Superman: Man of steel, man of grit

Britain's own Henry Cavill is the new screen Superman in Man of Steel
Britain's own Henry Cavill is the new screen Superman in Man of Steel
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The new Superman film promises a darker, more serious take on the iconic character. It’s a version of the story whose time has come, says Alistair Harkness

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that there’s a new Superman movie on the horizon – and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Though by no means coincidental, the June release for Zack Snyder’s Christopher Nolan-produced Superman reboot Man of Steel will coincide with the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first-ever appearance, in Action Comics #1.

The significance of this is difficult to overstate. Cover-dated June 1938 (though actually published on 18 April of that year), the 13-page strip contained within that first issue not only featured the now iconic image of Superman in blue tights and red cape lifting a car over his head, it set in motion so much of what we now think of as modern pop culture that its own hyperbolic assertion that “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world” no longer seems quite so hyperbolic.

Indeed, Snyder’s film is merely the latest iteration of a character that has appeared in multiple mediums, from countless comic books and syndicated newspaper strips to radio serials, cartoons, television shows, movies, video games and billions of dollars’ worth of tertiary merchandise. But it is the character’s own shrouded-in-myth origins that hold the key to his lasting appeal, and the new film delves once more into the story of Superman’s arrival on Earth in order to deliver a tougher, less-romanticised take on the character than the one immortalised by Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie (and later homaged by über-fan Bryan Singer in his nostalgic pseudo-sequel Superman Returns).

Superman was created by high school friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933. The character was tirelessly reworked until they sold him for the princely sum of $130.00 to the publishers of Action Comics (giving up any copyright claims in the process). The story of Superman’s creation, then, is one of amazing fortitude and tragic misfortune. But it’s also a largely romanticised creation myth, one in which Siegel (who wrote it) and Shuster (who illustrated it) were collectively responding to some unspoken feeling of helplessness at being the children of Jewish immigrants living in the Great Depression while Fascism in Europe forced thousands more of their people to flee to the United States.

“It was a response to all that stuff,” says Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys, a new book about Siegel and Shuster that traces in fabulously intricate detail how they actually created the character, “but what’s surprising is how personal it really was. Superman is really an autobiography; it’s a fantasy autobiography in many ways, but they really wrote their lives into it.”

He’s not kidding. As well as tying together their literary and cultural influences – Siegel was a reporter for his high school newspaper, and obsessed with the pulpy science fiction magazines that were popular in the day, while Shuster was mad about bodybuilding – Ricca has pulled together every real-life inspiration that went into creating Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent, from the duo’s shared feelings of inferiority to their inability to talk to girls.

Indeed, Ricca reckons that Clark Kent (and his ongoing relationship with Lois Lane) is the reason Superman has endured. “Everybody likes the Clark Kent aspect and that’s there because it was real to them. It’s not about the tights, or the cape, or the freeze breath, it’s about what was true in the core of the story – and the truth is always there’s this girl that you can’t talk to, but you know deep down inside that you’re worthy of her attention and that you could be a better person.”

There is also a darker influence on the creation of Superman: the death of Jerry Siegel’s father. Though it has become an erroneous part of the Superman mythos that Siegel’s father was shot in 1932 during a robbery on the haberdashery store he ran, the truth was more mundane: he died of heart attack brought on by the robbery. In other words, his death wasn’t some tragic act of heroism, it reflected the weakness and frailty of the human body. “When I found that out, I was like, that’s it: that’s why there’s Superman,” says Ricca, who dug out the original police reports of the incident. “The whole reason the character was created was to right that wrong.”

Given all this, it makes sense that the world is perhaps now ready for what Man of Steel’s trailers and advanced publicity suggest will be a grittier Superman film: as much as producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has created a demand for a more serious-minded approach to comic books movies, Superman was already a character with anxiety hard-wired into his DNA – he’s just kept it hidden for much of his existence.

This isn’t to say that comic book writers haven’t challenged the more simplistic Boy Scout image associated with the character over the years. Mark Millar’s 2003 mini-series Red Son, for instance, posited a world in which Superman landed in the Soviet Union rather than America, and Snyder’s previous stab at superhero filmmaking was the adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which completely deconstructed the Superman archetype with the aloof, godlike Doctor Manhattan.

But what’s fascinating is that Shuster and Siegel’s original creation goes beyond all this. In a way, Superman is bigger than comics and bigger than Hollywood: he’s at the root of our modern mythology. The current Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, for example, is full of paintings that appropriate the square-jawed style that Joe Shuster first used to bring Superman to life on the page, and Lichtenstein’s fellow pop artist Andy Warhol wasn’t averse to appropriating Superman wholesale for his own work either.

Then there are the writers who have drawn on this legacy. American novelist Jonathan Letham named his semi-autobiographical 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude after Superman’s polar retreat, while Michael Chabon went even further, fictionalising aspects of Siegel and Shuster’s story and Superman’s creation for his wondrous, Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). The legitimisation of comics as “art” rather than as disposable entertainment for children would be unthinkable without the work that Siegel and Shuster did to bring the Man of Steel into the world.

“I definitely think Superman is where it all started,” agrees Ricca. “At the same time, Superman still gets the least respect of all the comics. If you go into to a college classroom, you’ll read Maus, you’ll read Watchmen, you’ll read The Dark Knight Returns, but you’re not going to read Superman because people do still look down on it as being simple or retro or archaic or cute. But what it was really doing was being autobiographical – and that’s what a lot of these later comics ended up doing too.”

• Man of Steel is in cinemas from 14 June. Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman by Brad Ricca is published by St Martin’s Press on 4 June.