On April 18, 1938, National Publications presented Action Comics #1, showcasing typical comic book fare of the era like master magician Zatara, sports hero Pep Morgan, and adventurer Tex Thompson. And then there was the red-and-blue suited guy on the cover…
Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men… who can change the course of mighty rivers… bend steel in his bare hands… and so on and so forth! Eighty years ago tomorrow, Superman made his debut and changed the course of mighty comic book publishers forever. An immediate hit with youthful readers, Superman headlined his own comic a year later, spawned a slew of superhero imitators, became a super-merchandising machine, and conquered all media like no other before him!
And to think he came from humble beginnings. No, not the planet Krypton, but from the fertile minds of two kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The two science-fiction mad teens first presented a story called “The Reign of the Superman” in Siegel’s self-published fanzine titled (aptly enough) Science Fiction, dealing with a bum who gains psychic powers from an experimental drug and becomes a villain. This idea didn’t go over too well, but the lads tinkered with the idea of a super powered being, reimagining it as a comic strip, and the bum as a hero. They pounded the pavement trying to get their brain child sold, getting rejected at every turn, until comics pioneer M.C. Gaines (father of MAD Magazine founder William Gaines) suggested they try National. The boys sold their idea , and in the process all their rights to the characters, for a measly $130 bucks… big money at the time, but when you think of all the loot Superman has raked in over the decades, Siegel and Shuster got super-screwed!!
The Superman Mythos we all know today didn’t really get started until Mort Weisinger took over as editor in 1940. Weisinger, an early member of sci-fi fandom himself, gave us innovations like kryptonite, the Phantom Zone, the Bottled City of Kandor, and a whole host of super-related characters. There was Superboy (The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy), Supergirl, Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, the bizarre Bizarro Superman, and of course Superman’s greatest adversary Lex Luthor, who first appeared in Action #23. National (later known as DC Comics) was very protective of their super-cash cow, filing a famous (or infamous, depending on where your loyalties lie) lawsuit against Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who they claimed was a direct rip-off of The Man of Steel. Lawyers battled it out for years, as the Fawcett side showed how Superman himself was “borrowed” from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and Philip Wylie’s sci-fi novel “Gladiator“. After a long legal donnybrook, with the two mighty heroes all lawyered up, Fawcett finally folded in 1953.
A radio program starring future TV game show host Bud Collyer as Supe and his alter ego Clark Kent debuted in 1940 and ran until 1951. Collyer also supplied the voice for a series of Technicolor cartoons courtesy of Max Fleischer Studios, who also made the animated adventures of another super-guy, Popeye the Sailor. The shorts were released by Paramount, and contain some of the best animation of the era. Since all are currently in the public domain, here’s the first, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short (invest in the ten minutes it takes to watch, it’s worth it!):
Superman made his live-action debut in a 1948 Columbia serial starring the virtually unknown Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, battling the evil Spider Woman (Carol Forman) through 15 thrilling chapters. This was Noel Neill’s first appearance as Lois Lane (more on that later). The low-budget Sam Katzman production was highly successful, and a 1950 sequel, ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN was filmed, featuring veteran Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Then in 1951, a feature titled SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was released as a precursor of things to come…
George Reeves , a minor actor who played one of the Tarleton Twins in GONE WITH THE WIND, donned the familiar tights, with Phyllis Coates as Lois. This was made as a pilot of sorts for a television version, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which ran in syndication from 1951 to 1958. George Reeves fit the part perfectly, but Coates left after the first season, to be replaced by… Noel Neill! Co-starring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White, and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson, the 104 episodes were endlessly rerun for decades on local TV stations (and can still be seen Saturday mornings on the Heroes & Icons Channel).
Superman made it to The Great White Way in the 1966 Broadway musical IT’S A BIRD… IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN, with music by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (BYE BYE BIRDIE) and book by David Newman and Robert Benton (BONNIE & CLYDE), lasting 129 performances. Supes next flew to the world of Saturday Morning Cartoons in Filmation’s THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1966-70), with Bud Collyer returning to his old radio role. This series, premiering at the height of the BATMAN camp craze, underwent several different titles (THE SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN HOUR OF ADVENTURE, THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR) over its four-year run. Superman would return to Saturday mornings three years later as part of the long-running SUPER FRIENDS.
1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE introduced Christopher Reeve to the world, with an all-star cast headed by Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois), Ned Beatty , Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford , and Trevor Howard. Directed by Richard Donner, the producers knew the film would be a blockbuster and began shooting a sequel at the same time. Released in 1980, with Richard Lester eventually taking over for Donner, SUPERMAN II is considered by many fans the best superhero movie ever made… well, at least by this fan! The story pits Krypton’s favorite son against escaped Phantom Zone criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) with the fate of Earth in the balance. I had the privilege of meeting Miss Douglas and Mr. O’Halloran at a comic-con a few tears ago; she had a marvelously bawdy sense of humor, while Big Jack was as intimidating as ever!
Two more Super-sequels were made in 1983 and 1987, but frankly neither was very good, and the Man of Steel went quiet on the film front until returning to TV with LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, an updated version of the venerable tale with Dean Cain as Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. This version, broadcast from 1993-97, focused more on the romance between the two characters than is usual, but was a hit with fans, winning a Saturn Award for Best Genre Series during it’s run.
Superman returned to the big screen in 2006 with the aptly titled SUPERMAN RETURNS, starring newcomer Brandon Routh. The Bryan Singer-directed film didn’t do well enough for Warner Brothers to produce a sequel, and the character remained dormant until Zack Snyder’s 2013 MAN OF STEEL, a darker reboot of the legend giving Henry Cavill the title role. This Superman returned in 2016’s BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, and again in 2017’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, and figures to stick around awhile, at least as long as the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t implode!
Eighty years is a long time, and I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of all things Superman. The character is still going strong today, probably the most recognizable superhero on the planet. DC will release Action Comics Issue #1000 tomorrow, a milestone in the comics world, and Superman is still the cover boy. As long as there’s injustice in this world, we’ll all need Superman around as a symbol of hope, to keep “fighting (his) never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”!
Dedicated to the memories of Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster