Superman, the Legend
David Michael Petrou
"Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane..."
For millions of Americans and tens of millions of people throughout the world, those familiar words have one unmistakable meaning. They herald the arrival of the twentieth century's most dynamic champion... SUPERMAN!
Born in the Depression era, Superman exerted an instant, universal appeal which has spanned the decades undiminished. In an age painfully short of heroes and desperately in need of them, Superman continues to lay unchallenged claim to the triple crown as the world's most enduring, most profitable and most popular fictional superstar.
The legend of Superman is a fantastic phenomenon around the globe, where the ongoing saga is today published in eight separate comic magazines, available in more than thirty-eight nations and printed in fifteen different languages.
And one has only to visit a major store or shopping center in any of these countries to see the results of this sustained "Supermania" - in books, toys, T-shirts, watches, rings, records, decals, posters, paper products and party goods, socks, shoes, sweaters, sheets and towels. And the celebrated red-and-yellow Superman "S" can be seen emblazoned everywhere, even in the most unlikely places: from the backs of leather jackets to the backsides of jeans; from the rear door of a rock star's Rolls-Royce to the woven wicker of a rickshaw in Hong Kong; on surfboards, schoolbooks, airplanes and subway cars - even on men's briefs! The jokes, spoofs, take-offs and satires are almost endless. Most of us are familiar with the Superman references which have adorned recent magazine covers: cartoons of Super "Henry the K" (Kissinger) rocketing around the globe, Barbara Streisand clad only in a white T-shirt emblazoned with the famous logo, even U.S. Energy secretary James Schlesinger decked out in crimson cloak and tights (where was he when the lights went out in New York?) And like Peanuts, Superman has even been found to have theological and spiritual implications - a delicate area in which this author does not intend to intrude. (Though, it should be noted, the "Superman" story and the screenplay draw heavily on familiar religious elements, most obviously the discovery of the baby Kal-El, much like that of Moses, and the almost mystical bond between him and his father, Jor-El.)
The actual genesis of Superman took place in surroundings somewhat less exotic that Krypton: Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933... in the most painful phase of the Great Depression, the days of breadlines and Bonus Marchers and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" It was a time when the world's morale was pitifully low and in need of something more than Arabian sheiks and knights in shining armor flashing across the silver screen, or posturing politicians promising that prosperity was just around the corner.
As it happened, a high-school student in Ohio did have an answer for that need. Jerry Siegel was a teenager of considerable creative powers, possessed of a fantastic imagination and a seemingly insatiable appetite for excitement, action and adventure. Oppressed by the grim reality everywhere around him, Siegel escaped into a world of fiction and fantasy, consuming a steady diet of short stories, science fiction, Saturday matinees - and, of course, the action serials in the multitude of pulp magazines that blossomed on the newsstands. As a reporter for the Glenville Torch, his high-school newspaper, young Siegel reviewed and recommended the very best of what he had seen and read, conveying his own enthusiasm to his peers. One of Siegel's favorites was the hard-hitting Doc Savage series, created by Lester Dent, under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson. Savage, officially known as "the Man of Bronze," was an amazingly dynamic hero, recognized for his almost super-human abilities - and was indeed often referred to as "a superman." In 1932 Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator appeared, featuring a central character who was yet another superhuman, but with attributes more spectacular and sharply defined than Savage's. He could bound "forty feet into the air," deflect a hail of bullets, race "at an abnormal pace." The idea of a man possessed of strengths and talents beyond those of other men made a considerable impression on young Siegel, voraciously reading every tale of adventure he could get his hands on - articles, short stories, novels - perhaps delving into Greek mythology (after all, he named the planet of his hero's origin Krypton, from the Greek word kryptos, referring to a hidden or secret place) with its tales of the superhuman Prometheus and Hercules, or works as recent as Nietzsche's philosophy, which first popularized the term "Superman."
Superman... superhuman... fantastic strength... incredible abilities... Slowly, inexorable, this imagined amalgalm of action and adventure, of fantasy and science fiction, began to coalesce in young Siegel's mind to come together as a single idea: a recognizable form, yet something altogether new and distinctly different. Something beyond what had already been done.
And, tossing in bed on a sultry summer evening, as Siegel recalled much later, "All of a sudden it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one. Only more so."
Only more so. That seemed to be the key: going a step further than anyone else had gone. Siegel's excitement was impossible to contain; early the next morning, he dashed over to the home of his friend, Joe Shuster, an enthusiastic and talented amateur illustrator. Shuster was immediately fired by Siegel's intense creative enthusiasm. Quickly, he endowed Siegel's idea with visual substance. In these initial sketches, some still familiar trademarks are clearly evident - the bold block letters curving ever so slightly, a muscular, athletic figure with a square-set jaw and jet black hair sporting a forelock. Soon the boys were deeply engrossed in plotting their first adventure. Superman had been born.
Like most initiators, Siegel and Shuster sadly discovered the difficulty of passing along their enthusiasm. The first Superman story, "The Reign of the Superman," appeared in Siegel's amateur magazine, Science Fiction, in January, 1933. But is was six years before their creation achieved commercial publication, in spite of their many attempts to market it. In 1935, after completing high school, the two boys launched their professional careers at what is now DC Comics, Inc. And so electrically successful was their work - Shuster's bold expressive art and Siegel's fast-paced, imaginative copy - that the publishers prospered sufficiently to take a chance in 1937 on a comic magazine completely composed of original material. The was Detective Comics, featuring an entirely new character named Slam Bradley, created by Shuster and Siegel. After that venture succeeded, the publishers were finally prepared to gamble on the boys' long-ignored personal favorite. So in June, 1938, Superman burst forth on the cover of Vol. 1, No. 1 of Action Comics. Cost, one dime. A copy in mint condition today (1978) goes for $5,000.
With this publication, an American legend was born. For, in fact, Superman is the first comic-hero superstar. He revolutionized an industry. It may not be too much to say that he created one.
"Only three fictional heroes of the past century have so gripped the English-speaking world," wrote Richard A. Lupoff in Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. "Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Siegel and Shuster's Superman and Burroughs' Tarzan."
The principal attraction of Superman is the combination of his uniqueness with his very recognizable humanity. He is from another planet, another world. His powers are awesome. His strength is unparalleled. He is, in effect, immortal. Yet the baby Kal-El arrives on Earth an orphan. He is brought up with ordinary, everyday values, by ordinary, everyday people (the Kents), in an ordinary, everyday place (Smallville). Consequently, he is imbued with a strong feeling of love and a sense of responsibility for the world at large. And when he chooses to conceal his true identity, he "invents" Clark Kent by drawing on his own childhood experience. Clark is bumbling, shy, unsure of himself. But he is also courteous, honest; above all, to readers everywhere, he is vulnerable and identifiably human. And in contrast to other popular fictional heroes possessing double identities - Don Diego/Zorro or Bruce Wayne/Batman - Clark Kent is the counterfeit and Superman, all-righteous, all-just, all powerful, is the reality.
The popularity of the new hero was so immediate and widespread that soon the "Superman" sequences in Action Comics were enlarged and expanded. And Mort Weisinger, one of the first of the major "Superman" editors, broadened the story possibilities by creating outlandish adventures for the pivotal "Superman" characters. Naturally, Superman found himself on an increasing number of Action Comics covers, and eventually the parent company launched a completely separate "Superman" imprint.
As the legend grew and spread across America and beyond, "Superman" made the first of many leaps from the printed to the spoken word.
The "Superman" radio program premiered on February 12, 1940, as a three-times-weekly broadcast. It soon became one of the most popular programs on the Mutual Network. Clayton ("Bud") Collyer, who would become well-known as a major television personality, was the inspiring voice of the Man of Steel, with Joan Alexander as reporter Lois Lane and Julian Noa as the crusty but benign Perry White.
In the next year, "Superman" made the transition to several media, starting in 1941 with Max Fleischer's celebrated cartoons. In 1942, a novel entitled Superman was written by George Lowther and achieved notable success. Still later came the highly popular "Superman" serials produced by Columbia Studios. Two 15-episode motion pictures were made, "Superman" in 1948 and "Atom Man vs. Superman" in 1950, both starring Kirk Alyn as Superman and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. Each episode pitted the Man of Steel against seemingly insurmountable odds, and, in the tradition followed from Pearl White on, they ended with a maddening "to be continued" just at the point of climax thus ensuring for next week a packed theater of enthusiastic fans clinging to the edges of their seats.
The success of these serials led the studio to make a feature film entitled "Superman and the Mole Men" (featuring George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois LAne) which largely followed the serials in style. And soon after, the new national novelty, television, became a forum for Shuster and Siegel's superlative hero.
With television, Superman came into the living rooms of millions of Americans, increasing the popularity of the character and broadening the horizon of the Superman myth. Millions of children tied blankets around their necks and swooped through their homes, emulating their idol.
The Adventures of Superman went into production at RKO-Pathé Studios in California in 1951 and continued at various other studios until 1957. Originally starring Reeves and Coates, the series continued in 1953 with Reeves and the original screen Lois, Noel Neill, Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson. It was this cast that Americans cam to know as the "Superman" family. In the years since the television show ceased production, the renown of Superman has increased rather than diminished. The TV series is one of the most popular reruns on the air. While the series was still filming, 20th Century-Fox released a string of five "Superman" "features" compiled from fifteen of the most successful episodes of the TV broadcast. In 1958, a pilot film for a "Superpup" television show met with little success, due largely to scripting and production problems. "The Adventures of Superboy," a possible successor to the George Reeves series, appeared in April, 1961, and did little more than generate hope that a worthy contemporary vehicle for the Superman legend would soon be found.
More successful was the 1966 Robert Benton - David and Leslie Newman musical on Broadway, "It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman!" And in 1973, Warner Brothers offered for non-theatrical screenings a compilation of four color episodes of the "Adventures of Superman," vintage examples of the very best of the series.
After World War II, during which he dealt super havoc to Axis foes, the comic-book Superman could "relax" a bit, battling more comical combatants like Mr. Mxyzptlk, Toyman and the Prankster instead of the Nazis.
The appearance of Superboy (the young Superman) and new and diverse characters like Supergirl, Krypto the Superdog - and something outrageous as Superhorse - broadened Superman's horizons and increased tenfold the possibilities for potential adventure as Superman changed with the times.
It is fascinating to observe how Superman matured and developed over the years. In the earliest adventures he could leap over tall buildings and bound and eighth of a mile. Still later he was literally flying. His powers increased, his special "senses" emerged - x-ray vision, super hearing, super-breath - and his invincibility became more firmly established. Early on, nothing short of "a bursting shell could penetrate his skin." Now even a hydrogen bomb poses no particular threat.
Naturally, as his strength increased, so did the potential deadliness of kryptonite. As it was initially conceived, kryptonite was merely the transformed radioactive remnant of Superman's home planet, which could enfeeble only a native of Krypton. But it soon emerged as fatal - the one thing that could kill Superman.
As Superman changed, so did his family, friends and foes. Jor-L, his father, and Lora, his mother, became Jor-El and Lara. John and Mary Kent, his Smallville foster parents, became Eben and Sarah in the Lowther novel (Clark, Sarah's maiden name, provided Superman with his first name). Currently they are known as Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Even Lex Luthor - the evil genius who is the Man of Steel's arch-antagonist - was initially introduced with thick, straight red locks. Today he is portrayed as bald.
While Superman once acted independently of many legal formalities, he is now more punctilious. In recent comic issues he has even gone through the correct diplomatic channels to obtain "air rights" from the United Nations in order to breach "foreign" air space!
The Daily Planet has long since been sold to Galaxy Communications and Morgan Edge has supplanted Perry White as the Planet's managing editor.
The comic-book Clark Kent is now a savvy and stylish television newscaster with natty European-cut clothing in the best tradition of hip investigative reporters. His relationships with other people, particularly Lois Lane, are more complex. Perhaps mindful of the Women's Movement, Clark regards Lois as an equal, if not a superior, in their professional and personal relationships. And the natural ambivalence between Clark Kent and Superman has become much more conspicuous. Without question, Superman is in step with the seventies.
But while that which is variable about Superman has been modernized, the myth remains as solid and secure as it was forty years ago. And many of the attempted alterations in the legend backfired spectacularly - most memorably when "Superman's" recent comic-magazine editors tried unsuccessfully to do away with kryptonite.
In this film, the first major motion picture of "Superman," that legend has been carefully preserved, renewed, expanded and revitalized. If its makers' dreams are realized, it will convey to even larger audiences the fun, the adventure, the fantasy and the basic spirit of "truth and justice" that Shuster and Siegel envisioned back in 1933 - and in a more imaginatively spectacular way than even those two young boys from Ohio ever could have dreamed.
Ilya Salkind, the executive producer, has captured the essence of that spirit quite simply: "Superman has always meant strength and speed and power - someone you can count on. But more, it's a feeling of joy... and hope. In what is certainly one of the most ambitious motion picture projects of all time, we are bringing to the screen the most spectacular adventure of all time. Superlatives are bandied around Hollywood much too freely these days, but our film truly is movie-making in its grandest sense, with all the ingredients multiplied by a thousand. Everyone will be able to enjoy it and relate to it in some way. Everybody wants to fly, to be free... to be really on top of the world - hopefully, a good world."
And so, "Superman" - the movie.