75 Years of Superman - Part I
Updated: Apr 19
First of His Kind
"I will teach you the Superman.’" Friedrich Nietzsche
In their 1932 short story, "The Reign of the Superman", Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original incarnation of their character was introduced as a bald villain with telepathic abilities who, ironically, bore a closer resemblance to his later arch enemy, Lex Luthor. In archetypal fashion, the story follows a mad scientist by the name of Professor Ernest Smalley who chooses a vagrant subject, Bill Dunn, from the streets to perform the ultimate experiment in perfecting man’s potential. Granted telepathy, Dunn is corrupted by his new powers and seeks to rule the world utilising his abilities for evil intent, only to discover the effects are temporary. When Dunn murders Smalley after discovering the mad scientist’s wishes to commandeer the powers himself, he is unable to recreate the formula. As the story concludes, Dunn’s powers diminish where he faces the harsh reality of his return to the bread line. Reign was influenced more by the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief of an Übermensch (Super-human) rather than the familiar values the character was to later hold dear during his subsequent reinvention. With his direct links to eugenics, his own theories set the goal for humanity to perfect human nature which, depending who had adopted his philosophy, could be seen as both man’s triumph or downfall. The original story was an eerily potent observation (and reminder) of an archetypal figure seduced by newfound powers that eventually leads to one man seeking to rule the world.
In light of its central themes, this was clearly not the time for stories of dictators who sought totalitarianism – at least not in America. It was a time for men and women to inspire others to do their best. So, in 1933, in the light of the economic crisis, Jerry Siegel had decided to rewrite the character as a hero and an attempt to create a more palatable character for comic strips. It would take a further five years until Siegel and Shuster secured a publisher and Superman’s iconic first appearance on the cover of Action Comics #1 – the fantastical, optimistic rise of a hero that ran parallel with the bleak reality of Adolf Hitler’s power and threat to the world which had become more and more prominent during the dawn of a new decade.
During this time, and despite his patriotic connotations, the Superman we are more familiar with today had inherited a more universal identity. As with Batman’s creator, Bob Kane (most would say co-created by Bill Finger), Siegel and Shuster were the children of Jewish immigrants and, as is often the case, the heart of any iconic character and their humble beginnings can often be found in their creator’s own heritage. Where Bob Kane practically lived the life of Bruce Wayne – his shrewd experiences as a businessman stood him in good stead – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster on the other hand, rather naively sold the rights of the character for $130 in the early 40s to National Comics (later DC) and only received $20k a year in compensation after the success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 which had resulted in more than just bitter sentiment.
The publishers of Superman comic books, National Periodical Publications [later DC Comics], killed my days, murdered my nights, choked my happiness, strangled my career. I consider National's executives economic murderers, money-mad monsters. I, Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of Superman, put a curse of the Superman movie!’ Jerry Siegel
Even though (much like their own creators) Batman and Superman are opposites, they share what most superheroes deal with – that of becoming the outcast; and it is these thematic approaches to storytelling that has helped these iconic characters endure an audience for so long. It is within the hero’s journey and his quest to discover where he belongs in the world, that the themes of the outcast hero have formed the greatest stories of all – where mythic structure and religious archetypes are (often) cleverly woven in to the narrative and world they inhabit. On this level, Superman’s tale can obviously be linked to that of Moses and Christ – the story of an abandoned child; the son born of a greater power yet raised in a humble environment in order to connect directly with humanity, one day accepting his or her own strength for the greater good, even if it means to sacrifice themselves in the process – the mark of a true hero. Yet, the origins of Superman can also be directly linked to the pulp magazines at the turn of the 20th Century that serialised a myriad of tales. One such character, John Carter of Mars who (literally) sprung to prominence in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, tells the story of an American Civil War veteran who is transported to the red planet, where he assumes superhuman powers due to the planet’s lesser gravity, enabling him to leap vast distances and acquire increased strength and agility.
‘Jerry reversed the usual formula of the superhero who goes to another planet. He put the superhero in ordinary, familiar surroundings, instead of the other way around, as was done in most science fiction. That was the first time I can recall that it had ever been done.’ Joe Shuster
Carter, like Kal-El is an alien – an outsider who fights for the greater good of a nation who, at first, opposes him. It is also in the work of Burroughs’ other iconic character that Jane Parker refers to Tarzan as a ‘superman’, which questions where the young Siegel may have come across the use of the name first. In the model of the classic ‘strongman’, Siegel and Shuster had set out to deliver a modern version of Samson and Hercules – decked out in what was perceived as unconventional attire, with Superman’s wardrobe bearing a closer resemblance to a highflying circus acrobat. Without realising it, Superman's initial absurdity - a combination of the naïve, uncontrolled ideas and inhibitions of two teenagers, shaped by their own digest of pulp literature and their social circumstances - had given life to the world's first, true superhero.
This post was first published on May 5th 2013.