Author's Note: I originally published a portion of this in Birth.Movies.Death's special edition print magazine to honor the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. That version also included the historical timeline of Batman. However, in honor of Superman Day being today, I thought I'd share Superman's half with our readers.
The earliest incarnation of Superman appears in 1933 as a bald, homeless telepath named Bill Dunn, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel eventually rewrites Superman with the Clark Kent alter-ego story that becomes his permanent origin. After years of struggling, Superman finally makes his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938, along with love interest Lois Lane. The early Superman is rather limited in his powers and much less like the godlike superhero we know today: Initially, he can only leap up to an eighth of a mile, outrun a train, and lift cars. Similarly to Batman, who will debut a year later, Superman is initially a vigilante type who uses his powers to intimidate crooked politicians and criminals.
The foundation of Superman’s world and mythology is laid in this decade, thanks in large part to the Superman comic strips and radio plays reverse-influencing the comic books. Making the jump from the radio to the page, Superman gains an ability to not just leap over buildings, but to actively fly, and his Achilles’ heel in the form of kryptonite is introduced. Likewise, Superman’s greatest nemesis makes his debut when Lex Luthor (then called simply “Luthor”) appears for the first time in Action Comics #23. The human side of Clark Kent is also further established, with his adopted parents being named as John and Mary (later Martha) Kent, and the newspaper at which Clark works getting an official name change from The Daily Star to The Daily Planet. But the comics also run into real-life interference from the government when storylines involving atomic bombs and radiation are forced into a two-year delay by the then-Department of War.
As Superman’s powers grow, so does his influence both on and off the page. George Reeves stars in the wildly popular The Adventures of Superman TV show, but the real changes are still happening in the comics. Lana Lang is introduced as Superman’s childhood sweetheart, along with his cousin, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, and his youth in Smallville is now considered canon. Superman also gets two long-running villains with the debut of both Bizarro and Brainiac, but the real impact on Superman’s story is the growing DC multiverse. He teams up with Batman for the first time, and each learns the other’s secret identity. The two become fast friends, though they often butt heads about one another’s methods.
Reflecting the post-WWII Atomic Age, Superman’s stories start to become less fantastic and more rooted in the growing genre of science fiction. It’s established that he doesn’t just gain his powers from his own biology, but also from Earth’s sun. Multiple types of kryptonite possessing various properties are introduced. The debut of Kryptonian villain General Zod and the Negative Zone come in Adventure Comics #283, but the biggest piece of Superman’s story is cemented when it is established that Clark Kent and Lex Luthor knew each other as boys in Smallville, but the relationship soured, causing Luthor to declare Superman his sworn enemy for the rest of his life.
Superman, like most of the DC heroes, faces some hurdles both fictional and real in the immediate launch of the Silver Age. Villain Brainiac is retconned and turns from an alien to a living computer mind due to legal complications from a company that made toys of the same name. An issue involving President Kennedy is pulled from publication after JFK’s assassination then subsequently published at the request of new President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Kennedys. The Broadway musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! opens and closes after only 129 performances. On the page, Superman also undergoes struggles, temporarily losing his powers and discovering the real reason for his home planet’s destruction.
By the ‘70s, the vanilla Superman is in serious need of a modern shake-up in a post-Vietnam War, free love, radical hippie, disco era. Clark Kent makes the jump from newspaper to on-camera TV reporter. Superman also meets Marvel’s flagship character for the first time in the first Marvel/DC crossover, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. But, much like with the earlier radio plays, it’s the 1978 feature film starring Christopher Reeve that affects the comics the most permanently, reestablishing the “S” as an ancient Kryptonian symbol and Lois Lane as the first one to coin the moniker of “Superman.” Martha Kent, who, to that point, had always been dead of old age or disease by the time an adult Clark leaves for Metropolis, is also depicted as being alive and well in the film, and this carries over into future iterations.
Despite the attempts of DC publishers to create a more relatable, cooler Superman, by the ‘80s, Superman has fallen out of favor with the comic-reading public. His comics are still published, but the stories are much shorter, and he’s regarded as little more than an entry point for new readers before they graduate to the more sophisticated Bat-Family comics. His comics attempt to rectify this by revamping two of Superman’s greatest foes in Lex Luthor and Brainiac, giving them each a reason to be hellbent on killing the Man of Steel. But by that time, the DC universe is too messy and unwieldy, so the entire board is wiped clean with the Crisis on Infinite Earths arc in which Supergirl sacrifices her life to save everyone else.
The post-Crisis Superman is entirely retconned to be more human than ever, and major parts of his story are radically revised: His powers are now completely owed to solar radiation from Earth’s sun, and his origin now states he was born on Earth, having been sent here as a fetus in a gestation pod. While the newest reimagining finds Ma and Pa Kent alive in the modern day, it is decided that Superman will once again be the last remaining son of Krypton: Supergirl and other Kryptonians are erased from history, and Superman is truly alone, occasionally succumbing to loneliness. In a no-win situation late in the decade, Superman is forced to execute three Kryptonian criminals with kryptonite. This act haunts him and the trauma forces him into self-imposed exile after a psychological break from reality. It is a pivotal moment that will affect Superman for years to come.
The long-awaited reveal finally happens in Superman #50 when Clark Kent proposes to Lois Lane and, after half a century of comics, reveals his true identity to her. However, their happiness is short-lived when the unthinkable happens and Superman is seemingly killed by villain Doomsday in Superman #75. He later returns, albeit with a longer mullet-like hairdo. A few years later, Lois and Clark finally tie the knot – and Superman finally gets a haircut, much to fans’ collective relief. Further cementing his adopted family on Earth, Superman finally invites his clone, Superboy, to his Fortress of Solitude where he gives his teenage clone a Kryptonian name, Kon-El, designating that he’s finally fully accepted Superboy as his family.
The origin of Superman is retconned and modernized a few more times, most recently with the New 52 reboot of the DC universe. Unlike with Batman, the New 52 version of Superman is much younger and still establishing himself as a superhero, having only been one for about six years. He becomes a founding member of the Justice League, and, after a few years, starts dating his Justice League teammate and friend, Wonder Woman. After the poorly received Superman Returns in 2006, in 2013, the DC Extended Universe is officially launched with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a modern reboot of the Superman film series that reestablishes his origin story and beginnings for a newer, younger audience.