Hero
Created | Updated Aug 20, 2020
Between the First and Second World Wars, America saw a significant rise in its economy, but after a decade of prosperity came a long period of depression. Into the midst of this came an idea that attempted to embody the American ideal and raise the spirits of a nation. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, working for National Comics1, published Action Comics #1 in June 1938. The front cover featured a man of incredible power lifting up a car. That man would spend the rest of the century, and more, being given various nicknames but would always be known officially as Superman.
Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?
The story of Superman goes as follows: In a universe not dissimilar to our very own, there was a planet called Krypton which was about to explode. Desperate to save his newborn child, scientist and leader Jor-El sent his son to Earth, knowing it had similar stable conditions to Krypton. He hoped to travel along afterwards with his wife, Lara, but there was no time as soon after the child, Kal-El, was sent into space their home planet exploded. Kal-El landed in a field near the fictional town of Smallville, Kansas and was discovered by Jonathan and Martha Kent2. Being kind and gentle countryfolk they adopted the alien as their own and named him Clark, which was Martha's maiden name.
In 1986 the DC Comics world had become so convoluted that they 'retconned'3 all of their major characters in a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths, so changing the entire Superman canon4. Before this series, the story had gone that the Kents sold their farm and moved into Smallville, buying a general store. Clark began to discover his powers and adopted the identity Superboy, fighting crime while graduating high school. Once the Kents died he moved to the city Metropolis and became Superman while attending university. After graduating with a degree in journalism he was hired by the newspaper The Daily Planet.
The new canon, however, states that Kal-El was effectively born on Earth as well as Krypton because his ship was a birthing matrix and he gestated on the way to our planet. Clark's powers developed gradually rather than instantly and he travelled the world before settling in Metropolis, completing his education and working for the newspaper. In this version he became a superhero the day before he started his job, preventing an experimental spacecraft from crashing in Metropolis - the Kents do not die in this version.
No, it's Superman!
Clark Kent made his first public appearance in Metropolis to save a space experiment. He soon reappeared in a bright red and blue costume with a symbol on his chest resembling the letter S inside a diamond. His future love, reporter Lois Lane, gave him the moniker Superman in a newspaper article. The first full-length account of Superman appeared in The Daily Planet, written by Clark Kent. To disguise his hidden identity, Clark adopts a passive and introverted personality, a higher-pitched voice and a slouch as well as changing his hair and wearing glasses5. The mild-mannered Kent is viewed rather differently, but still with affection, than his alter-ego, the man of steel - Superman.
The Death of Superman
For months leading up to issue 18 of one of the Superman comics, Superman: The Man of Steel6, on the last page of each issue there was an image of a gloved fist punching into a steel wall with the caption 'Doomsday is coming!' This was the precursor to a major DC comics event that saw many of the characters from the DC universe crossing over into other comics. In the closing months of 1992, a monster called Doomsday (given his name from the line 'It's like Doomsday is here' from one of the JLA members) defeated the entire Justice League of America (JLA).
In the next issue of Superman, the eponymous hero sought out Doomsday. Over the course of the next four Superman comic book titles the two engaged in a grand battle that reached its climax when the story came back to Superman for issue 75, dated January 19937. This fifth instalment of the saga was short because each page was a splash page, a lavishly drawn and flattering picture normally reserved for the front cover and title pages only. In the story, Superman finally realised that Doomsday's weakness was his protruding bones but in delivering mighty blows to them, shockwaves were sent out throughout Metropolis taking down both Doomsday and the Man of Steel, not to mention half the city.
The following issue, Funeral for a Friend, saw the erection of a mausoleum built to honour the hero. His body was stolen in an attempt to clone him but was rescued by Lois Lane and Supergirl but only to be stolen once again (by, unbeknownst to all, The Eradicator8 who took the body to Superman's home, The Fortress of Solitude, and put him in the regeneration matrix). The issue mainly focused, however, on Superman's funeral which was attended by the majority of DC superheroes - most of them also wore a black armband sporting the 'S' insignia during this period.
