Sometimes fate can be cruel.
In retrospect, there’s no way these two teenagers from Cleveland could possibly conceive of the ironies in store for them. Even if you could warn them somehow, they’d never believe it.
“Jerry, Joe, listen up. The two of you are going to create a character so universally beloved, it will revolutionize an industry. Your creation will be known worldwide for decades, with no end in sight. It’ll spawn radio shows, television shows, stageplays, movies, and countless spinoffs. Just the money from merchandising alone would make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
“And you won’t see any of it.
“Oh, you’ll be well-compensated for a while, but after it’s clear that you’re no longer necessary, you’ll be edged out of the operation, and lose control of your creation. Over the ensuing decades, you’ll eke out a modest living, and wind up in near-poverty in your golden years, until a combination of corporate guilt and fear of bad publicity will restore your proper credit to your creation, and you’ll be given a reasonable (if nowhere near appropriate) pension. Your example will stand as a shameful lesson of everything that’s wrong with the comics industry.
“But your creation will live on forever as an example of everything that’s right.”
I wonder if they’d still think it was worth it.
Let’s talk about Superman.
These days, anyone with even a remote interest in comics knows the story: how writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster shopped their proposal for a newspaper strip called SUPERMAN around to every syndicate and comic-book publisher in town, with no luck; how editor Vin Sullivan finally took a chance on the project no one believed in and purchased it for use in ACTION COMICS; how Siegel and Shuster quickly cut apart their newspaper strips and converted them into a comic-book format; and most infamously, how National Comics purchased the character of Superman outright for $130 as a condition of publication, in a move that would make the company untold millions in profits, and relegate Siegel and Shuster to mere hired hands on their own creation.
It’s an ugly story, and one that could put you off of any positive discussion of Superman, just from the sheer stinking injustice of it. Here’s why we should discuss, and enjoy, Superman in spite of the indignities visited upon his fathers: despite their shabby treatment, it’s my understanding that Siegel and Shuster remained proud of their creation, and its impact upon the world, and certainly were proud of all their work on the character. In addition, over the following six decades, a small army of writers and artists have toiled on the character, each adding to and shaping the Superman legend. One can sympathize with Siegel and Shuster’s plight, and condemn those whose actions led to it, yet still admire and enjoy the work.
Let’s first take a look at Superman’s origins, as represented here in the expanded origin sequence from SUPERMAN #1 (1939), which consisted of mostly reprints from the previous year’s Superman appearances from ACTION COMICS.
Here we see the rocket ship from Krypton hurtling toward Earth, saving the child within from the planet’s explosion. (Later, when Siegel and Shuster got their long-desired SUPERMAN syndicated newspaper strip, Superman’s parents were given names, Jor-L and Lora, with his Kryptonian name given as Kal-L. Years of comic-book appearances later refined the names to Jor-El, Lara and Kal-El.)
The rocket makes it to Earth, and is discovered by the Kents. (While Mr. Kent refers to his wife as “Mary,” later versions of the story, such as George Lowther’s 1942 novel SUPERMAN, christened them Eben and Sarah Kent. Eventually, the comic books settled on the now-familiar Jonathan and Martha Kent.) The Kents turn the infant over to a local orphanage, which the super-strong infant nearly wrecks before the Kents return, seeking to adopt the child. The orphanage gladly hands over the child, whom the Kents name “Clark.”
As Clark grows, he discovers the scope of his abilities, as “he learned to his delight that he could hurtle skyscrapers … leap an eighth of a mile … raise tremendous weights … run faster than a steamline train … and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!” (All of these abilities would multiply in leaps and bounds over the next few years, along with quite a few new powers entirely.)
Upon the death of his foster parents, Clark resolves to use his abilities to benefit mankind, and assumes the guise of Superman, “champion of the oppressed.”
In his first appearance in ACTION #1, several other familiar elements made their debut, albeit under slightly different names. Clark tries to get a job as a reporter at the Daily Star, but is rebuffed by the editor. When Clark, who wants the job so as to be “in a better position to help people” as Superman, overhears a tip about a lynching at the County Jail, he zips to the scene, stops the lynching as Superman, then reports the story as Clark Kent, landing him the reporter’s job and setting a pattern that would be followed in the Superman strips for decades.
