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The Superhero That Paved The Way

By Edited Sep 20, 2016 1 0


Pencil and Paper

In 1933, school friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created an illustrated story called The Reign of the Superman, apparently at least somewhat inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the 'Ubermensch'. The story focused on an impoverished man named Bill Dunn who attains superpowers as a result of experiment done on him by a 'mad scientist'. Dunn's new abilities turn him into a villain and he seeks out world domination.

Later that year, they began work on a different story, to be called The Superman. Unlike in the first story, this time the title character would be a hero. Additionally, he had no superpowers, but above-average strength. Named Clark Kent, he worked as a reporter alongside a love interest, Lois Lane.

After several rejections, story changes, a falling-out and a reconciliation between the Siegel and Shuster, Detective Comics Inc. (later to become DC Comics[1]) picked up their idea. Soon after, Siegel and Shuster sold all rights pertaining to the character to Detective Comics Inc., a decision they would regret.

Publication and Character History

Superman was officially debuted on April 18, 1938 in the first issue of Action Comics, an anthology series. The character was a massive success, and became the star and title character of a separate series. In addition, though it would keep its original title, Action Comics eventually exclusively featured Superman stories, making the character the focal point of two different series. 

As it was with before, the character's actual name was Clark Kent. Similarly, he worked as a reporter and was smitten with Lois Lane, his fellow reporter. However, unlike before, he was an alien refugee whose original name was Kal-El. Sent to Earth as a small child by his parents before the destruction of their homeplanet, Krypton, Kal-El was also gifted with superpowers. Originally, this was limited to super-strength, which in extension gave him the ability to run extraordinarily fast and jump as high as 1/8 of a mile.[2] As time went on, the character's abilities were expanded upon. Perhaps most notably, he could fly. Also introduced was his only major weakness - Kryptonite - pieces of his former homeplanet that have a toxic effect on him, with different colors affecting him in different ways, arguably the most well-known being the green variety.

After landing on Earth in a place called Smallville, he is found by a farmer and his wife, who raise him as their son and give him the name Clark Kent. Clark and his adoptive parents become a sort of classical All-American Protestant familial unit and the values he is instilled with play a critical role when he becomes Superman.

His most prominent adversary over the years has been Lex Luthor. Originally, Luthor was portrayed as a 'mad scientist', perhaps inspired by the Siegel and Shuster's The Reign of the Superman. Later, he became a powerful businessman and eventually President of the United States. An origin story further elaborated the he and Clark Kent were friends when they were young. Other major villains include General Zod (a Kryptonian military leader who had gone rogue), Brainiac (an android with a history of shrinking cities), Bizarro (a kind of villainous version of Superman), Doomsday (a monster from the depths of Krypton), Darkseid (a tyrant who wants to destroy free-will in the universe), Toyman (a maniac that tends to use children's toys in his terrible schemes) and Mister Mxyzptlk (an inter-dimensional traveler that can be defeated if he is somehow made to say or spell his name backwards).

In the late 1950s, Kara Zor-El (a.k.a. Supergirl), Clark's biological cousin, was introduced. Aside from Superman and Clark's great love, Lois, his co-workers have included Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Cat Grant. Other supporting characters include Clark's childhood friends Lana Lang and Pete Ross, Lois' cousin Chloe Sullivan and a Kryptonian dog named Krypto. Additionally, Superman has long been a member of the Justice League, along with other DC superheroes that have included Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman. In Amalgam Comics, the joint venture between DC and its main rival Marvel Comics, Superman is merged with Marvel's Captain America to become the character Super-Soldier.

A number of storylines and/or issues have received particular notoriety. From 1985 to 1986, Superman and the Justice League were included the iconic Crisis on Infinite Earths series. In 2005 and 2006, they were featured in its also-iconic follow-up, Infinite Crisis. The early 1990s featured The Death of Superman, arguably the most famous storyline of all to center on the character. In 1996, Superman took on the Hulk in the DC vs. Marvel series. Later that year, Superman: The Wedding Album was released. The issue coincided with certain events that were happening on television and included contributions from most of the major living artists that ever worked on the character up to that point. 2001's What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way has largely been perceived as a deliberate response and rejection of the provocative comic series The Authority. In the late 2000s, Superman: New Krypton featured a Kryptonian society taking up residence on Earth. The 2010-2011 storyline Grounded included Superman walking across much of the continental United States.

