Seventy-five years ago, every red-blooded American kid read comic books.
Churned out on cheap paper, these comics sold for ten cents a pop, a not inconsiderable amount of money considering that the Great Depression still hung in the nation’s doorway like a party guest who can’t take a hint. In exchange for their dimes, kids could spend an entire afternoon at the movies, gorge themselves at the soda fountain, or take home a comic ablaze with the four-color adventures of Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Popeye and other well-known strips hastily reprinted from the newspaper funny pages.
Then came Action Comics #1.
Like the other comics of its day, Action adopted an anthology format, offering eleven different features of varying length. These features, however, were different. They were, for the first time, original stories starring brand new characters. Despite their brawny, evocative names—Scoop Scanlon! Sticky-Mitt Stimson! Pep Morgan! Chuck Dawson, Fastest Gun in the West!—none of them would last.
Well. Except one.
The guy on the cover? That circus strongman hefting a green Studebaker over his head? That guy?
He’d hang around. In fact, he’d do much more than that. Scant months after Superman’s debut as the lead feature of Action #1, he would leap from the comics page into the funny pages and from there into the toy box, onto the radio, the movie screen, and the television. Over the course of a 75-year multimedia push, he would transcend the various media that convey him and infiltrate the collective consciousness of the country, and the world. He would construct his own archetype, powered by a uniquely American fuel mixture: our power and privilege, our violence and spectacle, our noblest ideals.
If familiarity breeds contempt, this character’s seven decades of cultural ubiquity have bred something more insidious. In writing my cultural history of the iconic superhero, I repeatedly encountered a view of the character as a stolid, unremarkable chunk of conceptual furniture. It was one place where the received wisdom of comic book obsessives (who tend to focus on edgier stuff) overlapped with that of the general public (who tend to ignore comics of any provenance). The Big Blue Boy Scout was a safe, unchanging, anodyne fixture of our popular culture. A bore.
They’re all wrong. A closer look at the character’s history reveals that in fact the entire notion of Superman exists in a state of perpetual flux. The reason he has endured for three quarters of a century is that he continually evolves to reflect the culture around him. To sample a Superman comic, radio show, television episode, or film from any era is to get hit with a potent dose of the prevailing zeitgeist. There, plain to see, lie the obsessions, fears, hopes and values of the time, stripped to their essence and shoved into baby blue tights.
1930s: Protective Older Brother
Super-anniversary celebrations have historically taken place in summer, because “June 1938” was the date on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics. But don’t let the vagaries of periodical publishing fool you: Action #1 first appeared on newsstands on April 18of that year.
Given the historical moment, it’s no surprise that Superman began as a social reformer in circus tights. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster conceived Superman as a Champion of the Oppressed, a wisecracking, two-fisted bruiser who fought for the Average Joe at every opportunity. In those early years, he bullied the bullies, roughing up weapons merchants, wealthy industrialists, crooked politicians, cruel prison wardens, and oil magnates.
Superman began as a social reformer in circus tights.
Though quick with a quip (Shuster drew him with a perpetual smirk that reduced Superman’s eyes to a pair of em-dashes), he dealt savagely with the cruel and unjust. In his second adventure, he came across a soldier torturing a prisoner and threw the inquisitor through the air “as tho [sic] he were hurling a javelin” to the man’s apparent death (“The torturer vanishes from view behind a grove of distant trees with a pitiful wail.”). Neither did he feel any compunction about sending a plane full of enemy agents hurtling earthward to meet their grisly fates.
The early Superman also devoted himself to a series of public-minded campaigns, as when he waged a one-man battle to rid his as-yet-unnamed city of the scourge of slot machines. When he declared war on reckless drivers, he went so far as to kidnap the mayor and dangle him outside the window of the City Morgue, forcing the terrified man to gaze in at the bodies of those who’d died in auto accidents. “You can see to it that traffic laws are strictly obeyed and that driving permits are issued only to responsible drivers!” Superman snarls, like the world’s most garishly dressed policy wonk.
