Now, I’ve never been a huge Superman fan for the most part, but there are some cool things about the character I do like. Before we get into all of that, though, let’s go back to where everything began.
Superman first came about as a short prose story titled “The Reign of the Superman”, which was written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by his friend Joe Shuster in January 1933. The short story was self-published as five issues in a science fiction magazine titled Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, and told the story of a bald villain with telepathic powers. The two high school friends were hoping to sell the story so they could get out of Depression era poverty.
As stated by Siegel in a 1983 interview, “The Reign of the Superman”, first written in 1932, was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of an “Ubermensch”. In the original story, Superman was actually the powerful villain who was hell bent on dominating the entire world. But the idea of a “superman” has been around for much longer than Siegel’s first short story.
“Superman” is a common English translation of the term Ubermensch, which originated with Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement, “Ich lehre euch den Ubermenschen” (“I will teach you all the Superman”), in his 1883 work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. The actual English term “Superman” gained popularity through the 1903 play “Man and Superman” by George Bernard Shaw.
There’s also a mention of the term “superman” in the 1912 pulp novel “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, where the character Jane Porter refers to Tarzan as a “superman”. Interestingly enough, Jerry Siegel would later name Tarzan as an influence on the creation of his own Superman.
Getting back to the story of “The Reign of the Superman”, we can see how vastly different the character of Superman was at his creation. The original story is about a mad scientist, a chemist named Professor Ernest Smalley, who chooses a hobo-looking vagrant named Bill Dunn randomly out from a bread line. Smalley recruits Dunn to participate in an experiment in exchange for “a real meal and a new suit”.
Smalley’s experimental potion is a success in that it grants Dunn telepathic powers—but Dunn becomes intoxicated by his power and seeks to rule the entire world. So, instead of the Superman we all know and love, he started out as a villain who used his abilities for evil. And of course, being the evil super powered villain he was, he lost in the end via finding out his powers were only temporary; the potion’s effect wore off, and he’d already killed the evil Smalley who was the only one who could’ve recreated the secret formula. The story ends with Dunn losing his powers and standing once more in the bread line, a forgotten man in society.
As interesting as this was for its day, the story needed a lot of tweaking by Siegel as a means to sell the “superman” character to a national publication. Siegel rewrote the character in 1933 as a hero bearing little or no resemblance to the villainous Bill Dunn. Even with the retooling of the Superman character, the duo of Siegel and Shuster still spent five years trying to find a publisher who was interested in their character.
Only when Siegel saw a 48-page black-and-white comic book titled “Detective Dan, Secret Operative no. 48” did he get the idea of turning the Superman character into a comic book hero. Now using a comic format, Shuster drew Siegel’s crime story titled “The Superman”. The two would offer this comic book story to Consolidated Book Publishing, the company that had published Detective Dan. Unfortunately, Consolidated stopped publishing comic books and could not accept their story for publications.
This greatly discouraged Shuster, who would go on to burn all pages of the story. Luckily, Siegel was able to retrieve the cover before it was also destroyed by the fire. Eventually, an editor for National Publications, home of the successful Detective Comics, would be assigned to create a fourth comic book for their publication. Due to a tight deadline, Sullivan was forced to make the comic out of stockpile pages and inventory they had on hand.
Sorting through several adventurer stories, he was unable to find what he needed—as the company wanted a story with a lead feature. Sullivan ended up asking former coworker Sheldon Mayer if he could help. Mayer would find the rejected Superman comic strips and show them to Sullivan. Sullivan went on to tell Siegel and Shuster that if they could paste the strips into 13 comic book pages, he would buy them.
After rewriting and redrawing the original panels to create the first page of Action Comics #1, the story changes would be as following:
- Baby Superman is sent to Earth by his scientist father in a “hastily-devised space ship” from “a distant planet” which “was destroyed by old age”.
- After the space ship lands on Earth, “a passing motorist, discovering the sleeping baby within, turned the child over to an orphanage”.
- The baby Superman lifts a large chair overhead with one hand, astounding the orphanage attendants with “his feats of strength”.
- When Superman (now named Clark Kent) reaches maturity, he discovers that he can leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle 20-story buildings, “raise tremendous weights”, outrun a train, and “that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin”.
- Clark decides that “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind, and so was created ‘Superman’, champion of the oppressed….”
- They went on to add two new panels offering a “scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength”. But, the panels do not identify Superman’s home planet by name or explain how he got the name Clark Kent.
As you can see, even after the original changes, Superman was quite a different character compared to what he is now. He more or less has the same basic origin in that he was born on an alien world that was about to get destroyed; his parents sent him to Earth to survive. In his earlier appearances, though, he was put in an orphanage and had a more rough and aggressive personality. And when he’d finally become Superman, he’d often attack and terrorize wife beaters, profiteers, lynch mobs, and gangsters; he was almost like Batman with superpowers.
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”—this was the original Superman power set before he became the all-powerful demigod that he’s commonly portrayed as today. Nowadays, he has so many powers it’s hard to keep track of them all, but let’s try: he has flight, super-speed, super-strength, invulnerability, super-hearing, super-breath, super-vision, and like five other things he can do with his eyes; a great progression from his original powers.
I’m not quite sure why the rapid growth of his power through the decades was necessary—but for me, it’s one of the main drawbacks of the character; making him very boring in my opinion. It even got so bad that DC Comics had to pull stunts like Lois and Clark getting married, and eventually resorting to the whole Death of Superman story arc in the early 90s. The character became far too powerful and was way too over-saturated in the market.
Another trait of the character that always bugged me was the boy scout aspect of Superman. It makes it hard for me to get into a story when the main character is always far more morally superior than whoever he’s going up against. Add that goody two-shoes character trait with the ridiculous number of superpowers, and it really makes it difficult to find an engaging, drama inducing opponent that can stand up to Superman and give him a run for his money.
Though, with all that said, there are some good and interesting stories involving Superman. Like with any character, whenever you get the right creative team working on them, the possibilities are endless. I do find that I enjoy him more in a group setting like the Justice League; where he’s not the focal point for the whole issue and instead relegated to more of a side character.
Some of my favorite Superman stories are when there’s a twist on the status quo, or when they show him having trouble with his powers; not being the “boy scout” who gets everything right. In that vein, I’ve been enjoying what DC has been doing with the character since Rebirth—having the pre-52 Superman show back up with Lois Lane and their son Jonathan Kent from that universe. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Superman is going to handle being a father and teaching his son how to properly use his powers. This is what Superman stories need; a more human element for the character.
I would like to get my hand on some trades of the original Superman stories. They seem like they’d be really enjoyable to read since it’s before the character got his ridiculous power set. That being said, there are some good quality modern stories involving Superman. So, down below I am going to put a list of recommended Superman stories you might want to check out. And if there are any big Superman fans out there, please let me know if I’m leaving something out, or if there’s a particular Superman story that you think needs mentioned.
Superman Story Recommendations