The following comics mostly focused on the general public's reaction as well as that of close family and friends and occasionally even villains. Jonathan Kent had a heart attack and in a later episode the reader followed his journey into the afterlife in a possible hallucination where he tries to will Superman back to life. When Jonathan awoke his dream had come true to a greater degree than he could imagine; four men claiming to be Superman had appeared.
Then followed a three-month hiatus on all four Superman comic book lines. After this time, they reappeared on the shelves with each one starring a different incarnation of the new heroes, with the crossover title Reign of the Supermen. The first issue of each came with a cardboard cover and a poster of the new hero:
- Action Comics featured The Eradicator (the thief who stole Superman's body from his mausoleum) who became The Last Son of Krypton and dealt with criminals in a lethal fashion.
- Adventures of Superman featured Superboy. He was the product of the attempts to clone Superman from the first time his body was stolen, though he was merely a reckless adolescent.
- Superman followed Man of Tomorrow, a deceased astronaut, Hank Henshaw. Henshaw had transformed his mind into a computer, and acquired the name The Cyborg, using Superman's birthing matrix to create a partially mechanic body. Though he was genetically proven to be Superman, via the birthing matrix, he soon turned out to be a rampant killing machine.
- Superman: the Man of Steel followed John Henry Irons, an ironworker and ex-weapons manufacturer who developed a suit and bid to continue Superman's legacy under the superhero name Man of Steel.
In the story, the Cyborg destroys a nearby city on the coast called, inventively, Coast City. His plan is twofold as not only does he believe he has killed The Eradicator in the explosion, but he also creates Engine City in its wake, capturing Superboy and holding him there. Superboy, rebel without a cause as he is, quickly breaks free and teams up with The Man of Steel. A fifth Superman, The Man In Black, turns up - he wears a black Superman suit with a silver 'S' logo. He turns out to be the real Superman who has lost all his powers after escaping the regeneration matrix. He teams up with Superboy and The Man of Steel just as The Cyborg launches a missile at Metropolis with the intent to turn it into Engine City Two but Superboy rides it the whole way and narrowly saves Metropolis.
Meanwhile, the Eradicator emerges once again, having healed himself in the Fortress of Solitude. All four join forces against The Cyborg for a final battle. The Cyborg sprays a Kryptonite-based gas at The Man In Black (the real Superman) but The Eradicator jumps in his way and dies, while the gas gives Superman back his powers which he then uses to destroy The Cyborg. Both Superboy and The Man of Steel, who became known as Steel, gained their own series of DC Comics while the former is also involved with a group of teenage superheroes, Teen Titans and features in the Superman storyline as Jonathan and Martha Kent's adopted nephew.
In the real world, this convoluted storyline gained huge media attention and was even covered on news channels. Some celebrities, most notably US comedian and talk show host Jay Leno, donned the black armband with the Superman logo that came free with some of the comics. Many, however, criticised the plot as a sensationalist story which detracted attention away from other industries; years later Chuck Rozanski would pen a vitriolic essay in the Comic Buyer's Guide blaming the story for the downfall of the comic book industry in the late 1990s, which saw DC and Marvel Comics virtually eclipse all others.
It saved DC from the lack of interest that they had been suffering in recent times as well as opening up the possibility of superheroes being injured, something which happened to many in the following months (including Batman's broken back storyline). It also invited many readers, new and old, to follow a story across a number of different publications.
The Science of Superman
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman's powers are explained by his Kryptonian body reacting to the Earth's sun and lower gravity. Used to their red sun, exposure to our yellow sun gives Kryptonians all of the powers that Superman possesses; similarly, the lower gravity on Earth means that it is possible for Kryptonians to levitate with ease.
Though not completely invulnerable, there is little that can hurt Superman. Originally 'nothing less than a bursting artillery shell could break his skin' but by the 1970s he could withstand nuclear explosions. Also, his high immunity protects him from toxins and illness.
