Evolution of the Superman Part 2: Birds, Planes, Stars and Meteors

After his two previous fanzine appearances, Superman shot to the top of the pops when Action Comics #1, debuted in the year of 1938. The high-jumping strongman could run fast and hear extremely well, but wasn’t quite as powerful as the character we know today. He wore a triangular (as opposed to the now-iconic pentagonal) S-Shield on his chest couldn’t fly until the early 1940s, nor did he have X-Ray or Heat Vision.

In his initial DC version Superman could leap an eighth of a mile, jump over a twenty story, lift tremendous weights, run faster than an express train and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his flesh. Impressive and envious traits, all, but by the end of the 1940s, he was outrunning speeding bullets, not just trains, breaking the sound barrier with his speed, flying around the world, able to melt just about anything with his heat vision, see through about anything except lead with his x-ray vision and beyond and even surviving a nuclear blast (and capturing it on film). Thus the ordinary criminals he once punched and fought were no longer much of a threat to this “Man of Tomorrow”… who could stand up to such a powerful hero with no Achilles heel?

That was the problem that writers for both the comics and the radio program The Adventures of Superman (1940 – 1951). But it was the radio show’s writers who came up with the one thing Superman can’t stand against, the strange, radioactive meteor remnants from his home planet of Krypton, called “Kryptonite” could do all manner of damage to the Man of Steel, especially in its most common green form, which can kill him. Kryptonite first appeared on radio in 1943 and didn’t appear in the comics until 1949. The radio show’s less-lethal contribution to the mythos was one Jimmy Olsen.

Now that Superman can be killed, he’s not quite the godlike powerhouse he was and criminals could stand their ground against him. Unfortunately for them, there were about to be a few more of him to deal with. In his original incarnation, Clark Kent didn’t fully develop his powers until “maturity”. However this changed when kid sidekicks became popular and in 1945, Superboy started as a backup feature in More Fun Comics #101. This younger version of Big Blue was only the first of many variants to hit the gridded page. Superman’s cousin Supergirl crashed to Earth in 1959’s Action Comics #252, Superboy’s dog Krypto had already showed up in 1955’s Adventure Comics #210. Superman-powered villains like General Zod and Bizarro showed up in Adventure Comics #263 (1961) and Superboy #68 (1958) respectively. Krypto was even joined by Streaky the Supercat. Comet the Superhorse and Beppo the Supermonkey in the 1960s. Things got really crowded when Superman discovered and rescued the miniature city of Kandor, the former capitol of Krypton, still packed with its denizens, who were eventually maximized again as the founders of “New Krypton”.

Even as Superman’s rogues gallery increased in their deadly powers (Brainiac, Zod, Mister Mxyzptlk, Parasite and more were all formidable foes) and Kryptonite started taking on a rainbow of fruit flavors, like an arms race, Superman’s powers seemed to keep increasing to keep up. By the time of Superman #233, Big Blue was so immune to Kryptonite he could actually pick up chunks of it and eat them like an apple (“A trifle stale… and it could use a bit of salt…” he says). This is not even mentioning the fact that in Superman #91 he actually used his super breath to blow out a star just like a candle. Is it safe to say that villains of all stripes from Lex Luthor to the Ultra-Humanite to the Prankster barely stood a chance? I’m thinking yes.

Thus it might have been just about time for Superman to be rethought a little bit, because the most super of all heroes is interesting only when there is some challenge for him to face. Luckily for the readers, Superman was about to get a serious revision in the year of 1986. On the way there, however, he had a few new superpowers to show off… on the big screen.

NEXT SUPER TIME in To Be Continued…, Superman goes to the Movies and gives us all reason to say “Wait, how’d he do that?” Back in a week, here at PopMatters.com!