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Superman Defined - Introduction

Updated: May 16

Man of Steel. Man of Tomorrow.

Alex Ross' renditions of the Man of Steel are arguably the most definitive to date. His traditionalism is a painstaking reminder of a rare craftsmanship in comic book art today - informed all the more by his nod to the 1930s and the commercial artist, Norman Rockwell.

"Only the weak succumb to brutality."

– Superman, Kingdom Come

As America began to climb out of the Great Depression during the 1930s, rebuilding the economy would need more of a strong, moralistic structure to help inspire the ‘things to come’. This was a time of looking to the past as much as to the future – an outlook that had already taken hold within the Art Deco movement of the time; where artifacts from the past were coupled with the modernity of the future. It was during this decade that positive, optimistic visions had begun to give hope to those who had lost so much. Therefore, in the lead up to the World’s Fairs of New York and Chicago, figureheads were needed to help promote proposed plans for urban life and more importantly, target younger audiences. It was during one of these events in 1939, that a certain ‘Man of Tomorrow’ made his first public appearance – the idea of a ‘Super Man’ had begun to capture the public imagination and with the impending onslaught of a second World War, a figure who represented the people and a patriotic stance was now needed more then ever.

The children of the time were the future and in seeking an archetype that would inspire strength and determination in these harsh times, two teenagers, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, created, what has gone on to be considered the very first ‘Super Hero’. It wasn’t until June, 1938 that the character’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 gave birth, not just to a cultural icon, but also a modern mythology that has been dissected, analysed and allowed to evolve through subsequent animation, radio, television and film. Along with Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s antithesis, the Bat-Man, the Golden Age of comics was born and with each incarnation, this ‘Man of Steel’ slowly began to move away from the social activist, to embracing his sci-fi roots. This included an alien origin that has had further reverence the more humanity has achieved since his own arrival on Earth – a parallel of man’s advancements personified as a symbol of hope. With each decade, the mild mannered, Clark Kent grew in both strength and character – originally a man whose alter ego fought crime before he graduated to thwart the devious plots of maniacal villains (and familiar dictators). Finally, between the space race of the 1950s and man’s first step on the moon, Superman would finally embrace sci-fi routes and spirituality to shape his own mythology.

As pop culture took hold during the 1960s and the Silver Age began with the creation of a new type of Superhero, the appeal of a God-like analogy; who seemed to show very little vulnerability, began to be questioned. With no threat, other than the radioactive remnants of his home world of Krypton – Kryptonite became a tried and tested formula. Marvel Comics’ trick was to take a more realistic and personal approach – characters who were based on everyday troubles such as teen angst and a response to educate the newly christened ‘teenager’. In carefully crafting his stories around the sciences, Stan Lee had captured the perfect formula – a formula that gave rise to younger, relatable heroes who spoke to a much broader and lucrative market. The vibrant, psychedelic costumes were loud and exciting to innocent eyes – these were heroes crafted by true masters of the art form, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, the later of which had bridged the gap between the Golden and Silver Age by reinventing his own co-creation, Captain America – Marvel’s very own ‘hero out of time’.

Yet, despite his competition and moral hic-ups, (male chauvinism under certain Editors) throughout the 20th Century and in to the 21st, Superman has survived. For seventy-five years he has continued to strive for peace and justice – focused, determined and, without question, the purest of heart in his quest to understand humanity. Where Batman fights an inner darkness and hones his own fears in to a crime-fighting weapon, Superman embraces the light; ever the optimist in his study of human nature – the natural curiosity and heritage from the son of a scientist…yet the humble soul of a farmer, nurtured by his adoptive parents.

This post was first published as part of "75 Years of Superman" on May 4th 2013.

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