March 05, 2016


            In the 1930s, the medium known as comic books first emerged. However, they weren’t quite how we know them today. These early comics were predominantly reprinted collections of newspaper strips folded into magazine form, with the first being Dell Publishing’s Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics. It wasn’t until 1938 that the comic that would define a medium, and a genre, would be born. In 1938, there was Superman.

A brief telling of Superman's origin.

            Born Kal-El on the dying planet Krypton, he was saved by his father Jor-El by being sent to Earth. There, he was found and raised in Smallville, Kansas by famers Jonathan and Martha Kent as Clark Kent. His Kryptonian DNA had a strange interaction with Earth’s yellow sun, granting him incredible powers: super strength, flight (originally super leaping), invulnerability, super breath, heat vision and super hearing. Deciding to use his powers for good, he became Superman and took a job as a newspaper reporter in order to be quickly alerted of troubles that required his aid.

The original Superman.

            Initially conceived as a bald, telepathic villain by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the character first appeared in “The Reign of the Superman,” a short story from Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3 in 1933. Later that year, Siegel re-envisioned the character as a hero. He used Douglas Fairbanks as the basis for the hero’s appearance while Harold Lloyd and Shuster served as the inspiration for his alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent—a name derived from actors Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. His love interest, fellow reporter Lois Lane, was modeled after Siegel’s eventual wife Joanne Carter.

Often imitated, never duplicated.

            Siegel and Shuster unsuccessful shopped the character around for six years. Frustrated, Shuster burned all the pages they had created, but Siegel saved the cover. Siegel began shopping around for a new collaborator but eventually reunited with Shuster. The character began to evolve, with inspiration being adopted from mythological characters and a costume developed based on characters from comic strips, pulps and the traditional circus strong-man outfits. They shopped it around again as a comic strip before it was eventually bought as the lead feature in National Allied Publishing’s (the predecessor of today’s DC Comics) new title Action Comics. Revising the concept, the character appeared in 1938’s Action Comics #1.

A brief example of Superman's evolution over the years.

            The character became a hit and launched a new genre of comic books: the superhero. Other publishers began to rapidly churn out their own costumed adventurers; some with powers, some without.  Many of these characters appeared for a single issue and their designs were recycled for another one-off character, while others persevered for much of what was dubbed the Golden Age of Comics. Beyond that, Superman was one of the few to endure the changing comic climate to follow; being continually published to the present day.

Superman's friends, family and sometimes foes.

            Superman’s popularity led to his own self-titled series and a newspaper strip in 1939, and gradually a slew of spin-off titles featuring his younger self in flashback stories as Superboy, Lois Lane and Daily Planet photographer (and unofficial Superman sidekick) Jimmy Olsen. In 1940, Superman was brought to life on The Adventures of Superman radio show, which ran for eleven years. From 1941-43, Superman hit the big screen for the first time as animated theatrical shorts by Fleischer Studios (later Famous Studios). These shorts are still perceived today as the finest animated cartoons produced for that time period. They were also responsible for giving Superman the ability to fly. These were followed in 1948 and 1950 by two serials starring Kirk Alyn, and a third starring George Reeves in 1951, which led to the character’s first television program also called The Adventures of Superman. Reeves also had an appearance on I Love Lucy and the short film Stamp Day for Superman

            In 1966, Superman finally moved faster than a speeding bullet to Saturday mornings…

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