Superman's eyes are enhanced in a number of ways: he has X-ray vision and can see through anything except lead, occasionally looking through layer after layer (enemies often hide things behind lead but in one story this backfired as the Man of Steel scanned a field and, seeing lead, knew there was something hidden there). He can see all the colours of the spectrum as well as the two normally masked to human eyes - infrared and ultraviolet - which means he can see in the dark. He has telescopic vision, allowing him to see into the distance and microscopic vision which allows him to see small objects and images. One of Superman's most popular weapons is his heat vision, which is depicted as two laser beams from his eyes and focuses heat energy on a small area. This is matched by his breath which, as well as creating winds up to hurricane power, can freeze a target with cold air.
Superman's hearing can focus in on sounds far away and can detect sound frequencies as well as a blue whale. Superman's voice could be projected before the 1986 retcon, but he is still able to mimic people expertly. Another dropped power was hypnotism, which helped his disguise fool people.
Often quoted as being mistaken for a bird, then a plane, it is clear that Superman can fly. Originally, he could jump an eighth of a mile but this soon changed into the ability to fly, as filmic depictions of a man jumping did not look impressive. His super speed means that he can run very fast - once again, this was changed from an initial figure of 30 miles per hour to near the speed of light.
Brains or Brawn?
Though the magnitude of his strength is not specific, Superman can easily lift more than 100 tonnes - in some stories he has shifted planets from their orbit. However, he is also a vastly intelligent man. As well as having a degree in journalism under the guise of Clark Kent, at one point he possessed the intelligence of the world's greatest minds. Over time, however, this power has been decreased. Still, his photographic memory means that he can scan images faster than a human could see them but still remember the image perfectly.
Despite being given the 'super' prefix to his moniker, Superman is not totally infallible. As well as not being able to donate blood or parts of his body to save people (as he is an alien), he cannot undergo surgery without very special, strengthened equipment due to the high levels of defence in his skin. Also, it is known that he is weak against magic. His main weakness, though, lies in small fragments of his home planet that have been rendered radioactive by the explosion and have travelled to Earth. This crystal substance is called kryptonite.
Green kryptonite, the most common form, is fatal to Superman if he is exposed to it for a sufficient period of time. Before the 1980s retcon it was harmless to humans but since then it has developed the potential to give humans cancer. The red variant of kryptonite is much more unpredictable and has in the past split Superman in two, given him amnesia, turned him into a giant, and more. However, its effects wear off after a day or so, whereas the gold variety of kryptonite permanently removes a Kryptonian's superpowers. Once again the 1986 reboot changed kryptonite, wiping out all forms but green, though a new version of red kryptonite was later reintroduced.
Superman, like any superhero with two identities, has a distinct costume that he wears while fighting the good fight. His suit is predominantly blue, but his boots, cape and outwardly-worn underwear are all red. His insignia of an 'S' and a diamond shape surrounding it are also red (the diamond shape has a gold background), and these are found on his chest and on his cape. When he is in the guise of Clark Kent, Superman sticks to a business suit, often with a hat and glasses. This leads to the often-parodied scene of Clark running down the street clutching his shirt, which he rips open to reveal the 'S' insignia. Comic readers and TV or film viewers are spared the rest of the costume change, and the issue of where Clark puts his clothes during this and when he fixes his shirt buttons has never been resolved9.
The Fortress of Solitude
Given his amazing powers, Superman has little need for gadgets and equipment. However, as he is plagued by internal conflict, Clark Kent needs a place to go to collect his thoughts. Though the comics made reference to a 'mountain retreat' in the 1940s, it was not until 1958 that the Fortress of Solitude was revealed. In pre-Crisis comics this was in the Arctic whereas in post-Crisis comics it has been in Antarctica. Both are secret operations bases where Superman can reflect on his thoughts and plans and make emergency contact with people. It is always adorned with a statue of his parents, Jor-El and Lara, holding the planet Krypton. In pre-Crisis continuity there were laboratories, alien animal zoos and guest rooms for all his close friends (including Clark, to ward off any suspicions of his identity to guests) that contained special presents in the event of his death. In post-Crisis mythology the fortress contains Kryptonian technology, such as gadgets, equipment and vehicles in case of emergency.