In Action Comics #8 (January 1939) Superman confronts a gang of young street toughs. “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent,” he informs them, “it’s these slums—your poor living conditions—if there was only some way to remedy it…” Later, upon learning that the government replaces homes destroyed by natural disasters with affordable housing, he experiences an epiphany. “When I finish, this town will be rid of filthy, crime-festering slums!”
But Superman as outlaw-hero wouldn’t last; just four months later, Batman appeared to assume that mantle. And soon after that, the nation would ask the Man of Steel to put aside his rabble-rousing for a greater purpose.
1940s-1950s: Father Knows Best
In a February 1940 two-page spread specially written for Look magazine, Superman invaded Europe, rounded up Hitler and Mussolini, and toted them off to a war crimes trial. But when the US entered World War II, editors decided such antics would trivialize the sacrifices being made by American soldiers. So in his own comics, animated shorts, movie serials and on the radio, the Man of Steel spent the war years stateside, content to nab the odd Ratzi saboteur and hawk war bonds.
Either way, Superman’s days of challenging the status quo were over. The character’s rough edges were sanded down to turn him into a patriotic symbol capable of assuring Americans (including G.I.s oversees, who now made up a huge segment of his readership) that Good would triumph over Evil. Producers of the Superman radio show hurriedly appended the phrase “… and the American Way!” to the earlier “truth and justice.” Covers of Superman and Action Comics teemed with flags, bald eagles, beaming G.I.s, and gleaming U.S. artillery.
Once Japan surrendered, he looked around for other foes—on the radio show, he famously went after white supremacists—and settled into a comfortable postwar existence similar to that of returning US soldiers. As they started families, his adventures took an increasingly domestic turn, with the Man of Steel spending as much time genially fending off Lois Lane’s schemes to expose his secret identity as he did fighting crime.
The extent of this de-fanging becomes clear by comparing the 1939 depiction of Superman destroying Metropolis’s slums with a 1948 account of Superman’s origins, which references the act that turned Superman into an outlaw—but scrubs it clean of any hint of criminality.
And in the 1950s, Superman’s world and adventures grew even smaller and more prosaic. One reason: Comic books were under attack by the self-appointed public watchdog Dr. Fredric Wertham, who claimed they were responsible for juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s campaign led to Congressional hearings. He decried Superman as a Nazi—which much have caused the character’s Jewish writers and editors no small amount of tsuris. (It’s interesting to note, however, that the notion of Kryptonians as a preternaturally strong “super-race”—once a tenet of Superman’s origin—quietly disappears from the chronicles at this point. From now on, it’s the Earth’s yellow sun that provides Superman with his amazing abilities.)
Another reason had to do with the way pop culture changed in the age of television. The producers of the Superman television series starring George Reeves felt strongly that the show and the comics should work in tandem. The series’ tight production budget meant the Man of Steel spent most of his time facing off against petty thieves, smugglers, and bank robbers. The comics dutifully followed suit.
But once the television show ended, things got weird.
1960s: Morose Uncle
In 1958, Mort Weisinger took over the editing of the Superman comics and oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the Man of Steel’s fictive universe. This was Weisinger’s attempt to solve a problem that would continue to dog Superman-storytelling for years: Throughout the post-war and Eisenhower era, Superman’s powers had ballooned. Where once he could only leap an eighth of a mile and barely withstand an artillery burst, now he could zip across the galaxy without working up a sweat, shatter the time-barrier on a whim, and pulverize an entire planet with a head-butt. In response, Weisinger and his writers shifted the focus to Superman’s ever-growing supporting cast, who indulged in wild outer-space adventures and freakish transformations that only the comic medium could capture.
But amid all this four-color whiz-bangery, Weisinger felt he needed to ground the proceedings in the primal, Freudian emotions kids would respond to. Thus this so-called Silver Age of Superman featured the most whimsical conceits in the character’s history (Beppo The Super-Monkey!), but they came leavened with melodrama straight out of Douglas Sirk: a palpable sense of melancholy (*choke!*), fear of abandonment (*sob!*), and, especially, survivor guilt (*gulp!*) as the specter of Superman’s doomed planet Krypton loomed larger than ever.
And by 1961, Superman’s transformation from progressive reformer to Establishmentarian was complete. Another retelling of his origin written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino in Superman #146 revisits the slum-razing incident from Action Comics #8 a third and final time, only to whitewash it in a shameless display of revisionist history that’s downright Orwellian. “At the Mayor’s request, I’ll remove these ugly buildings and build decent homes for the poor!,” he declared. At the Mayor’s request! From willful act of destruction to municipally sanctioned urban renewal in 22 years.
Elsewhere in the comic book universe, things weren’t quite so staid. At rival Marvel comics, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were revolutionizing the notion of the super-hero by injecting it with a bolus of Clearasil. Their comics, aimed squarely at a slightly older adolescent audience, swarmed with heroes who squabbled like a dysfunctional family and worried about girlfriends.
Superman wasn’t so cool. Take, for example, the September 1964 issue of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, in which Superman arrives to rescue the cub reporter who, upon finding himself stranded in ancient Judea, decides to take up a musical career selling Beatle wigs made out of dyed sheep wool.
“You’ve really started a ‘Beatle’ fad here, Jimmy!” the Man of Steel says proudly, sounding exactly like everyone’s out-of-step uncle. “You seem to be as popular as Ringo, the ‘Beatle’ drummer!”
1970s: Guidance Counselor
When Weisinger retired, DC decided Superman had grown too powerful to relate to, and asked writer Denny O’Neill to permanently weaken the Man of Steel, returning him to post-World War II-levels of power. It was a nervous reaction to the more dynamic, street-level Marvel heroes who were now beginning to nudge Superman off the top of the sales charts. It also was a good fit with post-Vietnam America.
Unfortunately, it was also the first step in a decades-long series of ham-handed attempts to make the character more relatable. (“Let’s Rap!” said Superman, cringeworthily, in a 1972 house ad asking readers to fill out a survey of their interests.)
Latter-day attempts at “relevance”—which have seen Superman tackling issues like world hunger and racism—backfired because Superman functions on a higher symbolic level. It is a hard-won lesson of comics: Showing a guy in blue tights and red cape weeping over the body of an abused child doesn’t bridge the distance between his world and ours, it brings the yawning gulf between them into sharp relief.
At any rate, the de-powering effort didn’t take; within a year, he was back to hauling planets from their orbits.
And, with comic books retreating to a cultural niche, he was also buffeted by pop culture: 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner’s peculiar mix of reverent hagiography, screwball comedy, and disaster film updated the Superman-Lois dynamic by matching it to the neurotic tenor of the time. Margot Kidder’s Lois is a wiry, restless presence, an audience proxy who only lets down her guard when she meets Christopher Reeve’s calm, reassuring gaze. The power and reach of the film was such that Reeve’s take on the character would come to define Superman for a generation.
1980s and 1990s: Reboots and Financial Shenanigans
In 1986 DC Comics eyed declining sales and again grew worried, this time that their entire narrative universe of characters, which existed on several parallel Earths, some with decades of backstory, had grown too impenetrable. Thus they called for the meta-fictional mulligan Crisis on Infinite Earth, and rebooted everything from scratch.
The new Superman that emerged, written and drawn by John Byrne, was a child of the Reagan era (with a newly Schwarzeneggerian physique) who inverted Siegel and Shuster’s original secret identity formula. Now, Clark Kent was the “real” self, and Superman was the put-on, a public persona created to allow Clark to protect his me-time, and be spared humanity’s constant demands.
