In April 1938, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster entered the annals of history when they realised the debut appearance of their most famous fictional creation when he appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1.
75 years later, Superman has become one of the most enduring and instantly-recognisable icons of the 20th and 21st centuries; stop anyone on any street corner – young or old – in any town or city in the western hemisphere and show them his distinctive “s” chest symbol, and you will be met with assured acknowledgement.
Oddly, Superman originally started life as a villain in the science-fiction short story Reign of the Superman (1933) and was eventually sold to DC Comics by Shuster and Siegel in 1938 for a reported $130, having been rejected by almost every publisher in the USA.
Along with his alter-ego, the mild-manner reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, Clark Kent, Superman was destined to become the first in a series of new comic book characters, and was quickly serialised no fewer than three different comics. A radio serial was commissioned shortly afterwards, and before the end of 1941, a series of animated cartoons appeared from Paramount Pictures – then became a 1950s television series starring George Reeves.
The Siegel and Shuster partnership benefited immensely from the work they provided DC Comics by the standards of their time. However, the two young men failed to secure any lasting rights to their creation, and in 1945 – while they were both in the military – DC created the Superboy series, and were the subject of litigation by the two Superman creators for $100,000. The lawsuit caused their relationship with DC to sour, and in 1948 the publisher removed the duo’s names from the credits on the title pages of all subsequent Superman comics.
Despite the setback for his originators, Superman soon emerged as an inspiration for the entire world. The fictional characters that preceeded him, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, had been created in response to mankind’s natural enemies; the beasts in the jungle and nature – but in the aftermath of World War II, people of the western world required a new hero who could save them from themselves.
Superman quickly became the inspirational template for every subsequent fictional superhero character, and was partly responsible for raising the spirits of the American people during a time of harsh economic decline.
During the late 1960s, the popularity of Batman on television prompted DC Comics to develop the Man of Steel for the big screen, and in 1978, Superman: The Movie was released, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve in the title role.
Prior to the movie’s premiere, publicity for the big-screen debut prompted comic book artist Neal Adams and a number of other professional comics creators to establish a campaign aimed at earning Shuster and Siegel the recognition they deserved for creating the world’s greatest superhero.
The campaigners also sought to obtain financial recompense for the two men, as a token of appreciation for the millions they had earned DC Comics over the years. DC, under pressure from its new owners, Warner Communications, eventually reneged and the Siegel/Shuster creator-credit was restored to the Superman comics permanently, with both men granted an additional yearly fee of $20,000.
The Superman movie became one of the highest grossing motion pictures of all time, producing three sequels and generating millions from sales of spin-off merchandise. However, by the time it had finished its rounds at the cinema, Shuster was living in an upstate New York nursing home suffering from blindness and eventually died of heart failure in 1992.
Following a steady decline in popularity for almost a decade afterwards, the Superman comics were subjected to a revamp by writer/artist John Byrne in the 1980s and recovered to reach the post-war sales levels once more, at which point DC decided to officially kill the character off. The ensuing media hype surrounding “The Death Of Superman” in 1992 saw sales of the comics leap to 4million per month, providing DC with enough financial incentive to revamp the character on a regular basis. The repetitive storylines had a remarkable impact on sales and the character was miraculously re-born in numerous guises over a lengthy period.
DC even decided it was time Superman got hitched, and married him off to his long-time sweetheart and fellow-reporter Lois Lane. He was given a new look – with long, curly hair – and his costume was redesigned in favour of an electric-blue, futuristic jump suit.
The character became irreversibly diluted, despite the impressive sales figures – which were slipping with each new publicity stunt – and DC decided it was time to take the character in a completely new direction.
The first of the major changes arrived when cult movie writer/director Kevin Smith was commissioned by Warner Brothers to pen a screenplay for the re-make of the original Superman movie, to be guided by Batman director Tim Burton. Smith’s script, while true to the essence of the comics, bizarrely failed to visualise Superman flying, one of the mainstays of the character’s fictional abilities. Nicholas Cage was cast to play the lead, and the movie was pencilled for released during the celebrations for Superman’s 60th anniversary. Industry insiders branded the project a potential failure, and Warner Bros officially shelved it, indicating that audience would probably never see another big-screen incarnation of the character for a generation.
On the comic pages, Superman eventually turned full circle, largely due to the success of writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross’ interpretation of the character in their groundbreaking Kingdom Come series. The 1996 book imagined a futuristic Superman persuaded to emerge from self-imposted exile by his contemporaries in a bid to save the world from criminal superheroes who had taken over the planet in his absence. It was a multi-layered story that played to the character’s core strengths of noble heroics and sacrifice.
The story was a timely warning to the comics industry, which had recently become self-obsessed with creating violent, ‘real-life’ characters.
Ross was also responsible for returning Superman to his original 1938 costume – a move which boosted sales with such effect, that DC decided to retain the look and develop the character in a new retro-direction.
In Scotland, native comics writer Mark Millar scripted Superman: Red Son – concerning the arrival of Kal El on Earth as a child, when his rocket ship lands on a collective farm in the Soviet Union and not a farm in Kansas – and ponders a world where Superman is raised by the communist state.
Glasgow writer Grant Morrison also revitalised sales of Superman comics by permanently returning the character to The Justice League of America and later in his groundbreaking, multi-award-winning All-Star Superman series with Rutherglen artist Frank Quitely he offered a modern retrospective of Superman’s finest moments.
In 2006, the character took centre-stage once again in Bryan Singer’s eagerly-anticipated Superman Returns feature film which boasted the unknown Brandon Routh in the lead role alongside Kevin Spacey as his arch-enemy Lex Luthor, but the $400m epic failed miserably to reignite interest in the Man of Steel and all but bombed at the box office.
Now, as the entire world plummets deeper into economic decline under the spectre of global terrorism, we are consumed more than ever before with fear and anxiety about our own mortality – and we find ourselves gazing skyward once more for a hero to guide us into an uncertain future.
As if to signal our collective need for a return to simpler times, Superman is set to appear once again on the big screen in the forthcoming movie Man of Steel directed by Zack Snyder and produced by the Dark Knight Trilogy helmer Christopher Nolan. The recent trailer, released on the eve of Superman’s 75th birthday, shows definite promise – with a supporting cast which includes Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Larry Fishburne and Diane Lane.
Despite the ups and downs of an erratic comic book market, a fickle movie audience, failing economies and growing fears about global safety, Superman is a hero for all time – and whatever you think of him, no matter how many transformations the character undergoes over the years, he will be here long after all of us are gone.
For me, he is still the greatest, the most powerful – and the most original fictional character ever created.