Superman Turns 80

April 18, 1938 was the copyright date of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comic, although the issues didn’t reach newstands until a few weeks later. The creation of high school friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was a concept that had been refined and developed by the team for around 5 years by the time it finally made it to print.

Comparisons are often made to Nietzsche’s origination of the term “Superman” (Übermensch), with a certain amount of bewilderment that two nice Jewish boys would embrace an idea that was simultaneously held up as an ideal in Nazi Germany, the truth is that Siegel and Shuster weren’t thinking of that at all when they developed this influential character. The term was widely used in common speech at that point. Siegel had introduced a Superman character as early as 1933 but comics publishers kept demanding more and more novelty to set it apart. Consequently he kept adding attributes until arriving at the Man of Steel we know today. Kryptonite, his Achilles’ Heel was added to make him vulnerable so there would be some stakes in the story telling.

While not influenced by Neitzche, the team did draw from popular culture and literature to build their new character. Shuster was a fan of the fitness (bodybuilding) culture that had been launched by Sandow, and was a fan of such strong men as Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”) and Siegmund Breitbart. The screen persona of Douglas Fairbanks also played a role, as did that of Harold Lloyd, for Clark Kent. (Ah, a light dawns, eh?) Johnny Weissmuller and Dick Tracy were also models Shuster referenced for Superman’s look. Edgar Rice Boroughs’ John Carter of Mars supplied the idea of super strength and the ability to leap over buildings due to lower gravity. The look of Krypton seems derived from Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and other space operas of the day. The name for the city Metropolis obviously comes from the Fritz Lang movie. And the duel identity business was a common trope, from such swashbuckling literature as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Lois Lane was influenced by the Torchy Blane series of movies starring Glenda Farrell, and by the real life Nellie Bly. As for the Daily Planet setting, newrooms were a common jumping off point for pulpy adventure stories in the 1930s, not just in dramas like The Front Page, but more relevantly in murder mysteries and horror stories like Dr. X (1932) and Mystery at the Wax Museum (1933, which features Farrell as very Torchy-like character).

The character’s popularity led to success in other media. Click the links for posts on: