Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Who can achieve these remarkable feats! You all know him and you love him: Superman!
Superman is a cultural icon and in many ways, the first superhero of American media. He’s the Man of Steel, the Last Son of Krypton, the Man of Tomorrow, and the Big Blue Blur. You all know Superman, from his iconic wardrobe, to his fantastic array of powers, his supporting cast (Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl), his villains (Lex Luthor, Braniac, General Zod, Doomsday, Bizarro), and his setting of Metropolis. Superhuman is a fascinating character, both as a cultural icon and what he represents. Let’s take a closer look at this famous superhero of American myth!
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Superman made his sensational debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938. He made a strong impression, headlining the cover of the book, raising a car over his head and smashing it against a boulder as men around him fled in terror. The man himself was created by the duo of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel wrote the storylines, while Shuster drew the art. The creators, both Jewish, initially wanted to create the superhero as a villain(!) but later redesigned him to be a hero instead. They drew inspiration from the Golem of Judaism, circus strongmen, and movie stars. His costume most obviously incorporated the strongman ideas, both for Superman’s feats of strength and his fabulous supernatural feats. Superman began as a figure to the lower class, a symbol of fighting back against the ‘man’, appropriate considering America was just pulling itself out of the Depression. As such, Superman tackled authority figures, fighting against men of the establishment like corrupt governors, oil tycoons, and con-men. His status quo was quickly established, with Lois Lane entering the picture as the object of Clark Kent’s affections, while Kent himself posed as a reporter at the Daily Planet.
Superman’s popularity exploded overnight, with his comic books selling more than any other comic book character in history. Due to his popularity, Superman was followed by a host of imitators such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Shazam!, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, the Spectre, Hawkman, and many, many others. From all this came the foundation of the DC Universe, a host of imprints that DC eventually folded under one label, with Superman now sharing his world with dozens of other superpowered people. In fact, he became a founding member of the Justice League, the most famous team in comics history that brought its assorted heroes together.
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Superman’s popularity allowed him to expand from the comics, first in a radio show entitled The Adventures of Superman in 1940 and ran until 1951. The radio serials were fifteen minutes in length and aimed at a young audience but it made a huge cultural splash when it dared to go against a real life foe: the Ku Klux Klan. Seeing the Klan experience a resurgence, human rights activist Stetson Kennedy contacted the radio show and shared with them his research on the Klan. A storyline was created, entitled ‘the Clan of the Fiery Cross’ where Superman took on the Klan, stripping away their mystique of the organization and making them experience a severe drop in membership thereafter. So, Superman has always been a force for good, even in the real world. It didn’t hurt the storyline earned spectacular ratings as well.
Superman’s first cinema appearances were in the Superman theatrical shorts, each made for very lavish budgets of 50,000 to 30,000 for the time. The result was spectacular animation that blew audiences away and showcased Superman’s power on the big screen. The shorts were highly popular, created between 1941 and 1943, contributing to Superman’s ongoing popularity. He also had a TV show called Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves as the titular hero and was highly popular in its hey day.
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In 1978, the first big budget Superman film was produced, known as Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El. The film was directed by Richard Donner and lauded for its impressive special effect sequences, as well as Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the titular superhero. Reeve managed to embody the classic character completely, making Clark Kent and Superman feel like truly different people, making Superman feel like a real character, rather than a archetype. The second highest grossing film of 1978 behind Grease, the series spawned three sequels, all of diminishing quality. But it remains a classic and Christopher Reeve, along with John Williams iconic score for the film, remain the definitive, enduring representations of the hero in the public eye.
Superman was portrayed further by Brandon Routh in Superman Returns and Henry Caville in Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League. Both portrayals found themselves on the brunt of criticism, however, and neither reached the acclaim of the classic series. The character has further appeared in dozens of cartoons and video games, such as Superman the Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, and Young Justice. However, his actual comic sales are in decline these days, although this is common for most comics these days, unfortunately. He’ll doubtlessly continue to be in even more adaptations, always flying onward into the future!
Superman remains a classic of iconography and will always be a classic! We can’t wait to see what the future brings for the Man of Steel but for now, celebrate Superman Day by reading his comics or watch one of his cartoons, TV shows, and movies! As the man would say: this looks like a job for Superman!
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