Dreams save us. Dreams lift us and transform us. And on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honour and justice becomes the reality we share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.
On 18th April, Action Comics, the comic series that introduced Superman, will release its 1000th issue. That’s correct. You read it right. The 1000th issue of a Superman series that has been running since 1938. If that isn’t an achievement then I do not know what is. This is the single longest running comic series of its kind. And if you’re a DC Comics fan, or a comics fan in general, then the 1000th issue is worth buying and collecting. This article isn’t about that, however. Today we look at the history of Superman and why he matters, even today.
How it all began
Back in the late 1930s, in Glenville School, located in Cleveland, two young men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had met each other and become friends. It was a friendship that blossomed from the most staple reasons of all – common interests. They loved science fiction and crazy pulp magazines. They even produced their own such magazine, known as Science Fiction.
Issues of Science Fiction are exceedingly hard to find and there are reports that one of them was sold for $50,000. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing these two were up to. Both of them, together, created a villainous, bald character called the Superman. And wrote a short story on him known as The Reign of The Superman.
It didn’t take them long to realise that they should look towards comics as a suitable outlet for their imaginative creations. So, they revamped their villainous character called Superman into a practically indestructible hero. They sent samples everywhere. To so many publications, where they were rejected in every case. They even pitched to newspapers, proposing a comic strip, but unsuccessfully.
Finally in the year 1938, a company called National Comics, which you know today as DC Comics, revisited this Superman proposal. In other words, someone found it in a drawer and brought it to the publisher’s attention. National Comics wanted to publish a new comic series known as Action Comics. However, they couldn’t find a cover for it. But when they saw the proposal and the featured image, they decided to use it and today, that has become one of the most iconic images of all time. Also, it didn’t hurt that Shiegel and Shuster were asked to do a 13 page Superman story for Action Comics #1.
And that is how, ladies and gentlemen, history was made.
Superman. The Man of Steel. The Man of Tomorrow. The Last Son of Krypton.
The saga of the superhero
It’s no surprise that he was an instant hit. By the time Action Comics #4 hit the stands, their sales were phenomenal. This success led DC to introduce many new superheroes, that still exist today. Especially one that has stuck around for as long as Superman himself. In fact you may have heard of this character. They called him the Batman. Many other characters in the comic book industry were given a boost, such as Namor, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Captain Marvel.
Siegel and Shuster were paid a total of $130 for the rights to Superman. For many years, they were paid only a fraction of the profits. This prompted them to sue the company in 1964. They settled and lost all claim to the character but gained a lot of money. However, in the late 1970s many newspapers had begun reporting of the practical obscurity in which these two men were spending their lives. And thus, Warner Communications, added their names to every mention of Superman. Whatever film or comic or book or series used the character, it had the text ‘Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’ attached to it. A victory delayed but a victory nonetheless.
Many advancements were made in his mythos from the 1940s to the middle of the 1950s, after Mort Weisinger (co-creator of Aquaman, Green Arrow) became the editor. Luthor was introduced, who later came to be known as Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch-enemy. Superman’s alter-ego i.e. Clark Kent was fleshed out even more. There was even a new comic series called Superboy, created by Siegel and Shuster, that told of his adventures in small town called Smallville, where he grew up. It’s interesting to know that the names of his Earth parents were not established in continuity till 1951.
The newspaper he worked at was changed from Daily Star to Daily Planet. This was because Daily Star actually existed. He found out more about his existence. Then, in the mid 1950s, Superman slowly began to veer more towards the science fiction and became more bizarre. Famous villains such as Bizarro and Brainiac were introduced. The origin story that we now all know was firmly established during this time period, known as the Silver Age, and has been practically the same ever since. However, in the early 1960s, things began to change.
The transformation of the superhero
One of the primary changes in the comic book industry was the advent of Marvel Comics and characters whom we currently watch gracing the screens as part of the MCU. These characters were more sophisticated in nature, as compared to the fun, pulpy nature of most of DC’s characters. This led to a demand for more compelling and mature stories. It was pretty much the same during the 1960s, despite the changes that were taking place. Superman remained very popular and was selling at a very decent level.
However, at the advent of the 1970s, it was realised that a change was now necessary.
Under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, the character of Superman was revamped by none other than Jack Kirby himself. Writers such as Dennis O’Neill, Cary Bates, artist Neal Adams, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson – all of these talented people contributed towards making Superman what he is. This continued till 1986, when DC finally established a new continuity. A shared universe for all its characters and began the modern age of DC superheroes. The mature changes to Superman were brought to life through John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series. This storyline made Superman more grounded and more realistic. His powers were still phenomenal but they now had limits and most of his ridiculous powers were removed.
