Superman turns 80 this year. But where did he come from?
Steel — as in The Man of Steel — is an alloy. It’s composed of iron, carbon and other elements.
A similar point could be made about Superman, 80 years old this June, depending on how you count. (The Action Comics No. 1 comic book where Superman made his debut was labeled “June 1938,” but the issue actually began appearing on newsstands in April.)
Superman is iconic, instantly familiar. But he was a composite: a mix of many things floating around pop culture in 1938. Those elements were well-known to every pulp book-reading, radio-listening, movie-going kid of the 1930s.
It was the way that cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster combined them that led to the Big Bang of comic book history: the birth of the superhero.
“Our reaction was less ‘How original!’ than ‘But, of course!'” the cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote in his landmark 1965 study, “The Great Comic Book Heroes.”
So where did Superman come from? Not from Krypton, that’s for sure. Here’s the anatomy of the Man of Steel: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and red, and yellow).
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The Name. “Superman” is a German name — but you knew that. “Übermensch,” coined by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in 1883 to denote the man of superior morality, had been translated as “Superman” as early as 1903 by George Bernard Shaw for his play “Man and Superman.” Superman was a familiar term by the 1930s — but mostly in sinister contexts (the Nazis, and the self-justifying thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb). Siegel and Shuster themselves had used the term in a 1933 pulp story, “The Reign of the Superman,” as the name of a villain. Their great breakthrough came five years later: when they realized that a Superman could be a hero.
The Place. “Metropolis” just means city. “The mother city of the colony” to use the precise Greek meaning. But the Metropolis Siegel and Shuster had in mind, without doubt, was the eye-popping city of the future that Fritz Lang created for his classic 1927 sci-fi film “Metropolis.” A super-city, for a super man.
The Secret Identity. Every kid in the 1930s knew that the Scarlet Pimpernel, the dashing hero of the 1905 book and 1934 film who rescued victims of the French Revolution, was really Sir Percy Blakeney, a milquetoast whose only seeming talent was writing rhymes like, “Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel!” Zorro (1919), the Shadow (1930) and the Green Hornet (1936) were other pre-Superman heroes with diffident alter-egos. The difference with Superman, as Feiffer pointed out, is that mild-mannered Clark Kent is the fictional character. Superman disguises himself as Clark Kent, not the other way around.
The Glasses. Eyeglasses, as every school bully knows, are the mark of a wimp. As in, “You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, wouldja?” But Clark Kent didn’t start the fashion. Long before, the silent movie comedian Harold Lloyd played a weakling in thick glasses who usually ended up — by the film’s climax — performing some superhuman feat, such as climbing the outside of a skyscraper, or winning a war single-handedly. Who does that remind you of?
The Costume. So why do superheroes wear tights and a cape? Superman’s costume probably goes back to circus performers: the acrobats, strong men, trapeze artists and human cannonballs who were the superheroes of the pre-comic book world. That look was first adopted by Alex Raymond for his futuristic hero Flash Gordon in 1934, and then by Lee Falk for the Phantom, a comic-strip hero (non-super) in 1936. The following year, it appeared on Superman — and then on every other super-person. “If Alex Raymond was the Dior for Superman, Joe Shuster set the fashion from then on,” Feiffer wrote. “Everybody else’s super-costumes were copies from his shop.”
The Powers. Superman’s amazing abilities set him apart from any previous pop hero. But even here, there was precedent. The Shadow, who had the ability to “cloud men’s minds,” had appeared in print in 1930 and on radio in 1931. The pulp hero Doc Savage, “the man of bronze” (1933) was not literally super like the Man of Steel, but very close to it; he also had a “fortress of solitude” in the arctic. John Carter of Mars (1912) was a kind of reverse Superman — an Earthling on the red planet, given superhuman strength and the ability to leap great distances because of the planet’s reduced gravity. Superman, as a matter of fact, couldn’t originally fly, just leap. It was Max Fleischer, producer of Superman cartoons starting in 1941, who made Superman airborne as a concession to his animators.
The Mission. “So was created — SUPERMAN, champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” So we read in an early issue of Action Comics. Many have pointed out the similarity between Superman and the Golem, a Jewish myth. The Golem is a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi’s magic (and thus also an ancestor of Frankenstein). But the Golem, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, is a super-strong savior, who defends the Jewish people when they’re attacked. Both of Superman’s creators were Jewish, so this may not be a coincidence. Nor is it probably by accident that Superman’s original alien name, on his home planet Krypton, is Kal-El (his father is Jor-El.) “El” is Hebrew for God.
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