This year we celebrated many important milestones like anniversaries for well-loved works like Iron Man, The Wizard Of Oz, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Avengers and recently Doctor Who. But before the year ends, there is one very important anniversary that should be acknowledged because the introduction of this character heralded the rise of superheroes in popular culture. That person is Superman of course, who first graced the pages of Action Comics #1 75 years ago. As everyone knows, he’s one of the most recognizable fictional characters ever created and his popularity is only rivaled by Batman and Spider-Man when it comes to superheroes.
People may wonder why is Superman still popular after 75 years? There are other superheroes out there with flashier costumes and more intriguing backgrounds. He didn’t become a superhero because someone close to him was a crime victim. He is considered to be a big boy scout with upstanding morals and is actually one of the most overpowered superhumans around. On paper a character like that would be considered boring, and honestly, many of his stories were dull. But that was usually the fault of the writers or editors who didn’t know how to handle this iconic superhero. Despite these limitations Superman continues to capture the imaginations of many fans young and old. So what is it about him that makes him popular? Is it because he is the first of the modern-day mythological beings? Or is it something more?
It could be that Superman represents the American Success Story. Think about it, he is the ultimate immigrant who arrived in our shores (via rocket ship instead of a boat or plane) and he excelled. Thanks to the powers he gained from being on Earth, Superman was able to make his life better and to contribute to society. Consider this, if he remained on Krypton, he would not have the powers of flight, super strength and so on. While he may have made some impact on Kryptonian society just for being the son of Jor-El, a noted scientist, it’s unlikely he would’ve stood out like he does here on Earth. Even in his secret identity as Clark Kent, he was able to rise to the top of his field as a journalist. He is the embodiment of the American experience, which is subtly appealing to many readers.
More than that, Superman is the prototype and standard bearer not just for superheroes but for all of us. Thanks to his upbringing by kind and ethical parents, Clark Kent is imbued with a strong moral fiber. What helps is that his humble personality makes him relatable. This may be uncool with some people, especially those that like dark and conflicted heroes, but this is what makes him so attractive to many others. Parents can rest easy letting their children read about his exploits and not worry about gratuitous violence or dark plots. For someone who may be tired of reading about morally compromised so-called heroes, Superman can be a breath of fresh air. His adventures can be just enjoyed for what they are: rousing, fun-filled romps where he has to use his wits and skills to win the day. What helped Superman in those situations wasn’t his super strength but his moral fiber and knowing right from wrong.
One of his best modern adventures are the famous “Death Of Superman”, “Funeral For A Friend” and “Return Of Superman” storylines from the early ’90s, which started in Superman: The Man Of Steel #18 and concluded with Superman Vol. 2 #82. Superman faced his greatest physical threat in the form of the monstrous alien Doomsday and he was killed by the hulking creature. The shocking storyline, no exaggeration, gripped the nation and made headlines. Superman was supposed to be invulnerable, how could he die? How could DC Comics do this to their iconic hero? Readers, collectors, and the curious swamped comic book shops to get their hands on the pivotal Superman Vol .2 #75 (where he died) and its surrounding storylines. The Superman creative team at that time expertly produced this exciting saga and kept readers intrigued with clues to his resurrection. Along the way, these issues provided a nice boom to the comic book industry. Unfortunately, the market crashed a few short years later thanks to speculators, poor stories and gimmick covers all comic book publishers, but that’s another story. All in all, this event proved that Superman still held appeal to comic book fans and mainstream society when he is given compellingly written and beautifully drawn stories.
To this day, the Man of Tomorrow is still appealing. It can be seen from his successful crossover into other media like toys, video games, TV shows and of course movies. This was reaffirmed most recently by the smashing success of this summer’s film Man Of Steel, which rebooted and reinvigorated the Superman movie franchise. Now headlines are being generated for each new development on the upcoming sequel which looks to be a springboard for a Justice League film. Still, as successful as Man Of Steel was, the film had many detractors who decried the changes made to the character and his situation. But looking back on his long history, Superman has always been a dynamic, changing character. Today’s version is very different from 1930s version.
People often think of John Byrne’s run in the Superman comics in the ’80s when it comes to reboots. But the Metropolis Marvel’s history shows that he has constantly been changed even during his early years. At first, Superman couldn’t fly, Lex Luthor and Kryptonite didn’t come along until much later and Superman used phone booths to change into his costume–a quaint notion with today’s fans! Even the way he looked back in the ’30s was different than the iconic look he’s had until The New 52 reboot came along and did away with his red trunks. All this proves is that the character’s enduring success is because of his ability to adapt to the times while at the same time, his character’s core remains the same. Detractors often wind up accepting these changes once they realize that the essence of the character is still there. That is why Superman will continuing winning over new fans and be a part of our culture for more than another 75 years.
Lewis T. Grove & José Soto
*NOTE: The above art was done by the following iconic artists: John Byrne, Joe Shuster, Dan Jurgens and Jim Lee.