ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

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Superman

The first and most important comic book superhero, Superman looms large not only in comic books but in all of twentieth century American popular culture. Among the few American characters instantly recognizable in virtually every corner of the globe, Superman is truly a pop culture icon. Certainly there is no purer representative of the fantastic possibilities inherent in the comic book medium. Superman became the most widely imitated character in comic books, spawning a host of superheroes that established comic books as a viable commercial entertainment industry. Superheroes have been the mainstay of comic books ever since.

Superman sprang from the imagination of two Jewish teenagers growing up in Cleveland during the Great Depression. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both lower-middle class sons of immigrants who believed in the American dream. They were avid readers of science fiction and pulp magazines and aspired to write and draw their own adventure comic strip. In 1934, the two hit upon the idea they hoped would be a salable comic strip. In his striking red-and-blue costume with flowing red cape and red “S” emblazoned on his chest, Superman was the ultimate strongman, capable of achieving almost any physical feat. He was a fantastic being from a doomed planet (Krypton), come to be in the service of his adopted world. He assumed the persona of an undistinguished mild-mannered newspaper reporter named Clark Kent. Superman was a superhero who would retreat into the anonymity of American society when his spectacular deeds were accomplished. Here was the crucial point of reference for a Depression-era culture that extolled the virtues of the “common man.”

Siegel’s concept of Superman rested on three now clichéd themes: the visitor from another planet, the superhuman being, and the dual identity. However, the creators failed to sell the idea to the newspapers and reluctantly sold it to fledgling DC. Siegel and Shuster gave up their rights to the character in exchange for $130 ($10 per page for the 13 page story). It proved to be one of the most infamous contracts ever signed in the history of the American entertainment industry. When the duo sued DC in 1947, the court eventually ruled against them and they were fired (they were, however, compensated for the creation of Superboy). Only after several decades did the company relent and offer support to the aged creators.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics (June 1938) and soon was a huge hit. By 1941 he was being advertised as “The World’s Greatest Adventure Strip Character” and was appearing in a half-dozen comic books, a series of short animated films, and on a popular radio program (that opened with the immortal 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!”).

At a time when most successful comic book titles sold between 200,000 and 400,000 copies per issue, each issue of Action Comics—featuring only one Superman story—consistently sold around 900,000 copies. DC soon featured him in a second title, Superman, which established industry records by selling a staggering 1.3 million copies per bimonthly issue.

Superman’s origin is part of Americana: born on the doomed planet Krypton, Superman was launched into space just before the planet’s collapse. Landing on Earth, he was adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent and discovered his Krypton heritage endowed him with great abilities. He later came to Metropolis, adopted the guise of a Daily Planet reporter and devoted his life to fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

As the prototype for all comic book superheroes, Superman has received a great deal of psychological study. While the majority of his superheroic imitators were normal men transformed into superhumans, Superman was born super and adopted the alter ego of the somewhat craven Clark Kent. Critics are constantly analyzing the peculiar juxtaposition of Superman, who could easily have been a king, and Clark Kent, who accepted a badgering boss (Perry White), an unceremonious attire, a lessthan-brilliant companion (Jimmy Olsen), and the constant irony of being in competition with himself for the woman he loves (Lois Lane).

Despite already having great powers, Superman soon developed others: the power of flight and invulnerability and several types of x-ray vision. His powers became so immense green kryptonite (fragments from his home planet that could kill him) was developed to help balance things out. Superman’s writers also created a rainbow of other kinds of kryptonite (red, white, black, gold) with varying effects on the “Man of Steel.” Although Superman became almost god-like in terms of his powers by the end of the Forties, during the Fifties and Sixties, he suffered under the impact of editor Mort Weisinger. Superman had to put up with innumerable strange, bizarre, and downright silly adventures. His editor created a fairy-tale mythos that incorporated Superman’s youth (as Superboy in the Midwestern town of Smallville), his friends, villains like Lex Luther and Braniac, and spin-off characters like Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog. During the 1960s, Superman evolved into a kind of elder statesman among superheroes—staid, predictable, paternalistic, and usually adhering to the strict letter of the law. When Weisinger departed DC in 1970, Superman’s popularity in print had slipped dramatically.

