In June of 2022, we celebrate the 94th year of Superman being in publication. In this week’s blog I’d like to take a look back at the first comic book superhero and discuss why he was important in 1938 and why he is still important today.
The word hero comes from the Greek word heros and it means protector. From the very start that was the embodiment of what Superman is. He protects those who cannot protect themselves. In his first stories, he would be confronting wife beaters and crooked politicians. He was a hero for every man and woman, and no one was beneath his notice. Of course, times change, And Superman’s powers grew and changed, and his enemies became almost as powerful as he was himself and yet the hero would always make time for others even getting a cat out of a tree.
Superman remains popular after 94 years. He has been in every form of entertainment that exists. Comic books, movies, first animated and then live-action, 5 television series and that does not include animated series of which I believe there have been three, radio shows, movies, novels, and a Broadway Musical. No other fictional character has ever covered all of that. The only one that comes close is Charlie Brown but he was never featured in a radio show or a novel.
Superman has more web pages than I care to count and several pages on Facebook both private and public and some official DC pages and other unofficial pages. He also has an encyclopedia in one volume, but it was published many years ago and a lot has changed in those years. It’s still a treasure trove of information.
Superman stories in comic books can be broken down into 4 eras, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and The Modern Age.
The Golden Age began with Superman in April of 1938. From the very beginning, comic book magazines were dated three months after their release dates so Action Comics number one which featured Superman on the cover was dated June but appeared on the newsstands at the beginning of April giving the magazine almost 90 days of shelf life. The Golden Age brought all of the now-classic heroes to life. Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, The Flash, Robin, Captain Marvel, now known as Shazam, Wonder Woman, Black Canary, and many others all debuted during this era. All of these except for Captain Marvel were published under National Periodical Publications which later became DC Comics. Marvel started out at about the same time only they were called Timely. Their superstars were Captain America, The Sub-Mariner, and The Human Torch. The Golden Age would begin to fade at the end of WW2 and be completely gone in the early fifties. Comic books would come under the scrutiny of the U.S. government and would be considered a contributor to juvenile delinquency. The only three Titles to survive the 50s were Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman.
The Silver Age began with reintroducing The Flash. This was not the old Flash from the 40s but a streamlined hero made for the beginning of The Atomic Age. His costume, origin, and secret identity all changed and he was hit. Soon others would follow being brought back to life were Green Lantern and The Atom. New heroes were added such as The Martian Manhunter and old heroes were refreshed. The Silver Age at Timely came to life when Stan Lee created The Fantastic Four and Spiderman and all the other members of what come to be known as The Avengers.
The Bronze Age of comics began in the 1970s when comic books began to become socially relevant. Though in some ways mainly aimed at kids by 1970 the kids who were reading the Silver Age characters were now young adults and they wanted to keep reading so more mature storylines began to be introduced. Peter Parker’s girl Friend Gwen Stacy is brutally murdered by The Green Goblin. Roy Harper who was Green Arrows sidekick is hooked on heroin, The Joker is reintroduced as a ruthless murderer and Batman goes very dark. Superman changes too. No longer a newspaper reporter he is now employed by WGBS as a news anchorman which causes all kinds of new problems for The Man of Steel but he did not lose his Innosense.
The Bronze Age Continues until 1985. 1985 is a landmark year for DC Comics. They are celebrating their 50th anniversary and what an anniversary it was. DC set out a year-long story called Crisis on Infinite Earths. Over the years DC bought many properties from comic book companies that folded. They had introduced these characters into the DC universe by each of them having their own Earth. The explanation was that the Earth vibrates and all these other Earths vibrated differently but occupied the same space. Some of these Earth”s histories aligned with our own but different heroes were there. Captain Marvel’s family resided on Earth X. Our current hero roster resided on Earth One. Earth-Two housed the original DC comic book characters from the 30s and forties. These included the original Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. For several years the heroes of Earths One and Two would find a way to cross the vibrational barrier and have amazing adventures together. Over time all of these Earths became hard to keep straight and so in 1985 DC destroyed all of the other Earths and everyone was streamlined into one Earth and all of the DC Comics heroes were rebooted.