Fellow Daily Planet reporter and long-term friend and crush (now wife) of Superman, Lois Lane is the heroine of the Superman comics. Originally she was always portrayed as indifferent to Clark (though often showing an underlying affection for him) while being madly in love with Superman. She was born in West Germany and travelled to Metropolis many times with her family at a young age. She tried to gain a job at the newspaper and was only accepted by the editor, Perry White, after obtaining information on Lex Luthor.
Lois originally saw Clark as a rival after he scooped the first interview with Superman (despite her coining the name), but she soon came to like him. Later Clark's old friend from Smallville, Lana Lang, convinced Lois that he had affections for her. Clark proposed to her and she accepted, not knowing his real identity. When she found out, she urged him not to reveal it to the rest of the world. After being poisoned by the Joker (from the Batman comics), Lois was convinced that Clark spent too much time as Superman and broke off the relationship, working abroad as a foreign correspondent. However, it was not long before she realised how much she needed him and the two soon wed.
Jonathan and Martha Kent
Jonathan and Martha Kent found Kal-El's crashed spaceship on their farm in Smallville, and decided to raise the child him as their own. Martha helped design the Superman costumes and still makes them for her son. Whenever the Man of Steel needs a place to rest they are there to offer advice.
Jimmy Olsen encouraged Clark to join the Daily Planet, and has been firm friends with him (and later Lois Lane) ever since. He is an able reporter but often lets his own ambition, pride and foolhardiness bring him down. After his father disappeared on a military mission (which Jimmy later found out was merely a cover - he had actually run away with another woman), Jimmy was raised by his mother in Metropolis. This may be the reason why he has had numerous girlfriends - including Lois's younger sister Lucy Lane.
Something of a technology whizzkid, Jimmy rigged a watch with a hypersonic sound emitter that attracted Superman's attention. He was impressed with Olsen's initiative and the two became friends - Jimmy is sometimes referred to as 'Superman's pal.' At one time, after being laid off from the Daily Planet, he joined a television show and almost revealed Superman's identity. He was, however, wrong about his assumptions and Clark persuaded him that reporters must sometimes keep their secrets. Having promised to reveal the identity, Olsen resorted to announcing that Superman was actually no-one. He was fired from the TV show and rehired by the Daily Planet.
Perry's father went missing in combat overseas and he grew up parentless in the Suicide Slums of Metropolis. He became a copy boy for the Daily Planet, working his way up to successful reporter and finally chief editor. In his marriage to Alice Spencer he has had one son, Jerry White, who in fact turned out to be the son of Superman's nemesis and Perry's childhood friend, Lex Luthor (due to a brief seduction of Alice when Perry was reporting overseas). After Jerry was shot dead, Perry and his wife grieved for a long time and Perry took some time off from the paper. They never had another son but did adopt a homeless boy, Keith Roberts.
Superboy was a new character, who first appeared in 1993. After Doomsday supposedly killed Superman, his body was taken to a government institution (without their permission), where director Paul Westfield attempted to clone his body. Unable to replicate Kryptonian DNA, he merely cloned a human's genetic structure, manipulating it to create a likeness to Superman and splicing some of the superhero's DNA into it. This gave Superboy tactile telekinesis, allowing him to fly, simulating super-strength and largely increasing his invulnerability. Superman took the youngster under his cape (so to speak), giving him the Kryptonian name Kor-El. The boy later went to live in Smallville under the identity of Jonathan and Martha Kent's nephew, Connor Kent. It was revealed much later that only half of the DNA that went into making him was Superman's - the human side used to stabilise him was Lex Luthor's. Superboy's adventures appear in the comic book series Teen Titans.
Dr John Henry Irons once worked as a ballistics engineer but retired once he realised what devastating effects his technology had on people in Qurac. He became a construction worker and was once saved by Superman. After seeing Superman supposedly killed by Doomsday, Irons forged a suit of armour and adopted the alter-ego Steel. After moving to Washington DC he discovered he was a metahuman with powers to summon armour. Steel has helped Superman learn about the workings of his new Fortress of Solitude. He even, for a while, joined the Justice League of America.
Lex spent his youth growing up in the Suicide Slum area, and was friends with Perry White. When Luthor was 13, his parents both died in a car crash - shortly after he had taken life insurance out on them. Luthor used the money to educate himself and help build a sub-orbital aircraft dubbed LexWing which made him famous as an engineer. His success earned him defence department contracts for his new business LexCorp. Something of a billionaire philanderer, Luthor had been married eight times before he set his eyes on Lois Lane, who was soon distracted by the debut of the Man of Steel.
Trying to gain Superman as an ally, Luthor staged a test for him but was arrested for reckless endangerment - though in comparison to the amount of time he should have spent in prison this was a mere trifle. Still, Luthor was livid and soon vowed to see Superman dead. At one point he bought out the Daily Planet, firing all of its members and hiring Lois to work for his own news network, LexCom, in order to distance her from Clark and try to control her. He eventually sold the newspaper under a secret agreement with Lois that she would bury a story of his choosing in the future.
A genetic killing machine created long ago on one of Krypton's moons, Doomsday can be killed, but he regenerates himself and becomes invulnerable to that form of death in the future. Of the superheroes on Earth, only Superman was strong enough to kill him in a battle of mammoth proportions outside the Daily Planet headquarters. The battle was so fierce, however, that when it ended Superman fell to the floor, supposedly dead. His body was sent into space where it eventually reached the planet Apokolips. With assistance from a time traveller, Superman fought and defeated Doomsday once more, leaving him trapped in a timestream.
In the distant past, the homeworld of the Old Gods was shattered by its final war, Ragnarok. From this two worlds were born: New Genesis was a bright and beautiful planet watched over by Highfather of the New Gods, while the other planet spun forever in the shadow of its sister world. Named Apokolips, it is ruled by Darkseid. He sent forth Omega Beams to bring Superman towards him. Unaware that the beams were meant for Superman, Clark Kent was transported to meet with Darkseid. Unaware of Clark Kent's double-life, Darkseid assumed he had failed and threw Kent out of the window into the Fire Pits.
Kent (as Superman) survived this and led a short-lived resistance on Apokolips, but knowing nothing but their Lord Darkseid, the denizens of the world fell back into servitude. However, the resurrected Doomsday wreaked havoc upon Darkseid's forces and eventually brought Darkseid himself to his knees. The Justice League of America was contacted by Apokolips and Superman aided the mortally wounded Darkseid, trapping Doomsday in a timestream. Darkseid now bargains with Superman when it benefits his own agenda; he is still very self-seeking as was seen when he released Doomsday to attack Earth once again. Darkseid remains Superman's greatest threat.
Intergang is a nationwide crime syndicate in Metropolis. It has been led by numerous people, most notably Boss Moxie and Lex Luthor. After Superman arrived, the gang was taken forward by its contemporary boss Morgan Edge (with considerable help from Darkseid) and took advantage of Luthor's hatred of Superman to acquire him as an ally and gain power. The two have not been the best of bedfellows, and Luthor once had an attempt made on his life by Intergang but was saved by Clark, who had no time to disguise himself in his superhero alias.
The Crime Syndicate
An evil consortium of the Earth's most powerful super-criminals from another dimension. The Syndicate mirrors the Justice League of America and its members. Superman's match takes the form of Ultraman who can fly and possesses both ultra strength and ultra speed. Unlike Superman, however, every time he is exposed to Kryptonite he gains a new power.
Outside the Comic Books
As one of the earliest superheroes, Superman has made many appearances in motion pictures, either as a cartoon, a live-action television series, or numerous films. His first new medium, though, was just two years after he made his comic book debut on New York's WOR radio station in 1940. He then upgraded to all four of the Mutual Broadcasting stations (of which WOR was one) as a weekly serial between 1942 and 1949. From the start of the final year the show was put on three times a week. By June he was off-air but in November ABC started making shows on Saturday mornings, which were shown twice a week from June 1950. This was short-lived, however, as by March 1951 Superman left radio, never to return. Superman was voiced by Bud Collyer apart from in his final two years when the part was taken by Michael Fitzmaurice.