Shortly after the conclusion to Grounded, Superman along with most if not all other DC characters were re-visioned as part of DC's project known as The New 52. Eventually, it was announced that things would largely be restored to traditional order in 2016 with an initiative that has been called the DC Rebirth.

In addition to the ones above, a number of other aspects of the story have been changed as time has gone on, including the names of both Clark's biological and adoptive parents (it seems settled that his biological parents are now consistently known as Jor-El and Lara-El and his adoptive parents as Jonathan and Martha Kent), the name of the newspaper he works for (commonly known now as The Daily Planet) and the locations of Smallville and his later place of residence, Metropolis (apparently settled that both are located in Kansas).

In 1947, the start of what would go on to become a decades-long dispute over the ownership rights of the character began. Siegel and Shuster's attempts to receive what they considered a 'just share' of the profits from the character would be mostly unsuccessful due to the fact that they had signed over the ownership rights. Beginning in 1975, Siegel and Shuster began receiving a yearly stipend along with medical benefits and credit in all Superman stories from that point on in exchange for discontinuing the dispute.

Shuster passed away in 1992, followed by Siegel in 1996. In 2004, the Siegel family and DC entered into another fight that would draw on for an extended amount of time and in 2010 DC began taking on the Shuster family.


Beginning in 1940, a radio show called The Adventures of Superman began airing originally on New York City's WOR station and elsewhere in syndication. Later, the show moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1942 and to ABC in 1949. The show officially named the character Jimmy Olsen, who had previously been unnamed in the comics. In the 1980s, Superman returned to radio, airing in the United Kingdom on BBC Radio 4.[3] Also in 1942, the first of what would become several novelizations of the character was released.

Released in 1941 by Paramount Pictures, the first of what would become more than 15 cartoons was officially titled simply Superman. It would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon).[4] Over the decades numerous animated adaptations of the character would be made, both as movies and for television. 2014's The Lego Movie featured a more humorous version of the character, who was voiced by Channing Tatum.

Following two unsuccessful attempts by Republic Pictures, Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to create a Superman theatrical serial in 1947. Although they would attempt to sell the rights to both Universal Studios and to Republic, Columbia eventually released the series in 1948. Starring Kirk Alyn as the title character along with Noel Neill as Lois, Pierre Watkin as Perry White and Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, the serial was met with massive financial success. A 1950 follow-up, Atom Man vs. Superman, included Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor.

Superman and the Mole Men was released to theaters in 1951. It was the first project to star George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman as Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Starting in 1952, Adventures of Superman began airing on television in syndication. Initially also featuring Coates as Lois, she was later replaced by Noel Neill. Jimmy Olsen was portrayed by Jack Larson and Perry White by John Hamilton. In 1954, Reeves, Neill and Larson appeared in an educational film produced by the U.S. Government, Stamp Day for Superman, and a developed (but abandoned) series was planned to capitalize on the show's popularity featuring a dog called 'Superpup'.

The series came to an abrupt end in 1959 following the sudden death of George Reeves, a subject which has been the source of controversy in the years since. So much so, that it was the subject of the 2006 film Holywoodland. Reeves was played by Ben Affleck, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal. In an attempt to fill the void left by the cancellation, a pilot was shot for The Adventures of Superboy was shot in 1961, but never aired. The series would have focused on a younger version of the character.

In the 1970s, Warner Bros. began production on a big-budget movie adaptation. Christopher Reeve would star as Superman. Other cast members included Margot Kidder as Lois, Gene Hackman as Lex, Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Terence Stamp as General Zod. Additionally, Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill appear as Lois' parents. The movie was a critical and commercial smash success. It was the second-highest grossing movie released in 1978 and was up to that point the highest grossing in the history Warner Bros.. The film received a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects and it was nominated for three competitive awards. Additionally, Reeve would win the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer and Hackman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor to go along with three more nominations. Composer John Williams was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score and won a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. In 2003, Superman was ranked 26th on the American Film Institute's list of greatest heroes.

The first sequel, Superman II, was also a critical and commercial success. In 1983, Superman III was released. New cast members included Annette O'Toole as Lana Lang, Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn. The final film in the series, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, was released in 1987. In 1984, Tri-Star Pictures released Supergirl. The title character was portrayed by Helen Slater. Other cast members included Faye Dunaway and Peter O'Toole.

Starting in 1988, Superboy began airing on tv in syndication. Later, the title was changed to The Adventures of Superboy.

