Superman celebrates 75th anniversary
Seventy-five years ago two poor, nerdy Jewish kids realized their childhood dreams of having their “Super-Man” character published in a comic book. It took Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster six years and several incarnations of the character before their ultimate hero, Superman, appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1, but when the comic hit the newsstands on April 18, 1938, the world’s pop culture lexicon was changed forever.
Siegel & Shuster acknowledged that their super-character was an amalgamation of heroes including the Bible’s Samson, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter and Henry W. Ralston’s Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. But their hero was “the Man of Steel” and was a combination of all the best qualities of those stalwart super-types who came before him.
Superman was born during an era of great strife in America. The United States was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression and on the verge of entering World War II, but the powerful man from Krypton rose above those hard times and gallantly stood for truth, justice and everything that was good about the American way.
The iconic superhero has grown in stature to a position in our cultural history that his creators could never have dreamed of, and he is probably more closely associated with American values than even Captain America himself (a hero that didn’t appear in comics until three years after Superman’s debut.)
To this day the Siegel & Shuster estates still battle to regain control of the Superman copyright that their fathers sold for $130 in 1938; and to gain fair compensation from the Warner Bros. media giant for the continued use of the character their fathers created. Sadly, the creative pair has become almost as well known for their legal woes as they have for their heroic creation.
Superman has saved the world a thousand times since his inception and he has been through countless changes and revisions — including dying and being born again. The most recent DC Comics “New 52” interpretation of the Man of Steel has the young hero leaning more towards his working-class roots and wearing jeans instead of tights, and romancing Wonder Woman instead of Lois Lane. But the basic character has never really wavered from the story of baby Kal-El, sent to Earth by his father as the dying planet of Krypton explodes. He is found and raised by Kansas farmers, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who instill in him the values he’ll need to responsibly use his powers for the good of humanity.
The mythology of Krypton and the details of Kal-El’s odyssey to Earth didn’t come to fruition until Superman’s first solo title (Superman #1) was published in the summer of 1939, and his origin has continued to be creatively reworked by countless artists and writers since. The embellishment of the original Siegel & Shuster character, in books, comics, music, television and films, speaks to the characters immense popularity, and the Man of Tomorrow’s evolution is endlessly fascinating. The exploration of the hero’s psyche in recent years has become especially interesting.
I’ve always been intrigued by Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, the nebbish newspaper reporter who longs to be with Lois Lane, but who is always one-upped by Superman, who is, of course, himself. I’ve always felt that Clark, with all his foibles, is the way that the superior Kal-El must view humanity and that he resorts to portraying this exaggerated “human” in a desperate effort to fit in with our race, rather than to simply hide his identity.
The song “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” by singer-songwriter John Ondrasik (AKA Five for Fighting) is sung from the hero’s lonely perspective and is about his longing to be human. The 2001 tune even became an anthem of sorts in tribute to the firefighters and heroes who fell during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. There are several popular songs that were inspired by Superman and even Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, inspired a song about the sidekick’s plans to sabotage the superhero with a “pocket full of Kryptonite” in order to win the hand of Lois Lane (see Jimmy Olsen’s Blues by Spin Doctors.)
Superman’s heroic burdens and his yearning to be human were also touched upon in his most recent film, the 2006 movie Superman Returns; and that theme appears to be at the forefront of the upcoming Zack Snyder directed film, Man of Steel, which will be in theaters this Summer, June 14, 2013.
I’m certain that Siegel & Shuster never foresaw this kind of contemplation on their character, but Superman has even invited comparisons between his story and the story of Christ, in that Jor-El (Kal-El’s father) sent his only son to Earth to ultimately become its savior. The Man of Steel also has many Judaic characteristics that mirror his young creators’ plight as Jewish immigrants.
There is no doubt that Superman stands by an unwavering moral code, and on a personal note, as someone who has struggled with committing to a religious faith, I have to admit that there have been many situations in my life when I’ve asked myself, “What would Superman do?”
The Superman mythos has even worked its way into today’s immigration politics with Pulitzer prize-winning author Junot Díaz posing the “Superman question” during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. That is, with Superman being an immigrant (albeit from another planet); do we deport him or allow him to stay for the benefit of the country? In the comic book universe the hero answered that question for us in the historic Action Comics #900, where Superman has tired of having his actions construed as enforcing United States policy and frees himself from that burden by renouncing his citizenship.
More than any other fictional hero, Superman has always reflected the best of our society and has endured and grown larger than those two young men from Cleveland could have ever imagined. And the story of Superman’s creators, the late Siegel & Shuster, will always represent both the best and the worst sides of the American dream. Happy Birthday, Superman, and thank you Jerry & Joe for giving the world your hero!