Superman Through the Ages



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Time Magazine March 14, 1988

Up, Up, and Awaaay!!!

Time Magazine Cover Story, March 14, 1988

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible


Behold, I teach you the superman.  The superman is the meaning of the earth.

- Friedrich Nietzsche


"I'm lying in bed counting sheep when all of a sudden it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I heard tell of rolled into one.  Only more so."

- Jerome Siegel

Where do enduring legends come from?  Where do mythical heroes come from?  Where do classic works of popular art come from?

"As a high school student," Jerry Siegel once recalled, "I thought that some day I might be a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed... It occurred to me:  What if I... had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?"

Great ideas, even when they seem to come all at once, actually emerge from a tangled undergrowth.  Siegel, a scrawny, bespectacled teenager who was then drifting through Cleveland's Glenville High School, worked as a delivery boy for $4 a week, gave part of the money to help support his impoverished family and invested much of the rest in the adventures of Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.  Imitating and burlesquing such heroes, he began concocting science-fiction tales that he mimeographed and sold to other students.  One of Siegel's lesser creations was a story called The Reign of the Superman, which featured an evil scientist with a bald head.  Superman as villain?  The thought is enough to make posterity shudder.  But this was not the stuff of greatness.  It was only during a sleepless summer night in 1934, after Siegel had graduated, that the grand inspiration came:  Superman as hero.

It was a heroic scenario:  the explosion of the doomed planet Krypton, the miraculous escape of the infant son of a Kryptonian scientist, the discovery of the baby's spaceship by an elderly couple near the Midwestern town of Smallville.  And the revelation of the child's superhuman strength, the foster parents' exhortation that he "must use it to assist humanity," the youth's adoption of a dual identity - the mild-mannered, blue-suited newspaper reporter, Clark Kent, and the red-caped, blue-haired Superman, the man of steel.  And Lois Lane, the toothsome fellow reporter who attached herself to the Superman-Kent duo, loving the one and snubbing the other.

Siegel went running to the house of his classmate and neighbor, Joe Shuster, the equally penniless son of a tailor from Toronto, and the two of them worked all day - Siegel writing and Shuster drawing - until they had finished no fewer than twelve newspaper strips.  Then they set forth to sell their new hero to the waiting world, which proved utterly indifferent.  "A rather immature piece of work," said United Feature.  "Crude and hurried," said Esquire Features.  Even at Detective Comics, which finally bought the feature after much argument and delay to help launch Action Comics four years later, Publisher Harry Donenfield looked at the first cover, of Superman lifting a car over his head (a treasure that can now fetch $35,000 from collectors), and delivered his verdict:  "Ridiculous."

Siegel, Shuster, Lois, and Superman


    Woke up this morning, what do I see?
    Robbery, violence, insanity...
    Superman, Superman...
    I want to fly like Superman.

- The Kinks


Today, of course, Superman is an institution.  After a half-century of crime-busting adventures in Action Comics and Superman Comics (as well as in some 250 newspapers), 13 years of radio shows, three novels, 17 animated cartoons, two movie serials of 15 installments each, a TV series of 104 episodes, a second animated cartoon-series of 69 parts, a Broadway musical and five feature films (not to mention a hoorah of shows featuring Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto, the Superdog; not to mention, for that matter, a plunder of spin-offs and by-products: Superman T-shirts, Superman rings, Superman bed sheets), the man of steel is now, well, unique.

"He is our myth, the American myth," says Screenwriter David Newman, who collaborated on the Broadway musical and three of the films. "When we first started writing Superman I, some friends said, 'What are you doing that for?' And I said, 'If I were an English screenwriter and I were writing about King Arthur, you wouldn't be asking that.'" But though Superman lives in America (mainly), he is a hero all over the world.  One admirer, Science-Fiction Writer Harlan Ellison, has estimated that there are only five fictional creations known in practically every part of the earth:  Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood and Superman.

So, bravo! Bravissimo! For last week the man of steel celebrated the grand milestone of his 50th birthday.  Technically, it was not exactly the occasion of his birth, for April 1938 was when he made his debut on the cover of the first issue (dated June) of Action Comics.  If he was then about 25, as he looked, he would actually now be 75.  But since he still looks about 25, he can be said to be timeless, immortal.  And although nobody is sure exactly how old he is, there is a tradition that his birthday falls on Feb. 29 (the leap-year day appropriate to Lois Lane's repeated efforts to get him to marry her).

CBS broadcast a prime-time special on the great day, and DC Comics rented part of Manhattan's Puck Building to throw a big party; several thousand fans came to watch film clips, buy balloons and nibble on birthday cake.  The observances will continue throughout the year, starting with the anniversary of Action Comics next month.  The Smithsonian's exhibition of Supermanobilia will run until June in Washington.  In Metropolis, Ill., they are refurbishing for summer visitors the large statue that proclaims the dubious proposition that this is "Superman's hometown." And in Cleveland, which really is Superman's hometown, a booster club that calls itself the Neverending Battle is planning an international Superman exhibition and ticker-tape parade down Euclid Avenue in June.

