Superman is the archetypal comic book character that has long since transcended the medium of comic books and has become arguably the most mainstream symbol for “truth, justice and the American way”. The grand daddy of superhero comic books, his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938 remains one of the most iconic images in the industry’s history. With such a cemented place in the hallowed halls of pop culture, writers have been confident enough with Superman’s innate popularity to add some very dark and questionable things to his canon, safe in the knowledge that there was little they could to get readers to hate the Man of Steel.
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Superman has actively pushed the lines of morality many times in ways that even his most devoted fans may not have noticed or perhaps chose to ignore. No matter how much of a boy scout he is, there are some pretty dark things in Superman’s past that fans probably hope never see the light of day again and we here at CBR are ready to expose them for all to see. From his initial inception as a character to the modern day, here are 15 things Superman has buried so deep, even his die-hard fans may be surprised by.
15. HE COMMITTED CRIMES TO SAVE A FOOTBALL GAME
Back in the pre-Crisis days when every non-Superman character looked like they’d popped over from a Chester Gould comic, the Last Son of Krypton decided to use his considerable influence and god-like abilities to handle America’s most devastating epidemic: corruption in football. In the first year of his Action Comics run, Superman learns that a group of criminals had bribed officials in order to rig the upcoming big game.
Since he is the epitome of American excellence and decorum, Superman decides to drug, kidnap, and impersonate football player Tommy Burke, who he leaves unconscious and bound in his own bed. Superman then goes on to play football as Burke with the reckless abandon and disregard for physical safety that only a god among men can muster. Kidnapping, identity theft, and assault and battery all in the name of preventing a rigged football game. Only in America.
14. HE’S SUPER RACIST
Being the physical embodiment of a country’s core mission statement can’t be an easy job, but it isn’t exactly made easier by the country in question having some issues with systemic racism. It also doesn’t help that comics generally haven’t handled the subject with grace. In a particularly tone-deaf comic out of the ’70s, Lois turns her skin black in order to write an article of the experience of living in Metropolis’s ‘Little Africa.’ Because the ’70s were weird, man.
The story culminates in Lois confronting Superman, challenging him to marry her while her skin had a higher concentration of melanin. To which good old Clark Kent replied, “Lois…how could you ask such a question of me? Me?!” He gave no further answer. Even if hardcore fans know about this moment, none of them want people to remember that time Superman suggested he’d never marry a black person.
13. HE FIGHTS EVERYONE HE MEETS
An unfortunate downside to Superman as a character is that he’s one of the most over-powered brands in all of fiction. His gimmick is basically “I win all the fights.” A go-to story for many writers is simply to pit their property against Superman to show how they stack up. Essentially, Superman has become the universal measuring stick to see how powerful a hero or villain really is. Because of this, he’s fought pretty much everyone in his life in a no-holds barred match, either of his own volition or through mind-control shenanigans.
He’s fought every member of the Justice League, but his brawling exploits don’t stop there. His coworkers, allies, friends, and thousands of random thugs, bystanders, and innocents have been on the wrong end of his fists. It’s a harsh reminder of what Superman is really like that virtually everyone he knows will eventually be beat up.
12. HE WORKED FOR GENERAL ZOD
General Zod is perhaps one of the most iconic Superman villains, second only to Lex Luther in terms of symbolic duality with the Man of Steel. He matches Superman in all physical levels, but prizes Kryptonian heritage over adaptation to Earth culture, making him Clark’s mirror opposite. However, in Superman: World of New Krypton, Superman voluntarily serves under this fascist villain.
After freeing the Bottle City of Kandor from Braniac’s ship, Superman helped establish the city and its denizens on ‘New Krypton,’ a mini-planet opposite Earth in orbit around the yellow sun. Against Superman’s wishes, Zod was freed from the Phantom Zone to help rebuild the Kryptonian military guild. To keep an eye on his old enemy, Superman allowed himself to be drafted into the newly-formed army, directly under the command of one General Dru-Zod.
11. HE’S PROVED LEX LUTHOR RIGHT
Lex Luthor is Superman’s exact opposite. Instead of a living god empowered by unlimited strength, he’s a simple human who seized power through his vast intellect. And that same intellect is what convinces him that Superman is a threat to the human race who must be exposed and exterminated at all costs. Though this ideology makes him the villain, it doesn’t mean Superman hasn’t tried his hardest to inadvertently show the world that Lex is completely justified.
In non-canon universes like Injustice and the one featured in the”Batman/Superman: Absolute Power” storyline, Superman outright becomes the dictator of Earth, eliminating anyone who opposes his oppression. But even in official continuity, he has occasionally fallen susceptible to delusions of grandeur that threatens to put the entire planet under his tyrannical control.
10. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST BRAINWASHED HEROES EVER
Another downside of Superman being so strong is that he’s a prime target for people who would use his strength for their own nefarious ends. As such, almost every psychic villain has, at one point or another, wrapped their hands around Superman’s brain. Max Lord, Mongul, Poison Ivy, Darkseid, and Eradicator have each taken their turn toying around with Superman, using him for everything from fighting Batman to making a pornographic movie with Big Barda (more on that later).
One doesn’t even need superpowers to control him. Lex Luthor has occasionally bent the Man of Steel to his will with blackmail, coercion, or Red Kryptonite. Overall, it’s hard to believe anyone in the DC universe trusts Superman, giving his long and storied history of vulnerability to mind control.
9. HE BETRAYED AND IMPRISONED HIS BEST FRIEND
Pete Ross was a critical part of Superman’s origin. As a human who knew and accepted Clark Kent’s secret powers, he became a standard of how Superman expected people to react to him. So it was very out of character for Superman to abandon Pete’s son on an alien world and drive his old friend to madness. In the late ’70s, Jonathan Ross was kidnapped by the Nyrvin aliens.
Superman went after him, but was stopped by the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes who informed him that Jonathan had to stay with his captors in order for their perfect future to develop. So Superman left little Johnny with the Nyrvins and just expected Pete to be okay with that. Instead, Pete had a nervous breakdown at the prospect of never seeing his son again, went on a crime spree, tried to Superman and eventually was incarcerated in an asylum.
8. HE’S BEEN A RAT BASTARD TO JIMMY OLSEN
Jimmy Olsen has been Superman’s loyal companion and photographer buddy for the better part of 80 years. As the in-universe stand-in for the readers’ viewpoint, you’d expect the fatherly Superman to treat his defacto sidekick with respect. This is not the case.
From adopting him as his son and then emotionally abusing him to forcing him to live in a slum house, to pitting him against Aquaman in a fight to the death over a glass of water, Superman has a veritable rap sheet of criminal and moral offenses against his “best pal.” Perhaps the worst thing Superman has ever done to poor Jimmy though was force him to marry a gorilla. In front of his girlfriend. And a film crew. on camera. For the world to see.
7. HE MADE A SEX TAPE WITH BIG BARDA
Most in-depth Superman fans will already know this one, but it deserves to be mentioned if for no other reason than we must never forget that it happened. Superman once did the horizontal dance with Big Barda, the former Apokolyptan warrior and wife of Mr. Miracle, while being filmed. Both heroes were under the mind control of Sleez of Apokolips (real name) who forced both of them into it.
Somebody (John Byrne specifically) thought this was a good idea. For Superman, the Man of Steel, to make a sex tape with another hero. The story even ends with all parties vowing never to discuss what happened ever again, as if the writers immediately regretted their decision but didn’t have time to rewrite a whole new story. To this day, the story remains one of the most ludicrous stories ever produced in comics, which is certainly saying something.
6. HE WENT A LITTLE CRAZY AND BECAME ‘GANGBUSTER’
One of the most formative parts of the Superman character was his first kill. After murdering an alternate version of Zod with kryptonite, Clark was wracked by guilt and began suffered from extreme stress, experiencing long blackouts, insomnia, and poor hygiene. Fortunately, while Superman was apparently on sabbatical, a new crimefighter in a garish outfit was prowling the streets of Metropolis under the moniker of ‘Gangbuster.’