1986 marked the year of The Modern Age of Comics and the first book to spring out of that was a six-issue mini-series called The Man of Steel. In these six issues, Superman’s origin was retold. His relationships with his parents, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, and Batman were reworked. There was a love connection between Superman and Lois that would eventually end in marriage. Jon and Martha Kent were allowed to live and see their adoptive son grow up and become Superman. Batman became an uneasy ally with Superman but you wouldn’t call them friends anymore. Batman was the dark to Superman’s light. He even began calling Superman, “the boy scout” in a less than friendly way.
Superman’s origin n the real world began with two teenage boys in Cleveland Ohio. Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster created Superman first as a villain and published a prose story in their science fiction fan magazine. Soon they came back to Superman and reworked him into a newspaper strip. Jerry and Joe were very much more in the likeness of Clark Kent than Superman. They spent their formative years in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Neither was a great student or athlete. Neither was the one to get the girl. But they both loved Science Fiction, the popular pulp magazines of the time and they were both Jewish.
Being Jewish is important to the Superman story. If you look closely at the character’s origin you can see the similarities between Superman and Moses. Moses’s life was in danger as a baby and he is put in a basket and floated on The Nile River until he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. Superman’s planet is about to be destroyed and he is p[laced into a rocket to Earth to be rescued by the Kents. Both men, one real and the other fictional become heroes to their people as they become adults. I do not believe there is much coincidence here.
Jerry and Joe try their hardest to sell their Superman strip to newspaper after newspaper only to be rejected time and time again. Eventually, they hear that National wants a new hero for its new comic book Action Comics. They redo the Superman daily strip into a single story and present it to National who bought the character and the rights for 130 dollars. National hires Jerry and Joe as writers and artists but they have no legal right to their character anymore.
Copywrite is the bain of all artists. If you don’t own it you don’t make money from it even if you created the property. Seigel and Shuster were reduced to living at the poverty level until the 1970s when the comic book artists and writers went to bat for them and helped them gain a piece of the very large Superman pie. By that time DC Comics was part of Warner Communications and the first Superman Movie starring Christopher Reeves was about to be released. Warner Brothers didn’t want the bad publicity so they made a generous settlement to the two men which included health insurance for the rest of their lives.
As an aside Maria Von Trapp did the same thing with her film rights to The Story of The Trapp Family Singers. She sold the rights to a German filmmaking company for three hundred dollars. The Germans made a film but then sold the rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein who turned half of the book into The Sound of Music. Maria made no money off of the broadway production but Fox studios offered her a small percentage of the profits on the film. You can glimpse The Baroness in the movie if you look quickly during the I Have Confidence sequence.
Superman has endured in popularity, in my own opinion, because he is a symbol of hope. In the later years years it has been revealed that that the S on his chest is the Kryptanian symbol for hope. Recently Superman’s slogan “Truth Juustice and The American Way” has be aletered to “Truth Justice and a Better Tomorrow.” With the United States History coming under attack The American Way seems distasteful to some people and so the slogan was changed. For many years The American Way was the hope to millions of people who immigrated to this country, including my grandparents. Millions of people still want to come to this country because of the hope that still exists. For those living outside of the USA, the American way ensures a better tomorrow.
Superman is American in every sense of the word. He is a first-generation immigrant that makes good in his new world and in his new country. He lives out the American dream. As Clark Kent, he is a successful journalist and as Superman, he is what all heroes strive to be. He is in actuality the embodiment of America and its promise.
Superman is something else too. He is something that every good person strives for. He is passionate about justice. He believes in mercy and no one is beneath his desire to help. We can all identify with Clark Kent. An average guy looking to make a living and a difference in his world. But can we identify with Superman? The answer to that question is a resounding YES!
We identify with Superman by using the best of who we are to benefit and help others. We don’t have to have super strength, the ability to fly, or x-ray vision to make a difference in this world. Anyone can make a difference. I read recently about The Peter Pan Children’s Fund. This is an organization that was started by a young girl after seeing a production of the stage version of this wonderful story, she then toured The Great Ormand Street Hospital for Children in London and found compassion for the sick children there. Instead of birthday presents that year she had money donated to the hospital and began a campaign to have other children do the same. The organization does not exist just for the hospital in London but for every children’s hospital. And by the efforts of one young girl.
It doesn’t take much to make a difference in this world. Just a desire for mercy and justice. A desire to love others as we love ourselves. A desire to give the best of who we are to the world and let God in heaven who made us all determine the outcome. Edmond Burke said, “Evil thrives when good men do nothing.” If you want to be like Superman be a good person and do something.