The only Superman enthusiasts not taking part in the current festivities are Siegel and Shuster, both 73, living three blocks from each other in retirement in Los Angeles, Siegel suffering from a heart condition and Shuster legally blind.  When DC Comics bought their creation 50 years ago, it acquired all rights, initially paying them only $10 a page for their work in writing and drawing.  When the first issues sold out, and sales of subsequent issues soon climbed to 250,000 copies each, the two men sued DC for their rights.  DC Comics dropped them, and the courts ruled against them.

Their litigation dragged on until the late 1970s, when Warner Communications, which by then owned DC and wanted to make a movie version, paid off the creators with $20,000 a year for life. (Superman's estimated overall value:  more than $1 billion.) Siegel and Shuster agreed to keep the peace, but they are giving no interviews and joining no celebrations.  "They are just in such pain over this situation," says Thomas Andrae, a Berkley sociologist who knows them, "particularly as it gets closer to the anniversary."


    Clark Kent personifies typically the average reader who is harassed by complexes and despised by his fellow men... any accountant in any American city secretly feeds the hope that one day there can spring forth a superman who is capable of redeeming years of mediocre existence.

    - Semiotician and Novelist (The Name of the Rose) Emberto Eco


Although Superman's adventures were a fairly crude story, fairly crudely illustrated, their overnight success not only earned millions but also created shoals of imitators, such as Batman, Captain Marvel, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman.  "Oddly enough," says Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, "the Depression enlivened the American Dream that anyone could make it, and that's what Superman did."

But if Superman was a reassuring hero for troubled times, for the Depression and the coming World War, why has he endured for so long? Partly because troubled times have endured in other forms, and partly because he has always had qualities that go beyond the flying fists. He was orphaned, and thus forced to rely on himself, just like Little Orphan Annie or Huck Finn.  He is a foreigner from outer space in a land built by foreigners.  And he is one of the good guys, fighting for "truth, justice, and the American Way," which seems to many people a very good thing to do.  Superman's violence is never cruel, however; he punches villains but rarely does them any real harm.  His greatest powers are exerted to deflect violence, by stepping in front of bullets, say, or moving huge objects out of harm's way.

In some ways, Superman's relentless virtue goes even beyond virtue. In his extraterrestrial origins and the shining purity of his altruism, some commentators have detected a divine aura.  "Superman, I've always thought, is an angel," says Andrew Greeley, gadfly Roman Catholic priest and best-selling novelist.  "Probably the angel stories found in all of the world's religions are traces of the work in our world of Superman and his relatives.  Who is to say I'm wrong?" Proponents of the angel theory believe it is no accident that when Superman is in flight, his flared collar and flowing cape resemble wings.


Such speculation goes even further.  Experts have pondered the fact that Superman's original Kryptonian name, Kal-El, resembles Hebraic syllables meaning "all that God is." Greek and Norse mythology have been invoked to show that Superman resembles a god who comes to earth and walks among men in mortal guise. Screenwriter Newman sees yet more exalted implications in the legend. "It begins with a father who lives up in heaven, who says, 'I will send my only son to save earth.' The son takes on the guise of a man but is not a man.  The religious overtones are so clear."

In secular terms too, Superman represents something quite special. "It's very hard for me to be silly about Superman," says Christopher Reeve, who plays the role in the movies, "because I've seen firsthand how he actually transforms people's lives.  I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to be able to talk to me and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character is intact.  I've seen that Superman really matters.  It's not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character their connecting with; they're connecting with something very basic:  the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it."


    "O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad.  Hi.  I'm not home right now, but if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone."

    - Laurie Anderson


Americans are inclined to think they know Superman and know him well and have known him forever.  In fact, we hardly know Superman at all, for the details of his life have been changed again and again, according to either the whims of his owners or the demands of the market.  His originally nameless father on Krypton, for example, became Jor-L, then Jor-El (and eventually Marlon Brando).  His employer in Metropolis, before it was the Daily Planet, was the Daily Star and then the Evening News.  Superman is also vulnerable to Kryptonite, the stuff that Krypton was made of, except when he is sometimes not vulnerable to Kryptonite.  There is no longer one Superman, in other words, but a half dozen or more.  The comic-book hero is different from the movie hero or the TV hero, and all of these differ from what Jerry Siegel imagined one sleepless night in 1934.

Although Superman over the years has generally remained impervious to Lois Lanes' wiles, he has succumbed occasionally to other entanglements.  In the 1950s there was a handsome brunet named Lori, "mysterious as the sea," whom clark rescued from her runaway wheelchair.  She puzzled him by issuing orders to an octopus that had wrapped its tentacles around her, but he fell in love with her anyway and proposed.  "Although I love you," she replied, "I can never marry you." Because, as Superman soon learned, she was a mermaid (Lorelei?), and the reason she rode in a wheelchair was to hide her tail.