Since then Superman has been around and been through a lot.
The character has died (1993) and brought back to life. He has been married (1996). In 2004, his origin was updated and made a little more modern, fleshing out the Clark Kent side of his personality a little more. His origin was changed yet again in 2007, revising a lot that was known about the character. Then, in 2011, for DC’s full system reboot as far as the characters were concerned, Superman underwent massive changes in character and power. One of the biggest changes was the loss of the red trunks that he wore outside his costume. Making it a more sleek and modern version of the traditional costume.
He has been written by many, including great writers such as Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Grant Morrison, Dan Jurgens, Mark Millar and now, Brian Michael Bendis.
Why does Superman remain relevant even today?
Google this and you’ll find a million things. Research papers, books, articles, blogs and entire videos. Each dedicated to analysing why he is who he is and why the character can never fade out of existence. So, I won’t waste your time in quoting all of these superior works studied and made by people much more knowledgeable than I am.
Instead, I give to you my own personal opinion. As a comic book fan and a long time fan of Superman himself.
We all know the state of the world in the late 1930s. The reason that’s important is because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were Jewish. And in that time period, this was a fact that held some significance. This was just before World War II and Hitler had been around for a while. The rest is self explanatory. Especially if you think about two Jewish men coming to America and trying to make it in the land of freedom and opportunity, trying to achieve the American dream. It is that desire that they emboldened in the form of Superman. A man from another planet who wants nothing but to do well, protect his home and uphold the traditional American values he was raised with.
Earlier incarnations showed the character as more of a vigilante than the law abiding citizen and superhero he is today. But despite that the innate desire to do good and the representation of fundamental American values made him very popular.
However, the reason he has sustained for this long is probably a much deeper issue.
Look at the world around you and it’s hard not to be a cynic. It is very easy to accept that everything is bad and doomed and this world is now deep diving into the abyss of no return. On the other hand, it is extremely hard to look at the world and desire to change it. Additionally, and this is where we go completely into personal opinion territory, I think that this is a desire a lot of us have. There are so many of us, including myself, who consider themselves cynics but deep down we wish we had the strength to actually stand against it all and actually do something good.
Hashtags and posing with placards announcing support isn’t enough and real action is what the world of humanity has always needed because that is what makes a mark.
The hero we all wish to be
Superman, despite being fictional, is a reflection of that desire. He is, as Grant Morrison said once, a man we created who would never let us down. Superman embodies our secret desire to have unmatched strength and an even stronger will to do better and to actually change things. He preaches morals, law, order and peace in a time of immorality, anarchy, chaos and in some places, absolute war.
Instead of using his power to stop every bad thing on Earth, he chooses to be a beacon instead – a beacon of hope. This sounds pretty cheesy, of course, but he is the guy who teaches you to fish instead of catching the fish for you. And despite everything that has changed in the world since his creation, these values still resonate and shall always resonate for years to come.
I believe that this is the one reason he is still relevant today. Many readers consider a man with the power of a God as unrelatable and too mythic to be an accessible character. I disagree. His immense power and God like capabilities make him more human, because his strength makes him realise the true value of humanity. His parents help him remember that he was raised here and it is home for him. The woman he loves helps him realise that he should always fight, if only for her. If that doesn’t sound like the most human and relatable characteristic a fictional superhero could have, then I don’t know what could.
The superhero who will reign forever
That, my friends, is why he can never fade out of existence, despite almost doing so many times. Watching him save the world in comics time and again and at the same time, being…well, being the man that he is will never get old. I will never tire of reading a story of people almost giving up. Only to look up in the sky and see him there. Not a bird or a plane but him. It is corny and yes, we Superman fans are painfully aware that he isn’t real. If only he was.
But imagine this. Imagine a child reading Superman. Now see how this hero he absolutely adores is slowly teaching him so much. Lex Luthor teaches that having a lot of money doesn’t make you good. Clark Kent running a story on Luthor and exposing him teaches the value of truth. Clark always being there to save Lois teaches love and support. Getting up to fight again to save the world, despite certain death, teaches compassion and courage. Treating all humans with equality, dignity and acceptance teaches everything else.
There is no comic book character that has had such a far reaching impact and precious few can ever hope to come close.
I guess this is the point where I should end with one of my favourite Superman quotes of all time.
When you break something, you’re not just breaking the thing. You’re hurting everyone who made it the way it was.