Superman [character]

Tagged: Film | TV | Comics | Character | Radio

1. US Comic strip created by writer Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and artist Joe Shuster (1914-1992), loosely inspired by Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930). Siegel was an sf fan, creator of several early Fanzines, including Science Fiction (5 issues from October 1932), in which illustrations by his friend Shuster had appeared. Their Superman idea was originally – over a period of years – rejected by almost every comics publisher in the USA before he was finally allowed to make his debut in Action Comics, June 1938, published by National Allied Publications, later known as DC Comics; he got his own comic book with Superman Comics in 1939. Shuster and Siegel did not create many of the stories (perhaps just as well, since Shuster's style – though it had a charming simplicity – was very stiff, and his eyesight was already in decline in the early 1940s), but their names continued to be used on the title pages. Under the editorship of Mort Weisinger the series was given a more elaborate background, and was expanded to include additional superbeings and further comic titles. Many writers and artists, including Alfred Bester, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner and Manly Wade Wellman, have contributed to the series, which continues today.

As sole survivor of a cataclysm on the planet Krypton, raised from infancy by US foster-parents, the character's dual identity as timid reporter Clark Kent and indestructible crime-fighter Superman has a basic appeal to readers. His dynamic personality has transcended the comics medium to become incorporated into contemporary Western Mythology. Storylines have been varied, with themes including Time Travel, interplanetary journeys, alternate universes (> Parallel Worlds), etc., while subplots have been woven around attempts to unmask his secret Identity and to engage him amorously.

For many years the character became increasingly implausible, leading to his lampooning in Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (books #1-#4 1986; graph 1986), where he appears in one sequence as a raddled skeleton. DC Comics began to perceive a need to rationalize the character, most notably through an epic storyline involving many of their characters: "Crisis on Infinite Earths" (1987; graph 2001), written by Marv Wolfman. Artist-writer John Byrne was engaged to take a completely new approach to the characters. In his version, which began publication in a six-issue miniseries entitled The Man of Steel (July-September 1986), the first step was the elimination from the mythos of all the other Superman-inspired Superheroes which had intruded over the years (Superboy, Supergirl, etc.). Superman's powers and abilities were reduced and given specified limits – e.g., he could no longer travel at the speed of light, survive in space longer than he could hold his breath, or travel through Time. His long-time sweetheart Lois Lane discovered his secret identity, and the couple eventually married. (Superboy, Supergirl, and related characters were later reintroduced with non-Kryptonian backgrounds.)

More recently, the year 2011 brought the rebooting and relaunch of the entire DC Comics line, with all titles starting over with new first issues and, again, simplified backstories unencumbered by sixty years of publication history. Superman, as rebranded and spearheaded by writer Grant {MORRISON}, is now younger, more cynical, and more concerned with justice rather than law. Clark Kent, meanwhile, is again a bachelor, just getting started as a crusading investigative journalist, and a far less timid character. The 2011 lineup of Superman titles includes Action Comics, Superman, Superboy and Supergirl.

Superman has been the most influential of sf comics heroes and has inspired many imitations, the most noted being Captain Marvel. His adventures have appeared as a syndicated newspaper strip and as the Radio programme, television series, serial films and feature films described below. The character's Sex life was guyed in Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" (December 1969 Knight) and his old age in Superfolks (1977) by Robert Mayer (1939-    ). [JE/RT/JP]

2. US animated cartoon series, produced by Max Fleischer, directed by Dave Fleischer for Paramount, 17 cartoons, Technicolor, 1940-1943.

3. US Mutual Radio series, usually pitting Superman against criminals (1940-1952).

4. Serial film (1948). Columbia. Produced by Sam Katzman. Directors Spencer Bennet, Thomas Carr. Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman), Noel Neill, Tommy Bond. 15 episodes; later released (cut to 88 minutes) as a feature film. Black and white

Although the production values were strictly Poverty Row, Superman was perhaps the most successful film serial ever made. The sequel was Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950), 15-episode serial, Columbia, with much the same cast, in which Lex Luthor the Atom Man (Lyle Talbot) was introduced.

5. US tv series (1953-1957): The Adventures of Superman. ABC TV. First season (February 1953) produced by Robert Maxwell, Bernard Luber; from season 2 (September 1953) to #6 and last produced by Whitney Ellsworth. 104 25-minute episodes. First two seasons black and white, remainder in colour.

Superman was played by George Reeves, a former Hollywood leading man who had made his film debut as a suitor of Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939); he had first taken the role in the film Superman and the Mole Men (1951; vt Superman and the Strange People UK), directed by Lee Sholem, 67 minutes, black and white, in which Superman saves from a lynch mob little glowing troglodytes who have emerged from a deep oil well. With the television series (one of whose early producers, Robert Maxwell, had also produced on 3 and written and coproduced the 1951 movie) Reeves became typecast in the role; when the series ended (he directed the last three episodes himself) he was unable to find further work in films. He committed suicide in 1959, aged 45.

Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane in the 1951 film and the first television season only, being replaced for the rest of the series by Noel Neill, who had played the part in the two Columbia serials (4). Other cast members included Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and John Hamilton as Perry White.

The series was aimed primarily at children and, though mediocre, was extremely popular. Unlike the case in the comic strip, the stories rarely entered the realm of the fantastic: Superman was usually pitted against mundane, often bumbling criminals. Five theatrical films were recut, each from three television episodes, and released abroad in 1954 as Superman's Peril (1954), Superman Flies Again (1954), Superman in Exile (1954), Superman and Scotland Yard (1954) and Superman and the Jungle Devils (1954).

6. Musical/made-for-tv film. A 1966 Broadway musical based on Superman and called It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! was turned into a film for ABC TV in 1975 with David Wilson as Superman. Directed by Jack Regas. Script Romeo Miller, based on the musical by Charles Strouse and David Newman. [JB/PN]

7. A major Superman film franchise was long delayed but eventually launched with Superman (1978). Sequels are: Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) and Superman Returns (2006); a related production is Supergirl (1984). [DRL]

8. The tv series Superboy (1988-1991) describes Superman's teenage years at university. It was again produced by the Salkinds. [PN]

9. Another tv series ran on ABC television in the US: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997). [PN]

10. Yet another US tv series, this time animated rather than live-action, is Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000). This was rejigged as The New Batman/Superman Adventures, with paired episodes comprising one adventure each for Superman and Batman. A spinoff film re-edited from three episodes of the latter is Batman Superman Movie: World's Finest (1997; vt Batman/Superman Adventures: World's Finest). [DRL]

11. Yet another US tv series, dealing with Superman's early life as Clark Kent and Superboy, is Smallville (2001-2011). [JP]

12. The film Man of Steel (2013) reboots the movie franchise with yet another revisionist approach to the Superman origin story. [DRL]

see also: Big Little Books; Icons; Music; Science and Sorcery.

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