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Superman Defined - Part II

Updated: May 16

Power and Invention

"Up in the sky! Look!...It's a bird!...It's a plane!... It's Superman!"

The Adventures of Superman, Radio serial

During his early years, Superman’s powers were limited as he leapt from one building to the next; his strength a fraction of the magnitude we are familiar with today. Different mediums embraced fresh ways to tell his stories and the first steps of his evolution began to take to the skies as major developments of his persona and mythology were heard on Radio. With access to millions of homes, The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951) first introduced the concepts that Superman could fly and that the radioactive meteorite, Kryptonite was his primary weakness. Not only could his adventures be heard for the first time but also seen in the Oscar nominated Fleischer Brothers’ animations, where he soared above the city of Metropolis in vibrant colours – the technical approach to each episode rivaling Disney’s best efforts at a cost of $1 million an episode.

Action Comics #101, October 1946. A poignant view of the destructive power of the Atom bomb - here Superman is depicted as photo recognisant putting his journalistic skills to the ultimate test. It is no coincidence that the cover reads much like a news piece.

However, when America entered World War II, the notion of a comic book hero had become insensitive due to the reality of conflict and the extreme efforts of the military forces. Now, designed to advertise war bonds and used as nothing more than satire, Superman’s original symbol of hope was a notion that society struggled to comprehend in the severity of war. The big, blue Boy Scout’s stories could not solve the problems of the world – this was reality and the problems still existed the next morning. After the conflict had ended with the Atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the destructible power of human nature had finally reached a crescendo. Not only did this question what we had become but what kind of hero the world would need to save us from such omnipresent power placed in the wrong hands. Superman’s strength needed to be truly epic – his power to rival and overshadow any potential threat. Over the years, his strength would more directly be absorbed from his own atomic symbol, the red sun – the same source of power at the centre of his home galaxy. Now he would have to become so much more than a symbol of moral goodness and social responsibility; now he would become a symbol of great power and even greater responsibility on a truly universal and galactic scale.

The 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a bleak reminder of man losing control of his ambitious nature.

Man’s invention and ambition would reach a catalyst after World War II. With greater speed and power harnessed through the technology developed for warfare – both the jet engine and atomic power would begin to shape two nations in their race to reach the moon. With capitalist and opposing communist forces gathering their strongest resources and scientific research, the 1950s would present a new threat to the US. Paranoia. As the United States and Soviet Union coveted their own ideas and atomic weapons; the growing threat increased and through the media clever metaphor was implemented to represent the key messages and subtext the United States wished to convey. In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still an alien visitor arrives on earth, accompanied by a powerful robot, in order to present the ultimate message to Earth – that if humanity continue to extend their violence beyond their own planet, the robots will destroy humanity. The alien, Klaatu is, in fact, revealed as a human in the same light as Superman – a messenger and could be argued, a reluctant savior. It was therefore no coincidence that during this time the idea of ‘aliens amongst us’ showcased in the onslaught of sci-fi B-movies that followed the popularity of The Day the Earth Stood Still, depicted invading forces from another world. In truth, the aliens were the Russians.

As modern technology continued to shape and improve lifestyle and enhance the American Dream, Superman would finally begin to embrace his sci-fi heritage, which, up until this point had been kept to a bear minimum by his original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. These important elements, which had originally pioneered the character, had been used to minimal effect and now, during the Space Race, Interplanetary escapades, futuristic adventures, and cosmic characters finally had a role in the ongoing saga of Superman. The development of a vast mythology followed with seven titles collectively selling 4 million copies a month where Editors handed over complete control to the writers and artists of the time that resulted in a mixed bag of ideas. There were the more familiar concepts including Kryptonian villians such as the infamous General Zod and the shrunken, capital city of Kandor, while at the same time there were the more outlandish use of super dogs, super horses and super monkeys. All the while, Superman’s own powers began to increase in the light of the atomic age – he had eventually become so powerful that he could blow out stars in the same way you would blow out a candle and it was during this time that writers began to struggle to find relevant stories. With such a powerful being, how could there be any conflict? Without conflict there is no drama and without drama there is no character.

First appearance of Brainiac in Action Comics #242 in July, 1958. Whether alien entity, A.I. or a combination of both - the character has been revised a number of times yet is still distinguished by his green skin and the trio of diodes on his cranium.

Influenced further by cinema and the pulp literature that was still being printed at the time, fans were introduced to some of the first super-villains, whose origins stemmed from the greatest aspects of science fiction. Whether it was the imperfect imitation of life known as Bizarro or the ultimate green-skinned, alien invader Brainiac (later to evolve in to Krypton’s A.I.) – finally there were rivals who would stand up to Superman’s strength and prove his might more than ever before. Writers also sought to develop Superman’s character through the impact of the destruction of his home world, Krypton which was expanded on in more thought provoking ways to reinforce the more personalised, character driven story arcs. The concept of Krytonite was also developed providing his archenemy, Lex Luthor with a new weapon to help bring the Man of Steel to his knees. Superman issue 76 (May-June 1952) debuted the ‘world's finest team-up’, as DC Comics' two greatest super-heroes finally united. From there, the duo of Superman and Batman would reunite in World's Finest Comics. The formation of the Justice League of America soon followed where other members of the team looked for guidance in conquering universal forces of evil – Superman was no longer the leader and patriarch of Earth but also the leader of a growing family and culture of superheroes.

However, during these years, while battling alien enemies and other forces of evil beyond the confines of the human imagination, a more sinister threat would raise its ugly head. The comic book industry was now in a state of transition as the final years of the Golden Age were about to be challenged both by public reception and the damaging publication of the infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent.

This post was first published as part of "75 Years of Superman" on May 5th 2013.

Continued in...


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