KAL-EL of Krypton was born 75 years ago this week, and rather than take an easy retirement, he’s starring in a new film and saving the world. You’ll know him better as Superman, and Stephen McGinty asks why this old alien is still loved the world over.
In the late spring of 1938, when Franklin D Roosevelt was in the White House, Hitler’s troops had just marched into Austria and the sweet notes of Benny Goodman echoed around Carnegie Hall, American newspapers carried an advert for a new comic: “Look for this dandy new magazine, filled with original adventures, features and pictures. Written and drawn especially for you by your favourite artists! You’ll miss the treat of a lifetime if you fail to buy a copy.” For boys and girls across America the first edition of Action Comics, which was published on 18 April, 1938 (though the cover date was June), was well worth the 10 cents price as it introduced a man who would become a cultural phenomenon – more than a man, in fact … a Superman.
Fifty years earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman, a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying still.” He couldn’t have foreseen that his concept would evolve into a caped alien who wore his underpants over his tights.
However, for Jerry Siegel, a young writer from Cleveland, Ohio, he was a hero and the kind of man who might have saved his father. Mitchell Siegel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, died when young Jerry was a teenager of a heart attack when his haberdashery store was held up in an armed robbery. With artist friend Joe Shuster, Siegel created Superman, rocketed from a dying planet (later named Krypton) to Earth, where gravitational differences gave him unimaginable powers. They modelled Superman on Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, while Clark Kent, his mild-mannered alter-ego, was bequeathed a touch of Harold Lloyd. Siegel said years later that the costume was modelled on a circus strongman’s outfit. The thinking was: “Let’s give him a big S on his chest, and a cape, make him as colourful as we can and as distinctive as we can.” The trick worked.
The comic strip was an instant success, with kids drawn by the image of Superman lifting a car above his head. Action Comics #1 sold out within a week and multiple print runs followed. By January the following year, the character had a daily newspaper strip, and his own comic book soon followed, the ads for which read: “And so begins the startling adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time: Superman! A physical marvel, A mental wonder. Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world.”
Yet curiously, his most celebrated superpower didn’t evolve until he expanded from comics into another new medium – Superman flew for the first time on radio, having previously leapt tall buildings in a single bound. A new book, published to coincide with the 75th birthday of the Man of Steel, reveals that many of the characters and characteristics of the Superman we know and love today began on the radio serial which debuted in 1940, such as Daily Planet editor Perry White, best pal Jimmy Olsen and the deadly radioactive rock, Kryptonite.
Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero says on the phone from his home town of Boston: “There are two reasons for his enduring popularity and they seem contradictory. I like to say that Superman evolves more than the fruit fly. Every decade, from the beginning, we have got the Superman that was specifically suited to our needs at that moment.
“In 1938 when he was born, the world was in the middle of the Great Depression and we got a Superman who was a butt-kicking, New Deal liberal, who was chasing down slumlords and wife beaters, and he was what America and the world needed then.
“In the 40s he helped take us to war – he stayed on the home front but he was a rallying cry for everything from selling war bonds to teaching illiterate soldiers how to read. In the 50s, there was the red menace and Superman went off to chase down communists.
“In every era Superman was suited to what the people thought the problems of the world were and he was the one who was going to help us fight back. So one reason is his evolving nature and the other reason is contradictory, because even as he was evolving he remains true to steadfast ideals that will never change in 75 years and those were knowing the difference between right and wrong and, familiar as that is, it remains a touchstone. The world has plenty of dark heroes like Batman or pop heroes like Spider-Man, but we have one Dudley Do-Right hero and that is Superman and that is what I happen to believe sells best, whether it is in Scotland or Buenos Aires or Africa or Berkeley, California, or Boston. That is what people turn to.”
Over the past 75 years we’ve even had a Russian Superman. One of the most inventive Superman tales was written by the Scottish comics writer Mark Millar, who has gone on to enjoy success with the hit movie based on one of his comics, Kick-Ass. In 2003, he published, Superman: Red Son to critical acclaim and excellent sales. The graphic novel imagined an alternative universe where Krypton blew up a few hours later, the Earth had rotated and instead of landing in the cornfields of Kansas, baby Kal-El landed in a collective farm in Ukraine. Instead of fighting for “…truth, justice, and the American Way”, he is described in Soviet radio broadcasts as a champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for “Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact”.
For Denny O’Neil, who wrote the character in the 1970s and went on to become one of DC Comics’ most influential editors, Superman’s appeal was a combination of factors. “Superman’s popularity is, I think, a perfect storm, the right time in the country’s history. The right medium … Superman started as a vigilante, and evolved into a god. They kept adding to his powers. When you have a guy who can crunch mountains it’s silly to put him against pickpockets. The simple laws of storytelling mean you have to make the bad guy equal to the good guy or there is no suspense, so soon he was defending cities and that de facto put him on the side of the Establishment.”
This summer Superman returns to the big screen in Man of Steel, the new movie produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen). The cape once worn by Christopher Reeve has been taken up by the British actor Henry Cavill, and Marlon Brando’s role has been picked up by Russell Crowe.
According to the character’s latest biographer, Superman was Jewish, like his creators. “Superman is popular enough that every religion on the face of the planet has embraced him. If you were a Christian you would see the Superman birth story as a God-like figure sending his first son to earth to show mankind that it can be better that it can be. For Christians he is the Christ story, for Buddhists he is the perfect zen-like character. For agnostics, he is the secular messiah – who needs God and a religion? Superman tells us the difference between right and wrong.
“But I think the two Jewish kids who gave us Superman had something very different in mind. They threw in endless hints. Those hints range from a name on planet Krypton – Kal-El – that translates into ‘vessel of God’ in Hebrew. The holiest Jewish book is the Mishnah, the three principles of the Mishnah, the three pillars of Judaism is true, justice and peace, well I don’t think it is accidental that Superman stands for truth, justice and, hopefully, what is the American way, which is peace. If you don’t buy any of that other stuff, for me, the most convincing piece of evidence is that any name that ends in ‘man’ is one of two things: it is either a superhero or a Jew.”
He may be streaking over the skies of North America, but Superman has fans in Scotland. In Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Peter Watson, 40, doesn’t mind stopping for a minute to wish the Man of Steel a happy birthday. “He’s the prototype hero, the first major superhero,” explains the customer service advisor. “When he was first created, he wasn’t as powerful as he is now; he fought social injustice, corrupt politicians and wife-beaters: they’ve updated him to make him socially relevant.”
• Additional reporting by Martin McMillan.
• The Golden Age of Comics by Paul Levitz, Taschen, £34.99; Superman: The High Flying History by Larry Tye, Random House, £10.13/£16.03 on Amazon.