Superman is a superhero who appears in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, and debuted in the comic book Action Comics #1 (cover-dated June 1938 and published April 18, 1938). Superman has been adapted to a number of other media which includes radio serials, novels, movies, television shows and theatre.
Superman was born on the fictional planet Krypton and was named Kal-El. As a baby, his parents sent him to Earth in a small spaceship moments before Krypton was destroyed in a natural cataclysm.
His ship landed in the American countryside, near the fictional town of Smallville. He was found and adopted by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who named him Clark Kent. Clark developed various superhuman abilities, such as incredible strength and impervious skin. His adoptive parents advised him to use his abilities for the benefit of humanity, and he decided to fight crime.
To protect his personal life, he changes into a colorful costume and uses the alias “Superman” when fighting crime. Clark resides in the fictional American city of Metropolis, where he works as a journalist for the Daily Planet. Superman’s supporting characters include his love interest and fellow journalist Lois Lane, Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen and editor-in-chief Perry White, and his enemies include General Zod, Brainiac, and his archenemy Lex Luthor.
Superman is the quintessential example of the superhero archetype: he wears an outlandish costume, uses a codename, and fights evil with the aid of extraordinary abilities. Although there are earlier characters who arguably fit this definition, it was Superman who popularized the superhero genre and established its conventions. He was the best-selling superhero in American comic books up until the 1980s.
Superman’s creators first envisioned him as a villain.
Recent high school graduate Jerry Siegel self-published a story in January 1933 called “The Reign of the Superman,” featuring a mad scientist who plucks a vagrant from a bread line and gives him telepathic capabilities. This so-called Superman, intoxicated by power, then kills the mad scientist and begins taking over the world until the enchantment wears off and he once again becomes a nobody.
Soon after, Siegel and his friend Joe Shuster, who illustrated the piece, revamped Superman as a good guy with an alien backstory, a secret identity and a cape, among other features that would come to define him. For several years, Siegel and Shuster unsuccessfully pitched their comic strip idea to newspaper syndicates. Finally, a predecessor to DC Comics asked them to rework it into a 13-page story for Action Comics #1, which would go on to become the most valuable comic book of all time, with one copy selling for $3.21 million on EBay in 2014.
Superman preceded Batman by a few months
In the spring of 1939 Superman #1 hit the stands, the first comic book ever devoted to a single character. Soon after, DC’s other ubiquitous superhero, Batman, made his debut in Detective Comics #27. Their earliest joint appearance came during a 1945 episode of “The Adventures of Superman,” a radio serial. In the comic book universe, meanwhile, they didn’t meet until 1952, when, in Superman #76, they coincidentally find themselves rooming together on the same cruise. Since then, the two have often teamed up—and occasionally clashed—across a number of different mediums.
The actors playing Superman often suffer grave misfortunes
The so-called Superman curse got its start with George Reeves, an actor who played Superman on a 1950s TV show. Reeves never quite took to the role, reportedly once telling a co-star: “Well, babe, this is it; the bottom of the barrel.” Typecast as Superman, he had trouble finding other work. Then, in June 1959, he was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Tragedy also struck Christopher Reeve, the star of four Superman movies, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a May 1995 horse-riding accident. In the first of those films, Lee Quigley depicted Superman as a baby. He died in 1991 at age 14 after huffing solvents from a can. Other Superman actors, despite remaining in good health, have seen their careers slide downward upon taking off the blue tights and red cape.
FIRST APPEARANCE FLASHBACK: SUPERMAN
The first page gives us a very succinct origin story for Superman, which is actually pretty unusual for this era, which often just dropped the reader in in media res. Superman hails from “a distant planet destroyed by old age,” which is a concept both baffling and concerning. It’s not yet called Krypton and there’s no mention of Jor-El, much less kryptonite, which wouldn’t make its first appearance until the radio show a few years later.
There are also no Kents yet: we learn that “a passing motorist” found a baby in a rocket and handed it over to an orphanage, which is just wild. Buddy. THAT BABY WAS IN A ROCKET.
The first page goes on to tell us that Clark can “leap an eighth of a mile,” “run faster than an express train,” and “that nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin,” so the powers are significantly downplayed from what they would someday become. We also learn that ants and grasshoppers can do this so it all checks out, scientifically. We’re learning a lot!
We finally get that “in media res” on the next page, with Superman running through the night, holding a bound and gagged blonde. He arrives at the governor’s mansion, where we meet my second favorite character after Traumatized Cover Man, Overly Protective Nightcap-Wearing Butler.
An influence on early Superman stories is the context of the Great Depression. The left-leaning perspective of creators Shuster and Siegel is reflected in early storylines. Superman took on the role of social activist, fighting crooked businessmen and politicians and demolishing run-down tenements. This seen by comics scholar Roger Sabin as a reflection of “the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,” with Shuster and Siegel initially portraying Superman as champion to a variety of social causes. In later Superman radio programs the character continued to take on such issues, tackling a version of the KKK in a 1946 broadcast.
Siegel himself noted that the many mythic heroes which exist in the traditions of many cultures bore an influence on the character, including Hercules and Samson. The character also seen by Scott Bukatman to “a worthy successor to Lindberg … (and) also … like Babe Ruth,” and is also representative of the United States dedication to “progress and the ‘new'” through his “invulnerable body … on which history cannot inscribed.” Further, given that Siegel and Shuster noted fans of pulp science fiction, it suggested that another influence may Hugo Danner. Danner the main character of the 1930 novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie, and possessed of same powers of the early Superman.
In the original Siegel and Shuster stories, Superman’s personality is rough and aggressive. The character seen stepping in to stop wife beaters, profiteers, a lynch mob and gangsters, with rather rough edges and a looser moral code than audiences may used to today. Later writers have softened the character, and instilled a sense of idealism and moral code of conduct.
Although not as cold-blooded as the early Batman, the Superman featured in the comics of the 1930s unconcerned about the harm his strength may cause, tossing villainous characters in such a manner that fatalities would presumably occur, although these seldom shown explicitly on the page. This came to an end late in 1940, when new editor Whitney Ellsworth instituted a code of conduct for his characters to follow, banning Superman from ever killing.
Today, Superman adheres to a strict moral code, often attributed to the Midwestern values with which he raised. His commitment to operating within the law has been an example to many other heroes but has stirred resentment among others, who refer to him as the “big blue boy scout.” Superman can be rather rigid in this trait, causing tensions in super hero community, notably with Wonder Woman (one of his closest friends) after she killed Maxwell Lord.
1950: A second 15-part film serial called Atom Man vs. Superman released.
1952-1958: The first Superman television show debuts. It called Adventures of Superman. George Reeves plays Clark Kent.
1978: Superman: Last Son of Krypton, a novel written by Elliot S. Maggin, chronicles Superman’s life.
Dec. 15, 1978: The movie Superman released starring Christopher Reeve (above) as Superman, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
June 19, 1981: Superman II released. Criminals who escaped from the planet Krypton try to take over the Earth. Lex Luthor joins forces with them.
June 17, 1983: Superman III hits theaters.
July 24, 1987: The public meets Superman IV . . . and doesn’t like him. The box office dud was the last of that Superman movie series.
Sept. 12, 1993-1997: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman airs on ABC. Dean Cain stars as Clark Kent with Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. The series nominated for five Emmys.
Oct. 16, 2001: Television show Smallville premieres on The WB chronicling Superman’s life as a teenage Clark Kent.
June 28, 2006: Warner Bros. releases Superman Returns, which earns $84.2 million in its first five days. Brandon Routh stars as Superman.
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