In 1994, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman debuted on ABC. It starred Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher as Clark and Lois. Originally, Michael Landes played Jimmy Olsen. He was later replaced by Justin Whalen. Lane Smith portrayed Perry White, K Callan and Eddie Jones played Martha and Jonathan Kent, John Shea played Lex Luthor and Tracy Scoggins played Cat Grant. Phyllis Coates and 1960s Batman star Adam West made guest appearances.

Also in the 1990s, an adaptation entitled Superman Lives that was to be directed by Tim Burton, who had previously directed 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns, and star Nicolas Cage went into pre-production. It was ultimately never finished.

Debuting on The WB in 2001, Smallville was inspired by a failed attempt to created a tv series about Batman in his youth. Originally serving as an origin story for the timeline established in the comics, the series featured Tom Welling as Clark, Kristin Kreuk as Lana, Michael Rosenbaum as Lex, Sam Jones III as Pete Ross, Superman III's Annette O'Toole as Martha and John Schneider as Jonathan. The series also has the distinction of introducing the character Chloe Sullivan as portrayed by Allison Mack, who was later included in the comics.

Eventually, the series began working on its own original take on the characters. It included certain characters in Clark's life much earlier than the had been in the comics. Among them being Lois Lane (played by Erica Durance), Jimmy Olsen (played by Aaron Ashmore), Kara (played by Laura Vandervoort), Zod (played by Callum Blue) and Doomsday (played by Sam Witwer). Additionally, the series featured the first live-action performance of the superhero Green Arrow, portrayed by Justin Hartley. The series won three Emmys and was nominated for an additional four. It would make the transition to The CW after the merger of The WB and UPN and become tied for the longest-running American science fiction series of all-time, and continued on in comic form. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Helen Slater, Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter were all guest stars.

In 2006, Warner Bros. released what was by then Superman Returns. The movie served as a sort of follow-up to Superman II, disregarding Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. It was directed by Bryan Singer, who had established himself in the comic book movie genre with Marvel's X-Men franchise. Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey (who had previously been approached to play the role in Superman Lives), James Marsden, Frank Langella, Parker Posey and Eva Marie Saint starred and Noel Neill and Jack Larson made cameos. Similar to the earlier movies, it was successful, both financially and critically. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award for its visual effects. It was the sixth-highest grossing theatrical release of 2006 for the North American box office and the ninth-highest worldwide. Routh later went on to play the DC character Atom in the television series Arrow, The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow.

Prior to work beginning on Superman Returns, attempts had been made to produce Superman: Flyby. The script for this movie was originally written by J. J. Abrams and directors Brett Ratner and McG were both eventually attached to the project. After Bryan Singer was hired to direct, plans were changed and Superman Returns was the result.

Released by Warner Bros. in 2013, Man of Steel was directed by Zack Snyder, whose previous projects included directing the movie adaptation of DC's Watchmen. It starred Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni and Russell Crowe. Previously, Cavill and Adams had both been under consideration for Superman: Flyby, Adams had guest starred on Smallville and Lane appeared in Hollywoodland. Another success, it was the fifth-highest grossing movie to be released in 2013 at the North American box office and the ninth-highest worldwide, and it was nominated for the BAFTA Kids' Vote award. The movie ultimately served as the launch for an extended universe, incorporating several DC characters throughout multiple movies, following the formula that Marvel had established. The next installment, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was released in 2016. New cast members in it would include Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Cavill, Adams and Eisenberg are all part of the cast for 2017's Justice League.

In 2015, Supergirl debuted on CBS. Featuring Melissa Benoist as the title character, other cast members have included Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen and Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant. Largely developed by the same team in charge of the series Arrow, The Flash and DC's Legend of Tomorrow (all of The CW), the show featured a crossover event with the Flash in its first season. Following the conclusion of that season, it was announced that the series would be moving to The CW. Recurring guests have included Helen Slater, Laura Vandervoort and Dean Cain. It was also reported that Tyler Loechlin would play Superman in the second season, whose face had previously not been shown in the series, and that Lynda Carter would also appear.



Superman: The Action Comics - Archives, Volume 1
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Superman Archives, Vol. 2 (DC Archive Editions)
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  1. "DC Comics." Comic Vine. 20/05/2016 <Web >
  2. James Whitbrook "The History Behind Superman's Ever-Changing Superpowers." io9. 9/02/2015. 20/05/2016 <Web >
  3. "The Adventures of Superman (BBC Radio series)." Wikipedia. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  4. "SHORT SUBJECT (Cartoon)." Oscars.org. 23/05/2016 <Web >

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