The History of SuperMan
By Michael Bradley
As Superman hits its official 75th Anniversary this year it is worth reviewing one of the most enduring and unique comic book superheroes in history. This is not a comprehensive list at all, as that would take an entire book to discuss. As early as 1930, Phillip Wylie had a similar character in the book, "Gladiator" and the same year writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster try to sell the story of "the Super-Man" who was actually a bald villain. Siegel and Shuster retooled the character and finally sold "Superman" to a publisher in 1938 in Action Comics #1, beginning the legendary hero we know today.
From that beginning, Superman, his powers and his political stance have changed with the times. In 1938, he was able to leap an eighth of a mile, outrun a steam locomotive and pick up a car. He fought against street crime in the urban city, corruption and crooked politicians. Following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, comic readers wanted a hero with good farm-raised mid-West values who would come to the big city and fight against those that caused them harm physically and financially. He was a hero for his times.
In 1940, the villain Lex Luthor is introduced, first as being red-haired then later as bald. The red-haired industrial baron with political connections played upon the real belief that the powerful "Tammany Hall" style politics in cities such as New York bought off politicians and police and left the common man in the lurch. Many villains in Superman are portrayed as bald or portly, somehow slovenly and less manly. In comparison, Superman always has an abundance of rich hair and a tall, muscular stature.
World War 2 brings new villains for the American people. During the war years and afterwards, Superman fights America's enemies. He is shown in 1940, prior to our entry into the war, ending Europe's problems by rounding up Hitler and Stalin and punching them in the nose. His straight-forward bravery and belief in "truth, justice and the American way" were patriotic themes that rang true to Americans who fought and died in World War 2 and Korea. His character thrived on the radio and on television. The Superman radio show ran from 1940 to 1951, replaced by the well-known black and white TV series from 1952 to 1958.
After that period, America suffered from the prolonged conflict in Vietnam and a mixed view of overseas conflict. Many superheroes and comics in general were deeply affected by the overall social malaise. The common villains of the 1930s to 1950s were no longer those feared by the public as a whole. From the late 1950s up through the early 1970s the abilities of Superman increased to include faster-than-light travel speeds and his villains turned to outer-space aliens and technology. It was the generation of UFOs, the Twilight Zone, the Cold War and fear of extra-terrestrial life. As computers and machinery expanded, workers now feared replacement by machines.
As a result, Brainiac is introduced, a villain that is alien and steals cities with a shrink ray and keeps them for his own amusement, and Bizarro, a machine copy of Superman. As technology increases in society, simply being able to run fast and punch villains is not enough. The villains are now technology and space travel, so Superman had to keep pace.
The 1970s were a low point in Superman comics as gimmicks were employed to try to revive the series. These included a reboot of Superman's powers to make him less indestructible, saw him move from the daily planet as a reporter to anchor of a TV news program, and even saw a "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali" comic in 1978 where the two combine to fight an alien invasion. From 1973 to 1986 the cartoon "Superfriends" invited a new generation to learn about Superman, Batman, Aquaman and others.
During this period of globalization, the nuclear arms race, the OPEC embargo, the environment and economic concerns were on the mind of the public. As a result, villains were polluters, nuclear proliferation, multi-national corporations and those holding back magical remedies for the fuel shortage to make profits. In 1978, the first Christopher Reeve movie is released based on those themes and it does well.
In 1980, Reagan is elected and the United States pulls out of its economic slump and has the longest period of non-wartime growth in history. Whether the 80s were a great time of economic growth, or economic excess, is a matter of perspective. When Superman 2 came out in 1980, the villains were once again General Zod and his team. After Star Wars was released in 1977, the special effects and the theme for this Superman sequel seemed outdated in comparison. The third Superman movie in 1983 was turned into a slapstick comedy and Richard Prior added to try to make it current with the upbeat mood of the country, but it failed.
In 1993, DC Comics killed off Superman in Volume 2, Issue 75, which became the best selling issue in history. After that, Superman was split into four different candidates to become the new Superman. None of those caught on with the public, and so the original Superman reappeared several months later. The saving of the character occurred from 1993 to 1997 with "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" the romantic TV series with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. It was not coincidental that the series involved contemporary settings and issues, a more introspective and conflicted Superman, and more romance. Times were good and people were focused on suburbia and love stories.
This was followed up by the very successful "Smallville" series from 2001 to 2011, which focused on teenagers, high school, up-to-date social issues, and young love. The youth-oriented soap opera era was strong as discretionary spending among teenagers rose while their angst increased. These good time feelings were lost in 2011 with the attacks on America by Al-Qaeda and the ensuing wars.
While the comics continued throughout the history of Superman with very few interruptions, the public demand for more Superman films had waned. In 2006, Superman Returns was an attempt to reboot the movie franchise, but it failed to tap into any of society's fears or needs and had a poor showing and reviews. The most recent, this year in fact, Superman: The Man of Steel might have what it takes. It combines a yearning for traditional values of right and wrong, with a pensive introspection about whether it is right to survive because you are stronger or more advanced.
Time will tell where the Superman franchise goes from here. After 75 long years, all we can really say is thank you, congratulations, and keep the new stories coming.