Bud Collyer also voiced the Superman cartoon that aired between 1941 and 1943, made by Paramount Pictures at Fleischer Studios - the first technicolor production for this studio. Superman would not return to cartoons until 1996 where, in the vein of Batman, Superman: The Animated Series was aired until 2000 with Tim Daley voicing the Man of Steel. The third series saw this combined with Batman: The Animated Series, to form The Batman/Superman Show. The hour-long show was nothing more than both episodes played back to back, but in Knight Time the two joined up in a multi-part episode to take on Ra's Al-Ghul, Batman's hated foe.
Elsewhere on TV, Superman first starred on the small screen in 1951, running with 104 episodes until 1957. It was one of the first television programmes to move from black-and-white to colour - interestingly the series spent exactly half its time in each format. George Reeves played the eponymous role, but none of the comic book villains made an appearance. Much later, the superhero was brought to a new generation in the guise of The New Adventures of Superman10, which ran from 1993 to 1997. This series, in which Dean Clark played Superman and Teri Hatcher (of Desperate Housewives fame) Lois Lane, focused more on the role of Clark as a journalist/detective rather than on his super-ego.
Fans had only a small time to wait until the next Superman spin-off, which came in 2001. Smallville is set in Clark's adolescent years with Tom Welling playing Clark. There is a lack of continuity between the show and other incarnations of Superman, including the fact that it is set in the 21st Century and that Lex Luthor is a friend of Kent's, but still an enemy of Superman. One highlight of the series was a guest appearance by Christopher Reeve in 2003 as Dr Swann, a character who gave Clark many clues about his origins. As well as that episode, Rosetta, Reeve reappeared the next year in the episode Legacy before his character died in the episode Sacred (Reeve himself having died in October 2004).
Christopher Reeve is worthy of mention, of course, because he is seen by many as the archetypal incarnation of Superman. He appeared in four films between 1978 and 1987. The first two films are largely seen as successful, the first dealing with Lex Luthor's typical plans of trying to bring down Superman and the second having three Kryptonians, imprisoned by Jor-El, come to Earth and try to defeat Superman before he eventually tricks them into losing their power. The two films saw support from Gene Hackman playing a cocky and deceptive Lex Luthor, while Jor-El's part was played by Marlon Brando. The third Superman film starred neither of these actors, but attempted to enlist the help of comedian Richard Pryor who unwittingly turns Superman evil. Pryor's character somehow discovers what Kryptonite is and tries to synthesise it, resulting in Superman being split in two. The film was seen as a box office disappointment, a farce of a film and generally a big mistake.
Despite this flop, a fourth film was made with Hackman reprising his role as Luthor (he had not appeared in the third film as he was in disagreement with the producer Ilya Salkind, but by the fourth film a new producer had been appointed). The film sees Superman campaign to bring an end to the Cold War, even making a speech at the UN, but his plans are set back when Lex Luthor's newest creation, Nuclear Man (voiced by Gene Hackman but played by Mark Pillow) absorbs the power of every nuclear missile on Earth. Despite being made ten years on, this film had worse special effects than the original and was badly received by critics and fans alike. After two flops it seemed that Superman's time on the big screen was over and Batman replaced him, with a string of films starting in 1989.
By 2001 both superheroes had seen four films and both had seen negative reactions to the latter two. For a brief period in that year and the following year there were rumours of a Superman Vs. Batman film but the project was abandoned and Catwoman11 was filmed in its place. However by 2005, a new film was definitely in motion and filming began in Australia. Directed by Brian Singer, Superman Returns aimed to eliminate the history of the two poorly-received films (unlike Batman which began a whole new canon with Batman Begins), and is set after the three Kryptonites have battled Superman in the second film.
After a five-year pilgrimage to his destroyed home planet, Superman returns to reunite with his widowed mother and find that his love, Lois Lane, is in a serious relationship with another man and has given birth to a son. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey, is recently released from prison and hopes to bring down the superhero with data from crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude. Superman's role will be played by Brandon Routh, a near unknown, but the real interest is over the posthumous appearance of Marlon Brando, using archive footage.