Eventually, the Daily Star was renamed the Daily Planet, and the editor, originally named George Taylor, would be renamed Perry White, following the lead of the long-running Superman radio show. More on that later.
Also introduced in that first issue is Clark’s fellow reporter Lois Lane, and the “Clark-Lois-Superman” love triangle is established right away, as a disinterested Lois agrees to go out with Clark, only to dump him when, pretending to be weak so as to protect his secret identity, he fails to stand up to a masher who puts the moves on Lois.
When the hood later chases down Lois’ car and kidnaps her, Clark, having changed to Superman, smashes the thug’s car (in the famous scene from the cover of ACTION #1) and returns the now-smitten Lois to safety.
Superman’s powers grew and changed dramatically over the years. Where Superman was only super-tough and super-strong in the ‘30s, by the mid ‘40s artillery shells were bouncing off his chest with ease; by the ‘50s, Superman could even withstand the blast of an atom bomb.
By the 1970s, Superman was so strong he could, if need be, alter the Earth’s orbit by pushing on it. Similarly, where at first Superman was merely leaping prodigiously from place to place, by the 40s, Superman was flying around in full defiance of gravity (the move from leaps to flight was another by-product of the radio show, which used a loud wind-tunnel sound effect to express his flight). Later, his ability to fly had increased to the point that he was able to surpass the speed of light and break the time barrier, allowing him to time travel.
More powers came along the way. X-Ray vision first showed up in the 1940s, followed not long after by his heat vision and microscopic vision. Things were getting a bit silly by the ‘50s, with the addition of powers like his freeze breath and even, get this, “Super-ventriloquism,” which came in hand for the many times he needed to dupe Lois Lane into thinking Superman and Clark Kent were in the same place at the same time.
Also, Superman had become super-intelligent, with a photographic memory and total recall, super-scientific knowhow, and the ability to read and speak every known language on Earth.
Once Superman had been given such an incredible range of powers, it was obvious he needed an Achilles’ heel, and for decades, there were only two: magic (on those rare occasions Superman would run into wizards and sorcerers) and Kryptonite, those emerald-colored chunks of mineral from Superman’s home planet that emit radiation lethal to Kryptonians.
Kryptonite first appeared on the Superman daily radio show in 1943, when it would be used to put Superman into a weakened, near-death state for weeks at a time, allowing actor Bud Collyer to take off for a week’s vacation. (Although in recent years, unused script and art by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster has surfaced, which introduces “K-Metal,” which is, for all intents and purposes, Kryptonite. The story, which predates Kryptonite’s radio introduction by three years, was never published because, in a baffling move, the story also featured Clark revealing his secret identity to Lois, removing one of the most popular themes of the series. Still, it’s unknown whether or not the radio writers came up with the Kryptonite concept on their own, or were perhaps handed it by the editors at National Comics.
Your standard, run-of-the-mill Kryptonite, or “Green K,” as it came to be called, would put Superman into a near-coma with close exposure, and would eventually kill him. Soon enough, Superman writers looking for new plot devices introduced all kinds of varieties of the deadly mineral, a veritable rainbow of Kryptonite. When chunks of standard Kryptonite passed through a mysterious crimson cloud in deep space, the result was Red Kryptonite, which resulted in bizarre but temporary transformations to Superman with each exposure, such shrinking, growing, or getting fat, or less quirky and dangerous conditions like sleepwalking, hallucinations or loss of control over his powers.
Once it even made his invulnerable hair, beard and fingernails grow, jeopardizing his secret identity. Luckily, he was able to call in a little backup for some much-needed super-grooming.
The other varieties of Kryptonite showed up much less frequently. When you expose Green K to a nuclear blast, you get Gold Kryptonite, which permanently takes away a Kryptonian’s super powers. When Green K passed through a different cloud in deep space, the result was White Kryptonite, which was lethal to all forms of plant life, Kryptonian or otherwise. Blue Kryptonite was created by the same duplicator ray that created the creature Bizarro (about whom more next week), and was only lethal to Bizarros.
When it comes to romance for Superman, it’s always been Lois Lane. The Lois character was introduced as a bit of a shrill harpy, but was eventually softened into a spunky reporter who had genuine affection for Superman, even if she was eternally trying to prove that he was really Clark Kent.