By the 1990s, comic books still weren’t something most American kids were reading. Rather, they’d revived for reasons more appropriate to the decade: A speculative bubble. Hundreds of comics shops had sprung up across the country, selling pallet after pallet of gimmicky variant issues. Collectors bought them all up, lured by the idea that the resale price of special issues could only go up. Reacting to the times, Superman’s writers and editors conceived of a publicity stunt whereby they’d leak the news that they were killing off Superman. Hordes of non-comics readers bought up multiple copies of the “death issue,” Superman #75, convinced that it would one day pay for their children’s college.
The abiding flaw in this plan: DC published millions of copies of the issue, over several print runs.
Naturally, soon after his March, 1993 death, Superman got better. And that copy of Superman #75 you’ve squirreled away in the attic will today fetch you a cool ten bucks if you’re lucky.
After the death and rebirth, a new batch of ‘EXXXTREEME!” anti-heroes with ludicrous names like Bloodstrike, Ripclaw, and Shrapnel rode the crest of the comics boom. Alas, the Man of Steel’s sales slumped.
Even before the comics-speculator bubble burst (which it did, with force, in the mid-nineties, taking two-thirds of all comics shops with it) the decade represented a long, dark night of soul-searching for Superman. In a series of alternate-history one-shot comics called “Elseworlds” he grew up in Russia, or fought in the Civil War. In his main storyline, he grew a mullet. Then he got electrical powers and a figure skating costume, and split into two Supermen, for reasons entirely too pointless to detail.
On the upside, Clark Kent finally married Lois Lane in both the comics and on the television series Lois and Clark, which dialed back the superheroing to take its tonal inspiration from shows like Moonlighting and Remington Steele.
Twenty-first century: Multiple personality disorder
The grim and gritty mood of '90s comics hadn’t quite lifted when the attacks of September 11, 2001 cast a lingering pall over tales of brightly clad heroes who always save the day. Superman still stood for Truth and Justice and the American Way. He was just a lot more bummed out about it.
Case in point: Bryan Singer’s strangely glum Superman Returns restored the Man of Steel to the mainstream imagination, even if the conceptual debt the film owed to Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie was severe. Singer’s decision to predicate the film on Superman’s abandoning Earth to search for his lost homeworld introduced an intriguing tension, albeit one that seemed distinctly out-of-character. (A Superman who puts his own needs above those of others simply isn’t Superman.) Having the Man of Steel use his powers to moodily stalk his now ex-girlfriend Lois Lane only exacerbated the odd disconnect at the film’s core.
The television series Smallville also offered a mopier take on the hero. For the Superman of the comics, it was a troubled and troubling time: DC offered readers two entirely different “definitive” Superman origin stories in rapid succession, while another cosmos-shattering event once again reshaped a DC universe that had grown increasingly grim and violent.
And now, as he turns 75, the particulars of Superman’s future are hazy. In the comics, still another universal reset button (“The New 52”) has been pressed. Across media platforms, America now has a Superman divided against himself: In the pages of Action Comics, he’s again a young man just starting out his heroic journey. In the latest comics, however, he’s more of a cipher, distinguished only by weird blue armor (his iconic red underpants have been consigned to the Goodwill box of history) and his decision to quit the Daily Planet to become a blogger (relevance!).
But time is running out for the monthly comic book, and it’s this summer’s Man of Steel that will play a much larger role in shaping the popular conception of Superman for years to come—whether for good or ill. (I’m on record as cautiously optimistic).
So yes, the details of what lies ahead for this hoary, hokey, outdated and patently absurd nugget of corporate-owned intellectual property known as “Superman” remain unclear. What is clearer than ever is that if we’re still around in another 75 years, he will be there with us. Because that’s what he is for: In his brilliantined hair and shiny red boots, we see ourselves reflected—or at least, our best selves. The selves that do what is right simply because it is right, the selves we most desperately wish to be: Selfless. Strong. Compassionate.
Glen Weldon is the author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (Wiley), out this month. He covers pop culture and comics for NPR.