The rise of Marvel Comics’ wave of “human” superheroes like Spider Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four provided a contrast to Superman’s irreproachable “Boy Scout” image. New generations of young people expected and favored the “anti-establishment” ethos of Marvel’s heroes. By the mid-1970s, Superman’s comic book sales were at an all time low, although his image remained lucrative for toys and other products. And, Superman continued his popularity in other forms of media, with a successful television series airing from 1953-1957 (The Adventures of Superman) and a mid-1990s series (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). The pinnacle of the character’s earning power came in the late 1970s and early 1980s in a series of Warner Brothers Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves in the title role.

Periodically DC has attempted to revive the sales of Superman’s titles (Action Comics and Superman) by making him less “super.” In 1971 Superman’s powers were halved. In 1988, DC hired writer/artist John Byrne to rewrite the Superman origin, hoping to spark fan interest. In 1992, the much-hyped “Death of Superman” was published. The event produced a short-term boom in sales and concluded in the “Rebirth of Superman.” In 1997, Superman received a new costume change. Clark Kent switched to television and Superman married Lois Lane. While nostalgic fans disapproved, DC responded that it had little choice but to try new things to reverse the hero’s steady commercial decline. This recent decline does not decrease the significance of the Man of Steel on comic books and the industry. For the generations who grew up with his adventures, Superman will forever remain the quintessential champion of truth, justice, and the American way.

POWER AND WEAPONS (Silver Age)

Superman has tremendous strength, invulnerability, super-speed (which can even break the time barrier), flight, super-breath, and various super-visions including X-Ray, heat, microscopic and telescopic visions. Superman also possesses a super-brain. His only vulnerabilities are kryptonite and magic.

Comics on Display

“Superman’s Rival, Mental Man!” Action Comics 272 (January 1961)

“Superman’s Toughest Day!” Action Comics 282 (November 1961)

“The Day Superman Became the Flash!” Action Comics 314 (July 1964)

“The Ultimate Enemy!” Action Comics 329 (October 1965)

“The Leper From Krypton!” Action Comics 363 (May 1968)

“Krypton Dies Again!” Action Comics 489 (November 1978) Story by Cary Bates; art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

“The Life Story of Superman!” Action Comics 500 (October 1979) Story by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte; art by Gaspar Saladino and Adrienne Roy

“…With But a Single Step!” Action Comics 545 (July 1983) Story by Marv Wolfman; art by Gil Kane and Todd Klein

“Showdown!” Action Comics 546 (August 1983) Story by Marv Wolfman; art by Gil Kane and Ben Oda

“Superman and the Demon: Cityscape!” Action Comics 587 (April 1987) Story by John Byrne; art by Dick Giordano

“Not of This Earth,” Action Comics 651 (March 1990) Story by Roger Stern; art by George Perez, Kerry Gammill, and Brett Breeding

“For a Thousand Years…” Action Comics 761 (January 2000) Story by Joe Kelly; art by German Garcia and Joe Rubinstein

“The Man With the Self-Destruct Mind!” Superman 323 (May 1978) Story by Martin Pasko; art by Curt Swan and Dan Adkins

“Let My People Grow!” Superman 338 (August 1979) Story by Len Wein; art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

“A Mind-Switch in Time!” Superman 380 (February 1983) Story by Cary Bates; art by Curt Swan and Dave Hunt

“Where Trouble Goes…Euphor Follows” Superman 382 (April 1983) Story by Cary Bates; art by Curt Swan and Dave Hunt

“Luther Lashes Back!” Superman 386 (August 1983) Story by Cary Bates; art by Curt Swan and Dave Hunt

“The Man Who Would Be President!” Superman 394 (April 1984) Story by Elliot Maggin; art by Curt Swan and Dave Hunt

“The Kid Who Talks to Superman,” Superman: The Man of Steel 2 (August 1991) Story by Louise Simonson; art by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke

“Idle Hands,” Superman: The Man of Steel 4 (October 1991) Story by Louise Simonson; art by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke

“The Curse of the Atomic Skull,” Superman: The Man of Steel 5 (November 1991) Story by Louise Simonson; art by Curt Swan and Jon Bogdanove

“Funeral Day,” Superman: The Man of Steel 20 (February 1993) Story by Louise Simonson; art by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke

“Sins of the Father,” Superman: The Man of Steel 47 (August 1995) Story by Louise Simonson; art by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke

“To Save a World,” Superman For Earth (1991) Story by Roger Stern; art by Kerry Gammill and Dennis Janke

Exhibit 1: Main

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