To me, he's always been there.
Superman was created in the '30s by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, a couple of young Jewish men living in Cleveland. Siegel and Shuster submitted their idea for this Man of Tomorrow to newspaper syndicates and comics publishers, where it was rejected as too crude, too far-out, or too whatever objection the imagination-impaired could mumble to dismiss it. It sat in a slush pile, unwanted and unloved, for a long time. In 1938, an editor named Vin Sullivan decided to use it as the cover feature of a new comic book he was putting together for Detective Comics, Inc. Superman debuted in Action Comics # 1, cover-dated June 1938. Comic books were routinely post-dated, and Action Comics # 1 is said to have actually hit newsstands on April 18th, 80 years ago today. The company now called DC Comics celebrates that milestone with a related milestone today: the publication of Action Comics # 1000, the first American comic book to reach that number. Up, up and away!
By all accounts, Superman was an immediate success. He didn't appear on the cover of Action again until its seventh issue, but the publisher learned pretty quickly that kids across America weren't eagerly trading their dimes for each new issue of Action Comics to read about Zatara the Magician or Scoop Scanlon or The Adventures Of Marco Polo. A separate quarterly Superman title began in 1939 to supplement the monthly Action Comics. Appearances in one-shot anthologies tied to the 1939 and 1940 New York Worlds Fairs led to Superman headlining a regularly-scheduled anthology called World's Best Comics, its title changed to World's Finest Comics with its second issue. The second New York World's Fair book and the World's Best/World's Finest series also featured stories starring a character called Batman, whose creation Vin Sullivan had solicited from artist Bob Kane and (originally uncredited) writer Bill Finger for Detective Comics # 27 in 1939 (with Sullivan's reported directive: "Bring me another Superman!"). An Adventures Of Superman radio series commenced in 1940. A series of lushly-produced Superman theatrical cartoon shorts began in 1941. Success. Look! Up in the sky!
It would not be crazy to suggest that Superman has been the single most influential fictional character of all time. He wasn't the first superhero. Siegel and Shuster drew considerable inspiration from the pulp-magazine adventures of Doc Savage, and from Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator; even discounting mythic figures like Hercules, Superman was preceded by dual-identity mystery men like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, The Shadow, The Spider, and The Green Hornet, science-fantasy heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the costumed adventurer The Phantom, even the super-strong Popeye the Sailor Man. Nonetheless, the popular concept of the superhero begins with Superman. Everything--everything--within the realm that followed owes its existence to this strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. The superhero boom in comics. Batman. Wonder Woman. Super-teams like The Justice Society of America and The Mighty Avengers. Captain America. Captain Marvel. Spider-Man. Marvel Comics, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Pixar's The Incredibles, and so much more. None of this happens without Siegel and Shuster first imagining their own fantastic creation, this Man of Steel who can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands. Despite the evil machinations of Brainiac, The Toyman, The Parasite, and Dr. Frederic Wertham, he has now endured for eighty years and counting.
To me, he's always been there.
As a little kid in the early '60s, my Superman was actor George Reeves, starring in TV reruns of The Adventures Of Superman. Superman was in the earliest comic book I can recall reading, a 1965 80-Page Giant spotlighting Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane. When the Batman TV series exploded in 1966, I switched my allegiance to the Caped Crusader, but without ever surrendering my affection for the superhero who started it all. For Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, keeping the greatest secret in the world with a wink to his millions of fans; for Lois Lane, often betrayed as petty and scheming, but best realized as a courageous and resourceful reporter who would face down any threat to serve the greater good and get the scoop; for Jimmy Olsen, Superman's intrepid and trouble-prone pal; for Lex Luthor, Superman's arch-enemy, but once depicted heroically sacrificing his life to save his adopted brother Superman in a what-if scenario that brought tears to my eyes when I was little; for Superboy, the adventures of Superman when he was a boy; for the bottle city of Kandor, the Fortress Of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, The Daily Planet, Kryptonite; for his cute cousin Supergirl, because...because. Comic books. TV shows, both live action and cartoon. Coloring books. Toys. A juvenile novel. Reprint collections. A 1976 DC Comics convention in New York City. Big-budget feature films starring Christopher Reeve. A pair of genuine novels, written by Elliott S. Maggin. More comics. More TV shows, more movies. More enjoyment, with no end in sight.
To me, he's always been there. I read the comics. I see the movies. I also read the comics and see the movies and TV shows starring characters he inspired, directly or indirectly, from Astro City and The Charlton Arrow through Black Lightning, Jessica Jones, and SyFi's swell new Krypton series. I can recite the opening of George Reeves' Superman TV series by rote, and it retains its meaning and inspiration for this middle-aged child who sees nothing wrong with a belief in the power of truth, justice, and the American way. Even as the real world seeks to cheapen and dilute it, I still have faith in that never-ending battle. Happy Birthday, big guy.
Today marks six years since I lost my Dad. I acknowledge the date, but I don't need an excuse to commemorate his memory. I won't make a cheesy comparison of Dad to Superman, except to note that Dad bought me comic books, and he took me on a train ride to New York for that Super DC Con in 1976. He influences me every moment of every day. And, very much like Superman: to me, he's always been there. He still is. That was his super power.
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