The “suspicious Lois” routine was a running theme in the series for years, with Superman utilizing all kinds of ruses to discount Lois’ accusations, including inflatable balloons, dummies, the ever-popular Superman robots (by the 1960s, Superman had a small army of robotic duplicates that could sit in for him if he needed to be in two places at once), and even a little help from trusted friends talented in disguise such, as Batman and, believe it or not, President John F. Kennedy, who once agreed to pose as Clark Kent during a TV tribute to Superman in ACTION COMICS #309. By the 1970s, under the pen of writers like Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin, we saw Superman and Lois enter into the beginning of an actual relationship, with Superman admitting his feelings for Lois, and coming clean that it was his fear for her safety that was keeping them apart.
But Lois wasn’t the only woman in Superman’s life. When DC began publishing the adventures of young Clark Kent as Superboy in 1945 in MORE FUN and ADVENTURE COMICS, the teenage Clark was given a romantic interest in redheaded neighbor Lana Lang.
Much like Lois, Lana was more obsessed with discovering who Superboy really was than in having anything to do with Clark. Later, an adult Lana Lang showed up in Metropolis and became an ongoing rival to Lois for Superman’s affections.
My favorite of the Superman girlfriends is Lori Lemaris, just for the sheer goofiness of it. Not familiar with Lori? She was Clark Kent’s girlfriend in college, when Clark was attending good ol’ Metropolis U. They had a brief but serious romance, until family obligations forced Lori to leave college and return home.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: She was a mermaid.
Yes, “The Girl in Superman’s Past!” from SUPERMAN #129 told the story of how Clark romanced the wheelchair-bound Lori and even proposed marriage before discovering her secret. Of course, he first grew suspicious when he checked out the trailer she was living in off-campus, and discovered no bed, only a tank of salt water…
In case you were wondering, yes, Superman does seem to date a lot of women with the initials “L.L.” (How Lex Luthor fits in to this fixation, God only knows…) The sad thing is, that’s not even all of them. In SUPERMAN #141, entitled “Superman’s Return to Krypton,” Superman, stranded on his home planet Krypton some 29 years before its destruction, finds himself working as an assistant to his father Jor-El and falling in love with Lyla Lerrol, Krypton’s most famous actress.
Powerless on Krypton, Superman is resigned to staying on Krypton and dying with his unsuspecting parents and his intended bride, until a freak accident catapults him back into deep space, away from Krypton’s red sun, restoring his powers. The 1960 story, written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Wayne Boring, is one of the best looks at Superman’s parents and life on Krypton, and provides some genuine emotion in Superman’s feelings of love and loss for Lyla.
Other than Lois, Superman’s supporting cast was pretty sparse. There was Clark Kent’s boss, Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, and the Planet’s cub reporter/photographer Jimmy Olsen.
And that was pretty much it, as the real focus of the series for decades was Superman and Lois, as the Perry and Jimmy characters originated in the radio show and were later incorporated into the comics. Even Metropolis was pretty nondescript throughout much of the ‘40s and ‘50s, with its only distinctive landmark being the Daily Planet building, with its trademark globe at the top. While there’s been much debate over whether New York or Cleveland was the inspiration for Metropolis, it was actually artist Joe Shuster’s hometown of Toronto that served as the visual basis for Superman’s adopted city.
The most significant supporting character to be introduced to Superman’s world first appeared in ACTION COMICS #252 (May 1959), in “The Supergirl from Krypton!” Written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino, the story sees Superman investigating the crash of a rocket near just outside Metropolis, only to discover it had an occupant: a young girl from Krypton clad in an outfit just like Superman’s.
As she explains, a large chunk of the planet remained intact when Krypton was destroyed, bearing Argo City beneath an unexplained bubble of air (changed in later stories to a protective dome built by the city’ residents). The Argo City folk managed to hold on until the ground beneath then converted to Kryptonite, as did all remnants of Krypton. The quick-thinking Argonians, led by the girl’s father, scientist Zor-El, cover the ground with sheets of lead, blocking the Kryptonite radiation. The Argonians further manage to survive for years, with Zor-El and his wife Allura having a daughter, Kara. Unfortunately, when Kara was just a girl, a meteor swarm struck the city, puncturing the lead shielding and slowly killing the population with K-radiation poisoning.