Unlike the benevolent Superman though, Gangbuster was violent and bloodthirsty and quickly fell under the ire of Metropolis citizens. It was only when he battled with the hero Guardian that it was revealed that Gangbuster was actually Superman’s psychotic alter ego. His exposure forced Superman to re-evaluate his life and thankfully he abandoned the persona. It was later picked up and continued by school teacher Jose Delgado.
5. HE HATES ALL THE CARS
To be fair, anyone who can fly, can move faster than a speeding bullet, or can leap tall buildings with a single bound would probably decline conventional automobiles. Still, that doesn’t excuse Superman literally declaring war on cars and doing his very best to destroy any and all cars he happens to come across.
In Action Comics #12, one of Clark’s friends is killed in an auto accident, triggering a one-man crusade that sees Superman destroy a car factory, a car dealership, and an entire impound lot worth of seized vehicles. There’s also that time he tried to kill Lois by tying her to the grill of a big rig and driving it straight off a cliff because the one thing the man who has everything lacks is a sense of irony.
4. HE’S TRIED TO KILL LOIS SO MANY TIMES
Just…just so many times. Between 1940 and 1980, if Superman writers found themselves in a bind or running a deadline, they’d just think of a new reason for Superman to try and kill Lois, slap it on the cover, and go for drinks. He’s driven her off a cliff, thrown her into space, exposed her to the Parasite, prosecuted her in court, drove her to depression and an emotional meltdown, blackmailed her, literally robbed her blind, asphyxiated her in space, and gaslit her.
One of the most hilarious comic book cover of all time is Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #102 which features Superman openly confessing to the murder of the dead Lois he holds in his arms. Frankly, it’s hard to believe these two are now married with a kid in DC’s current Rebirth line. Based on his history, Superman’s practically a poster boy for domestic abuse.
3. THAT HAIR
Goodness, just look at it. You know you’ve taken a wrong step somewhere when your character starts looking like the buff lead singer of an emo band. He looks like something a bored high school boy would draw in the margins of his notebook. It might seem like — wait, one more. He looks like a side character from T2 that got cut for being “too ’80s.
Ask any Superman fan who was around when he sported this cut about the fabled ‘Superman Mullet’ and they’ll gaze solemnly into the distance and deny it ever happened. It might seem like complaining about Superman’s hair is superficial, but hair is important in his world. After all, Lex Luthor starts hating Superman because the latter made him bald and Clark’s signature hair curl is almost as iconic as that ‘S’ on his chest.
2. EVERYTHING PRE-CRISIS
Before Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the entire DC Universe, Superman had the most grab-bag group of powers and personalities of any comic book character, a record he retains today. Super sewing, super language translating, super sneezing, super horse riding were all powers Superman would demonstrate for one or two issues before they were never brought up again. Superman would do heinous things to his friends and family, but they’d always forgive him based on one form of contrived logic or another.
Frankly, the whole thing was a long, uninterrupted mess of admittedly creative stories marred by out-of-character and occasionally offensive tangents. Superman has certainly shaped up in the last 30 or so years, but hardcore fans probably like to believe the hero they know and love was born in 1985.
1. HE MAKES THE ENTIRE DC UNIVERSE OBSOLETE
Arguably the worst part of Superman is the one least talked about. In the DC Universe, Superman is essentially a deity, and that’s not an exaggeration. His powers extend beyond the traditionally recognized set of flight, strength, and supervision to include faster-than-light speeds, galaxy-destroying power, and sub-atomic vision, among countless others. He is one of if not the most powerful fictional character ever conceived.
As such, there is no problem in the DC Universe that Superman and Superman alone cannot handle in seconds. Crime, natural disasters, cataclysmic events, doomsday devices, and schemes of global domination are inconsequential to him because he can solve them all before breakfast. Other heroes might as well hang up their capes, assured in the fact that whatever the problem, Superman’s got it.