There are just some heroes that everyone knows about. There are heroes and legends that transcend race, nationality or gender or religion. They are icons. They stand for something, and they reach for an ideal that for the most part, we all admire or even aspire to. Do I really need to introduce him? I can’t believe that anyone with an internet connection required to read this has never heard of the Last Son of Krypton, The Man of Steel, Superman!
Superman is often credited as the First Superhero. That’s debatable if you want to be nitpicky about it. (You could claim that Hercules or Robin Hood are superheroes if you stretch the definition) It can’t be argued though, that Superman is the template on which all modern superheroes are drawn. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the Man of Steel in 1933 and had a hard time selling the concept at first. The distant planet Krypton is dying, and the scientist Jor-El creates a spacecraft capable of sending his infant son to the safety of Planet Earth before the end comes. On Earth the baby is discovered in the crashed rocket ship by Ma and Pa Kent, a middle aged couple of farmers. They raise the boy as their own, having no children of their own, naming him Clark. It doesn’t take too long for them to discover that the child has superhuman abilities. Luckily the Kents raise Clark right, and he uses his abilities only for good instead of becoming a big bully or power crazed maniac. I’ve heard that Shuster and Siegel had originally penned a story where that’s exactly what happens, but I’ve never seen it. Anyway, Clark Kent eventually grows up and moves to the big city of Metropolis, where he uses his powers as Superman to fight for Truth and Justice. There probably only a handful of people that don’t already know that story, though. What they might not realize is that way back when Superman was first created he didn’t have the super powers that he has today. He was really just a really really strong guy. Remember the old line “able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound”? In the first Superman stories that’s how ol’ Supes got around. Jumping, Incredible Hulk style! But eventually he was given the ability to fly. Other powers like his X-Ray vision came into play as the character progressed through the ages. Soon Superman became so popular, comics were beginning to display his adventures as a teenager with the Adventures of Superboy. In addition to that Superman had a female counterpart in the comics, Supergirl….another survivor from Krypton. She was retconned in the 1980’s so that she is no longer a kryptonian, but some sort of female clone….I think…I never got to read the entire story. Nevertheless, Superman has inspired many spin-offs. Heck at one point he even had a super dog, named Krypto.
Superman appeared in animation as early as the 1940’s, and in the 50’s he made it to television with his own show, the Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. Since these shows were made in the fifties the Man of steel is seen there as the typical square jawed American hero. Reeves’ Superman fought mostly against spies, bank robbers and mobsters, hardly fitting foes for a guy that can do all of the things that Superman can. That’s probably due to the state of special effects back then and to maintain a decent budget for the show. Still, kids loved seeing the Man of Steel on TV and he’s appeared in various animated shows since then. Children of the 60’s and seventies will fondly remember animated adventures of Superman and The Super Friends, where Superman was teamed up with other DC Comics heroes like Batman, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. It wasn’t until 1978 that Superman came to theaters, in the form of the late Christopher Reeve (no relation to George Reeves). This movie spawned several sequels but only the second was really any good. But they certainly breathed some new life into Superman’s popularity. Superman was never really out of favor, but over the years he racked up so much power that a lot of his stories became a bit boring. Nothing but the element Kryptonite could harm him, and he could do almost anything. In the second movie by Christopher Reeve, Superman II they had to get other kryptonians (Three of ‘em) to provide a suitable nemesis for him.
Comic book fans will know that the artist / writer John Byrne helped DC revamp Superman in the mid 1980’s. (Byrne was a powerhouse in the 80’s. He also worked on Marvel’s X-Men, Hulk and Fantastic Four. Byrne also created their Canadian super team, Alpha Flight) Superman’s origins stayed the same, but his powers were toned down a bit. He was still the most powerful of DC’s superheroes, but not to the extent that he had built up over the previous years. Which is a good thing….Superman became a lot more appealing when he couldn’t push planets out of orbit. In the 1990’s DC published a story called the Death of Superman. The Big S fought a monster like villain called Doomsday that had enough power to rival his own. Heroically Superman sacrificed his own life in defeating this creature. (Don’t worry he didn’t stay dead) It’s a testament to Superman’s immense popularity that the book was sold out almost as fast as it hit the racks. Crap, I was in Germany at the time and when the comic was unveiled at the PX it went so fast that there was a waiting list longer than a truck for more copies! People all over the world were actually saddened by the death of a fictional character! On the news I saw a woman exclaim “Who’ll take care of us and protect the children if Superman is gone?”
As an icon, Superman should get thanks from practically every other superhero out there. He was the first, and he’s proved to have true lasting power. At first he was pretty gruff and ready to solve matters with brute force….in the 50’s TV show the tagline was that Superman fights for Truth Justice and the American Way. Today’s Superman is a bit more complicated and politically correct. He has a boy scout image, willing to fight injustice for everyone on the planet and never ask for anything in return. It’s easy to love a guy that is all but indestructible, who is faster than a speeding bullet, has more power in his muscles than a locomotive and will be perfectly willing to get your cat out of a tree and help an old lady across the street instead of trying to take over the world.
The Man of Steel was back on TV in Lois and Clark, a modern day look at the Superman mythos, and on Smallville, a show about his early days on the Kent Farm. I’m not a big fan of TV, but obviously these shows have a following. From what I hear, Superman will be returning to the silver screen in the next few years. I certainly hope so. It’s a cruel world out there and sometimes the only guy that can make things right is Superman.