At one point during the age of suburban "togetherness," Superman's keepers actually married him off to Lois Lane, but they soon explained that the bride had only dreamed of her wedding.  Since those keepers were generally desperate for new plot twists, they often amused themselves by bringing in rivals to Lois.  Lana Lang, for example, was an old acquaintance of Kent's from Smallville who applied for a job at the Planet.  Then there was a Super-girl who appeared as a result of Cub Reporter Jimmy Olsen's making a wish over a Latin American idol.  No sooner was she dispatched back to pre-Columbian limbo than it turned out that Krypton had not exploded all at once and that Superman's cute cousin Kara had also rocketed to earth as another Supergirl, a.k.a. Linda Lee.

The movie Superman is a different matter.  He has to contend with Margot Kidder as a liberated Lois Lane who can look on him with an earthly yen ("How big are you?  she asks in a tone that even Superman can almost understand).  In Superman II she throws herself into the Niagra River just above the falls to tempt Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent into revealing his identity by rescuing her.  Kent avoids the trap by helping her out with a tree branch.  Only when they are drying off in front of a fireplace does his failure to be scorched by a flame inspire Lois to try again:  "You are Superman!"

Before they go any further, a message from Superman's mother tells him he must give up all his superpowers before he can get involved with a mortal.  This raises a philosophic question of Thomist subtlety:  Can the figure subsequently under the sheets with Lois be considered the real Superman?  Or is he now just a newspaper reporter on a spree?  To eradicate all such problems, the screenwriters magically imbue his kiss with the power to make Lois forget her discovery.


    If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children... I would say that they were conquered by Superman.

    - Dr. Fredric Wertham, in Seduction of the Innocent


Much of Superman's complex evolution derived from his reincarnations in different media.  On radio, for example, which could not show the red-caped hero in full flight, an imaginative scriptwriter dreamed up the deathless lines:  "Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!  Look!  Up in the sky!  It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's Superman!"  Because radio shows had to be performed by real people, and because Actor Bud Collyer demanded a vacation, the writers invented the Kryptonite meteorite.  For two weeks, all that was heard of Superman was muffled moaning from a closet, until Collyer returned.


Partly, too, Superman evolved in response to changes in American society, starting with the cataclysm of World War II.  In one early effort, his creators had him fly to Berchtesgaden and Moscow and haul both Hitler and Stalin before a League of Nations tribunal in Geneva.  Believers in versimilitude began wondering how Superman avoided getting drafted.  Simple.  Clark Kent went to take his physical exam, but when he looked at the eye chart, his X-ray vision caused him to read figures from a chart in the next room.  He was rated 4-F.

So Superman went back to catching Axis saboteurs.  The Army sent his patriotic adventures to G.I.s around the world, but when they returned home, they wanted more pizazz.  Superman's physical powers became more and more extravagant. No only could he fly through space, but he could wrestle planets out of their orbits, and with his superbreath could extinguish a distant star.

More significant, it was time for Superman to move on from radio and comics and enter a new media, time for a mere mortal to impersonate the man of steel on the screen.  Kirk Alyn, an agile dancer, began appearing in Saturday serials in 1948, letting his voice drop an octave each time he reached for his necktie and declared, "This looks like a job for Superman!"

When Alyn lifted his arms and cried, "Up, up, and away!" he would be replaced by an animated cartoon figure of Superman in flight.  "When I was Superman, I did it with my attitude," recalls Alyn, now 77.  "In my mind, I'd visualize the guy I had heard on the radio.  This was a guy who nothing could stop.  So that's why I stood like this, with my chest out, and a look on my face saying, 'Shoot me.'" To demonstrate, the old man rises from his easy chair and adopts the Pose, and once again, Superman lives.  "And by the way," Alyn adds, "I didn't wear any padding, the way the other guy did."

Yes, it is true:  when Superman moved to television, where George Reeves first donned the cape in 1951, his bulging muscles were made of foam rubber.  No matter.  There are plenty of viewers who can still recite, at any mention of Reeves in his foam-rubber muscles, a quasi-liturgical text:  "... Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  Superman!  Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and... fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!"

Kirk Alyn and George Reeves

Reeves, an experienced radio and movie actor who had learned boxing in his youth, turned in a wonderfully inspirational performance in his role as Clark Kent and Superman.  Public reaction to the show was phenomenal and Reeves quickly achieved world-wide fame.  Through public appearances and charity efforts, he used his popularity to bring happiness to orphans, injured children, and the underprivileged.  Production on the series continued until 1957.  For generations of viewers, George Reeves is the definitive Superman.


