Superman and the History of Superheroes

It’s Superman Day! But where did Superman come from, and why is he so important? Read more about the history of superheroes and why they owe so much to Superman.

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Comic books and graphic novels aren’t usually taken very seriously. Although once in a while a story like Watchmen comes along and gets critics to pay attention, they aren’t usually considered anywhere close to more traditional novels. However, there’s no denying that superheroes are super important to pop culture. Our interest in caped crusaders actually began pretty quietly: with the release of Action Comics #1 in June 1938, and the debut of the “first superhero”, Superman himself. It’s Superman Day, so let’s look at why the Man of Steel is still so important to millions of people today by digging into the history of superheroes.

The First American Superhero?

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Superman was created from 1932 to 1938, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel wanted to be a writer, and said that early science fiction stories liked Edgar Rice Burroughs’ influenced Superman’s story. Shuster did the illustrations, and together they worked through several drafts until they settled on the story known today. It took the pair a long time to find a publisher, but finally, they put Action Comics #1 out into the world in 1938, and Superman was born. Most people think Superman was the first ever superhero, but DC comics had actually published a couple stories with similar characters before. Regardless, Superman was an instant hit, and his comics were the ones that changed everything.

Comic Books Before Superman

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Comic books were relatively new when Action Comics #1 came out, but Superman certainly wasn’t the first. They started out as collections of comic strips. Eventually, comic book writers started to tell stories just for these books, with characters like Tarzan and Zorro in the 1910s and 1920s. The kind of characters we would recognize as something close to superheroes today started out in the 1930s. Characters like The Green Hornet fought crime, but were more like detectives in a silent movie than superheroes. The first hero with an alter ego, origin story, and superpowers was Superman, and after his first story, comic books changed in a big way.

Superman, Batman, and Beyond

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Superman was an instant success. The first 200,000 copies of Action Comics #1 quickly sold out, and the whole run of 11 stories was also very popular. It wasn’t long before other comic creators wanted to follow Siegel and Shuster’s lead. In 1939, Batman appeared in Detective Comics #27, and Marvel (Timely Comics back then) created Human Torch the same year, and Captain America in 1941. All the way through to the 1970s, comic books were some of the most popular entertainment in America. And while the 80s and 90s were hard for comic companies, in the early 2000s they made a comeback in a big new way: movie adaptations.

Superheroes On the Big Screen

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It probably isn’t a surprise that Superman also led the way for the new home for superheroes, the movies. Superman (1978) was the first major superhero blockbuster, and sequels, as well as the Batman movies in the 1980s, quickly followed. Although it was Marvel that finally made superheroes one of the most popular movie genres in the 2000s and 2010s, they never could have done it without Superman. Man of Steel in 2013 was also a comeback for the original hero himself, kickstarting DC’s cinematic universe to compete with the MCU. Each superhero movie makes hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s hard to deny how important they are to pop culture today.

Superheroes Then and Now

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Some say that Superman’s time is over, with new and more diverse superheroes starring in movies and comic book runs of their own. But the “first superhero” has a big legacy behind him. Comic books and comic book heroes wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are today without Superman, and characters like Batman and Captain America might not even exist. Going to the movies today would be a very different experience without Superman’s impact. 84 years ago today, Action Comics #1 was published, and introduced a whole new kind of hero to our culture. Happy Superman Day to the original American superhero!

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