Observing Earth through a telescope and seeing Superman, Zor-El builds a rocket to safely carry Kara to Earth, wearing the uniform sewed by her mother to mark her as a fellow Kryptonian in Superman’s eyes. Superman tells Kara his own story of coming to Earth, through which they discover that Superman’s father, Jor-El was Zor’s brother, making them cousins. Finally, Superman, long an orphan on Earth, has family.
Here’s where the story kinda falls apart for me. Follow along here: Fifteen-year-old Kara has just lost her family and everyone she’s ever known; her entire life. Through an amazing twist of fate, Superman turns out to be her cousin, a blood relative, on a foreign and alien world. Superman promises to “take care of you like a big brother, cousin Kara.” The overjoyed Supergirl says “Thanks, cousin Superman! >choke!< You mean I’ll come and live with you?”
And Superman, the hero of Earth, the model of morality, says no.
He just says no.
“Hmm … No, that wouldn’t work! You see, I’ve adopted a secret identity on Earth that might be jeopardized!” You heartless bastard.
Instead, Superman drops off Kara in an orphanage, where she’s stuck in a dump of a room with a broken bed and a cracked mirror, and forced to wear a godawful brunette wig with pigtails as “Linda Lee.” (Yes, more double “L”s.)
Even as a kid, whenever I’d read a Supergirl story, I’d always wind up thinking, “Man, Superman’s a real jerk. Here’s poor Kara living like poor white trash with all the orphans, while he’s cooling his heels up in his fat pad at the Fortress of Solitude building robots of himself. What a punk.”
Ah, the Fortress of Solitude. While Clark Kent no doubt had a place in Metropolis (at 344 Clinton Street, to be exact), I always figured that whatever down time Superman allowed himself was spent there. Hidden away in the Arctic, Superman solved the problem of security as only he could. The door to the Fortress consisted of nothing more than an enormous keyhole, which could only be unlocked by a key so heavy that only Superman could lift it.
Inside the Fortress were tributes to his Kryptonian parents and his foster parents, as well as museum displays of his friends at the Daily Planet, his friends Batman and Robin, Supergirl (oh, sure, there’s room for a mannequin, but he can’t install a nice bedroom and half-bath for his poor orphaned cousin?) and, oddly enough, himself, as well as a trophy room containing mementoes of his adventures, a high-powered telescope for observing threats in outer space, an interplanetary zoo, a protective vault containing all known varieties of Kryptonite, storage room for his Superman robots, and much more.
The supporting cast was just about as limited in the Superboy comics. Young Clark/Superboy lived with Ma and Pa Kent, who in addition to the farm now ran a general store in their hometown of Smallville.
Aside from the aforementioned Lana Lang, Clark’s best friend was schoolmate Pete Ross, who, unbeknownst to Clark, was hip to his secret identity, having seen Clark change to Superboy on a camping trip. The Superboy comics were livened up considerably in March 1955, with the introduction of Krypto the Super-Dog in “The Super-Dog From Krypton!”, appearing in ADVENTURE COMICS #210.
When a super-powered dog starts terrorizing Smallville, Superboy decides to investigate, and follows the dog to a deserted field outside of town, where he discovers the wreckage of a rocket ship, and a note in Kryptonese, which tells of how Jor-El tested out his rockets with animals, and with the planet ready to explode any minute, couldn’t spare the time to find a new test subject, and sent up Krypto, baby Kal-El’s pet puppy. The rocket never returned to Krypton, as it was struck by a meteor in deep space and drifted aimlessly for years, eventually landing on Earth, where Krypto was reunited with his now-teenaged master.
Krypto caused Clark some trouble at first, fetching steel girders and jeopardizing Clark’s secret identity, but eventually settled in and was able to live his own double life, complete with his own secret identity, that of Clark’s dog, Skip. (Krypto would stain a spot on his back from a nearby tree when he acted as Clark’s dog, and then burn the spot off with his heat vision when going into action as Krypto. Kryptonian dogs are nothing if not thorough…)
Next time we’ll profile some of the members of Superman’s rogues gallery of villains, and take a look at how Superman has changed over the decades. And if you’re good, we might just take a trip to the Bizarro World! Me so happy…