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Superman [character]

Entry updated 2 October 2023. Tagged: Character, Comics, Film, Radio, TV.

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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), which Siegel had reviewed in his fanzine, Science-Fiction, in 1932. He 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. The first separate novelization, of many print Ties, was The Adventures of Superman (1942) by George Lowther.

As sole survivor of a cataclysm on the planet Krypton, sent in a space capsule to Earth, where he is raised from infancy (effectively as an illegal immigrant) by US foster-parents, the character's dual identity as timid reporter Clark Kent and indestructible, patriotic crime-fighter Superman has a basic appeal to readers. His dynamic split personality has transcended the comics medium to become incorporated into contemporary Western Mythology. Though he is essentially based in Metropolis (which is to say New York), storylines have been varied, opening the story arc out through devices like Time Travel, several interplanetary journeys, as well as forays into alternate universes (see Parallel Worlds), etc., while innumerable 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 (12 issues April 1985-March 1986; graph 1986), 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 who 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.) But after Clark and Lois marry (see Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), it was decided to kill Superman, this time for real (his death had been variously faked at least eleven times since 1950), a catastrophe prepared for through a long conflict with a new villain, Doomsday, climaxing in Superman 75 (November 1992) with the demise; his inevitable return, after a genuine hiatus partially filled by four competing fake Supermen, took almost a year to accomplish. This sequence was novelized by Roger Stern as The Death and Life of Superman (1993).

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 potential difficulties of the character's Sex life were guyed in Larry Niven's spoof essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" (December 1969 Knight) and the decline of his powers with age in Superfolks (1977) by Robert Mayer. Niven's thesis had been anticipated by Vladimir Nabokov's long unpublished verse "The Man of To-morrow's Lament" (written 1942; 5 March 2021 TLS). [JE/RT/JP/JC/DRL]

2. Animated film series (1941-1943). Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios/Paramount Pictures. Produced by Max Fleischer, Seymour Kneitel. Based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Directed by Dave Fleischer, Kneitel, Don Gordon. Writers included Kneitel, Jay Morton, Isadore Sparber. Cast includes Joan Alexander, Jackson Beck and Bud Collyer. 17 ten-minute (approximate) instalments. Colour.

Paramount Pictures approached National Periodicals in 1941 wishing to capitalize on the popularity of Superman in Comics format; the resulting deal led to these short animated features. Produced first by the Fleischer Studios, the shorts had the traditional background of Clark Kent/Superman (Collyer) working for The Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis City under chief editor Perry White (Beck). Kent maintains a friendly rivalry with fellow reporter Lois Lane (Alexander), whose life Superman usually saves in each instalment. The earlier segments from the Fleischer brothers were generally the most sf-oriented, with Superman battling a Dinosaur revived from Suspended Animation in the Arctic, attempting to divert a Comet on collision course with Earth, and facing a horde of giant flying Robots committing robberies. The later Famous Studio segments were often quasi-propaganda in which Superman battles the USA's World War Two enemies. However, one of these later features has Superman discovering an Underground Lost World of bird-like humanoids while searching for a missing Scientist.

Enjoying high budgets, the shorts were well produced, and remain highly regarded despite some now unacceptable portrayals of ethnic groups. Superman was considerably less powerful than he would later become, even requiring Lois's help once or twice. The Fleischer brothers gave the Superhero his ability to fly, feeling that his paper incarnation's tremendous leaps looked silly on screen; this ability was soon adopted by the comics, along with his x-ray/heat-ray vision. Comics artist and writer Frank Miller has cited the series as being influential on his own work, as have modern-day animators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Since copyrights on the series were not renewed, all seventeen features are now public-domain items, available in a wide variety of home video releases. [GSt]

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

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

Although the production values were strictly Poverty Row – Superman (Alyn) would turn into a cartoon whenever he took flight – Superman was perhaps the most successful film serial ever made. The sequel was Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950), a 15-episode serial from Columbia with much the same cast, in which Lex Luthor the Atom Man (Lyle Talbot) was introduced.

5. US tv series (1952-1958): 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]

13. Yet another US tv series, the animated My Adventures with Superman (2023-current). [DRL]

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

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