Despite the success of the TV series, which is still being syndicated to this day, Superman had some bad times during the 1950s and '60s.  For all his superpowers, he initially seemed quite helpless against the onslaughts of Dr. Fredric Wertham, one-time senior psychiatrist for New York City's department of hospitals and author of a widely read anticomics diatribe, Seduction of the Innocent (1953).  Though much of Wertham's crusade was an attack on the sadism in crime and horror comics, he denounced Superman before legislative committees on rather dubious political grounds.

The publishers responded to such attacks with a self-enforced code guaranteeing a certain level of moral standards.  But just as the publishers promised sweetness and light, the '60s began to demand "relevance." What had Superman's crime fighting ever done about civil rights or Viet Nam?  Youthful eyes turned for a time to the work of "underground" comic artists like R. Crumb, whose heroes used and acted out words that would have shocked the irremediably respectable man of steel.  Even in the swinging '60s, Superman's idea of a really strong expletive was "Great Scott!"

Scenes from the Superman movies Then came nostalgia - including nostalgia for things the nostalgia lovers were too young to know.  That mood gave rise to the first of the feature films in 1978, and suddenly Superman was soaring again.  And this time, when Christopher Reeve waved his arms and pointed his heroic chin upward, he really seemed to take off over Metropolis.  "Honest to God, I was disappointed by the flying," Reeve says of the TV version that he had seen as a boy.  "I remember thinking, 'He's got to be lying on a glass table.' I wanted him to really fly." Reeve did his flights on an elaborate series of wires suspended from ceiling rails.  These shots were then superimposed on footage taken from a helicopter.  With such special effects, the film reportedly cost Warner's a then record $40 million, but it earned $245 million in the theaters.


    Bay-bee, I can fly like a bird
    When you touch me with your eye.
    Flying through the sky,
    I never felt the same.
    But I am not a bird,
    And I am not a plane.
    I am Superman.
    It's easy when you love me...

- Barbara Streisand


As Superman evolved over the years, so, of course, did Lois Lane.  Shuster's dream girl was a sketchy figure with bobbed hair and a working girl's hat; his successors filled her out a bit, made her almost glamorous; today she wears slacks, bangs and a look of grim determination.  From the beginning she has been an object of her creators' male chauvinist sport.  When she asks, in one of the very first comic-book installments, to cover the collapse of a crumbling dam, Planet Editor Perry White gruffly insists on sending the less experienced Clark Kent: "It's too important! - This is no job for a girl!" Lois reacts by tricking the devoted Clark ("Would you do me a favor?" "You know I'd do anything for you") into missing the big assignment so that she can grab it.  Clark gets fired; Lois gets stuck in the path of a flood; only Superman can rescue them both, as he always does.

Some women profess to regarding Lois as a pioneering role model, the only go-getting female reporter.  (Older observers can recall that Brenda Starr has been tearing through the comic pages since 1940, and that real-life role models of the period included such famous by-lines as Anne O'hare McCormick, Martha Gellhorn, Dorothy Thompson, Genet, Marguerite Higgins and Dorothy Kilgallen.) As a chauvinist creation, Lois not only bungled most of her assignments and repeatedly double-crossed the faithful Clark, but also subordinated all professional demands to her one romantic obsession.  After she parachutes into a flood, she tells her rescuer, "I'd like to be in your arms always, Superman!  As your wife (sigh!)."


    The cry for the Superman did not begin with Nietzsche, nor will it end with his vogue.  But it has always been silenced by the same question:  What kind of person is this Superman to be?

- George Bernard Shaw, in Man and Superman


One of the odd paradoxes about Superman is that while he is a hero of nostalgia, the constant changes in his character keep destroying the qualities that make him an object of nostalgia.  "For one bright, brief moment, we had a hero right there, and then we lost him, dammit," laments one disillusioned enthusiast, Marshall Fishwick, who teaches communications at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  "You have to look back to the '30s for the real thing.  There are too many M.B.A.s now and not enough Supermans."

This older image, this Classic Coke, the real Superman, is a figure who somehow manages to embody the best qualities in that nebulous thing known as the American character.  He is honest, he tells the truth, he is idealistic and optimistic, he helps people in need.  He not only fights criminals but is indifferent to those vices that so often lead the rest of us astray.  Despite his heroic abilities, he is not vain.  He is not greedy.  He is not an operator, a manipulator, not an inside trader.  He does not lust after power.  And not only is he good, he is also innocent, in a kind and guileless way that Americans have sometimes been but more often have only imagined themselves to be.

This is what Reeve saw - and was touched by - in his encounters with fans.  This is why we can give three cheers and sing Happy Birthday to the man of steel on his more-or-less 50th.  Let us just hope that he someday reaches 100.

- By Otto Friedrich.
Reported by Beth Austin/Cleveland Janice C. Simpson/New York

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