Evolution of the Superman Part 1: No Tights, No Flights

Superman changed the face of comics upon his debut in 1938’s Action #1, combining the costumed strongman, the impossibly powerful hero of legend and Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch with the burgeoning popularity of astounding science fiction. Superman not only spawned more imitators than the Beatles, he launched DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) into the top of the charts and eventually made legends of his creators, two Jewish kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

While DC’s Action was Superman’s first mass-media home, this was not his initial appearance, even if it was the first time in the form we recognize. Big Blue with the stylized S on his chest was the result of what Siegel eventually called a “process of evolution” that started not at the giant company now known as DC, but in a small-time mimeographed fanzine that Siegel and Shuster published themselves, simply called Science Fiction, which saw self-publication in January of 1933.

In Science Fiction, a typed prose story called “The Reign of the Super-Man”, written by Siegel (under the pseudonym “Herbert S. Fine”). was dashed across white panels over Shuster’s black and white art background. With Shuster’s Fritz Lang style art deco skyscrapers (as in Lang’s film Metropolis), the artistic duo were already showing signs of both Krypton and Superman’s adopted city of Metropolis. However the grim visage bearing his teeth over the cityscape less resembles the Clark Kent of today… but the Lex Luthor.

This story’s “Super-Man” was the stuff of the two Jewish teenagers’ nightmares, especially as Adolf Hitler had risen to power that same year as Chancellor of Germany and spouted twisted words of Nietzsche himself. The bald and malevolent Super-Man terrorized a futuristic version of our world (that still reeled from fascism and the bread lines of the Great Depression) and was the product of a Frankenstein-like medical experiment performed on a vagrant named Dunn (who could now read minds, in addition to other non-Kal-El powers).

While a compelling tale for the time (in keeping with the Pulp Sci-Fi of the day), “The Reign of the Super-Man” was not exactly the story Jerry and Joe wanted to tell, so they instead inverted the Nietchian ideal into a dashing hero (with a full head of hair) who helped instead of hindered society. In this same year of 1933, the first comicbooks of original material (as opposed to reprints of newspaper strips) were hitting stands and the boys caught the bug bad. Therefore they created their own independent comicbook called The Superman, billed as “A Science Fiction Story in Cartoons” that introduced “The most astounding FICTION character of all time.” The black and white cover featured the first appearance of the now-iconic sweeping 3D “Superman” logo and the first look at the face we would soon know as Clark Kent’s as he dives down from a tall building to interrupt a robbery. He didn’t, however, have the costume we now know. In fact, judging from the images, the astounding fiction character seemed to prefer jumping around shirtless.

And the key word there would be “jumping”, as in “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”, because even after smiling Jerry and Joe designed Kal-El’s cape and costume and sent him to Metropolis, by way of Kansas, the Man we call Super could not fly. Instead he ran across building tops and used his super strength to jump high and long to simulate flying (you’ve seen Marvel’s Hulk pull off similar feats). Of course, this looked incredible on the gridded page, but once Max and Dave Fleischer started making Superman cartoons for the big screen, they asked DC permission to make him a gravity-defying hero, as well as a super-strong man. They agreed and so flight was added to the roster of powers in this new revision.

Of course, Superman’s many changes were only beginning and his biggest evolutions were yet to come. That said, it’s interesting that Big Blue was not the only character in his eponymous pages to receive a heavy makeover. The above allusion to Lex Luthor aside, the original, villainous “Super-Man” actually resembles the villain “The Ultra-Humanite” more than the original Luthor, a mad villain bent on matching the man of steel with Science instead of super powers… and he also had a full head of red hair. Luthor’s red coif (or the remnants thereof) resurfaced in the 1980s version drawn by John Byrne, as well as the younger clone (with Lex’s full memories) known as Alexander Luthor II in the 1990s, but in between (and in most every appearance) Lex has been as bald as… well, as “The Super-Man”.

NEXT TIME in the exciting pages of To Be Continued…, we will reveal more of the Evolution of the Superman as we built up to some of the strangest changes of all. Don’t miss this continuing story as we see Superman with a GUN and Superman with a whole different set of powers. It’s only at PopMatters.com!