At a time when the internet is buzzing with theories about whether Superman will be in the upcoming Justice League film, examinations of popcorn bucket promotional art, and guesses at just when he'll appear in the film and how he survived Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we have to wonder — have fans forgotten the origins of Superman?
No, we're not talking Krypton. Or even Kansas. Or how Superman's origin story has evolved from fully formed superhero arriving on Earth to a baby in an orphanage to the various adaptations of Clark Kent being raised by Martha and Jonathan (or Sam and Molly) Kent.
No, we're talking the backstory of #Superman in the real world. How did we come to have a brightly clad caped crusader patrolling the skies of our imaginations? How did the phrase, "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" become so oft repeated? And how did the Kryptonian symbol for the House of El become an image you can scarcely go a day without seeing? To answer those questions, we must examine the birth of a legend.
Superman: The First Superhero
The year was 1938. Superman appeared on the front cover of #DC's Action Comics No. 1, hoisting a car above his head. And the first costumed superhero was born.
Really, though, Superman's origins could be traced back even further. During the 1800s, books of comic strips — often cartoons political in nature — were published on low-grade paper. These resembled the Sunday comics section of today's newspapers and came to be called "the funnies." In reality, these were the predecessors of the comic book.
During the 1920s, other forms of media became popular, further shaping the superhero genre. Pulp magazines featured collections of short stories on topics such as adventure, mystery and science fiction. In 1935, the funnies and the pulps converged in a volume known as New Fun Issue 1, essentially the first true comic book.
In 1933, Jerry Siegel self-published a short story, titled "The Reign of the Superman," complete with illustrations by high school classmate Joe Schuster. This was not the Superman we know today — rather, this character was a villain who had gained powers using an experimental drug. Within a year, Schuster and Siegel had developed another character by the name of Superman, this time a heroic one.
The character of Superman was born during a unique time in American history. In the year that Superman's creators were born, 1914, World War I had begun. The Spanish flue pandemic followed four years later. No one in the US was left untouched by the ravages of these two events. The Great Depression brought with it unemployment and often hunger and homelessness for millions of people. Siegel had experienced personal tragedy when his father died of heart failure during a robbery at the family business. He was ready for a hero and so was the world.
Superman Through The Ages
The Adventures of Superman radio show introduced millions of fans to the Man of Steel. In a time before television sets existed in every household, children and adults alike were entertained by radio serials. Over the course of 11 years, The Adventures of Superman turned out over 2,000 episodes, each with the classic introduction: "Look! Up in the sky!"
During World War II, Superman's image was used to sell war bonds. In the years that followed, he advertised everything from breakfast cereal to car insurance to foster care. The combined total of worldwide box office earnings since 1978 for movies in which Superman was a title character is well over $2.3 billion. With so much cash flow sparked by this superhero property, it's no wonder that his emblem continues to be emblazoned on all sorts of products.
Becoming The Superman Of Today
According to Jim Hambrick, former Hollywood agent and owner/operator of the Super Museum in Metropolis, Illinois, the character of Superman has been revisited and revised about once per decade; in recent years, this time frame has been reduced to about once every eight years. Why? Updating the Man of Steel keeps him relevant to ever-changing, new generations of fans. "Times change," Hambrick explained. "The character has to change with our society. For example, he doesn't change in a phone booth anymore, because there are none."
Still, this doesn't mean that the fundamental elements of Superman are to be left behind. He still stands for "truth, justice, and the American way." Recent years have even seen a shift toward the Superman of yesteryear. In 2011, #DCComics revamped and relaunched most of its titles with The New 52. Artist Rags Morales explained:
"Originally, when Superman took off, he was exerting effort. To stop a train was painful. To get electrocuted was painful. He survived it much better than we could, but we forget how impossible these things are to do. I love that he's been brought back down to Earth. That's the way it should be."
So what does the future hold for the Big Blue Boy Scout? Only time will tell, as fans eagerly await the release of Justice League in November 2017. Everyone has their favorite incarnation of Superman. Which one is yours? Tell us in the comments below.