Biography: The Classic Origin
Superman is an alien refugee who was raised as a human and who now uses his vast super-powers to defend his adopted home world. As an infant called Kal-El he was the last child born on the planet Krypton. Jor-El, his scientist father, recognized the signs of Krypton’s impending destruction and managed to save his son by sending him to the planet Earth in a tiny experimental rocket ship. The infant interstellar refugee was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, a pair of human farmers from Smallville, Kansas. They named him Clark Kent and decided to raise him as their own son.
Outwardly Clark appears human, but his alien biology gives him vast super-powers in Earth’s environment. As a teenager he learnt to hide his powers, or any clue that he is in any way special, behind a mild-mannered facade. However, he also knew that he had a duty to use his powers to save the people around him from injustice and disaster. Therefore, he created a costumed identity, “the Superman”, to deflect attention away from his normal life.
Clark and Superman live in the city of Metropolis, the most technological advanced city on Earth. As “Clark Kent” he is a journalist, and a damn good one at that, for the Daily Planet – Metropolis’s principal newspaper. As Superman he is Metropolis’s defender, a figure who is recognized and loved by almost everybody except for villains like Lex Luthor, Metallo, and Brainiac.
As dramatic as Superman’s fictional stories are, they are easily matched by the drama of his creation and the battle of his creators with the corporation who now controls him. Superman was created in the 1930s by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as their attempt to break into the lucrative comic strip market. However, the Syndicates were not interested in their ideas and they eventually sold their material to DC Comics, a comic book company who were launching a new title called Action Comics.
As a young boy, Jerry Siegel knew what it was like to be a victim of crime as his father died from a heart attack after trying to stop a robbery. The robbers were never caught. It cannot be coincidence that Jerry bestowed his creation with an unstoppable thirst for justice that neither bullets or a weak/corrupt legal system can stop. Joe Shuster’s almost naive art layered the character with a drama and an almost primal presence. Their original Superman was an anti-establishment figure who fought for the common people against the interests of the rich and powerful.
What Siegel and Shuster had done was to distill the most popular science-fiction/fantasy ideas of their day into a single figure, a new character archetype, which we now call the superhero. His powers mirror those of the Hugo Danner from Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and their origin mirror’s those of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter (a man who gains powers under the differing gravity of another planet). His skin-tight suit comes from 1930s science-fantasy comic strips (that’s what all space men usually wore in the 1930s) with Zorro’s cape added as a dramatic flourish. Zorro, via his on-screen portrayer Douglas Fairbanks Sr, also supplied the model for Superman’s physique while the quieter, milder appearance of the Clark Kent alter-ego was patterned after comedian Harold Lloyd.
DC initially seemed surprised by Superman massive success, but they have published his stories continuously for over seventy years and have overseen his adaptation into almost very media and market on the planet. To begin with, Siegel and Shuster continued to produce Superman stories for DC Comics. However, relations between the pair and the company soured in 1947 when they unsuccessfully sued to regain control of their creation. It wasn’t until 1975, and the publicity surrounding the release of Superman the Motion Picture, that DC was pressured into restoring Siegel and Shuster’s “Created by” credit.
Superman continued to evolve during the 1940s and 50s, first under Sigel and Shuster and then under the strict eye of editor Mort Weisinger. A raft of competing super-powered characters had appeared around Superman and his writers struggled to keep him one step ahead of them. This resulted in a superpowers arms race which eventually saw Superman juggling planets and flying fast enough to travel through time (!). He also lost his social justice and anti-establishment bias and became a purely fantasy character. The 1950s Superman stories took place in an odd fairy tale world of shrunken cities and magical body altering rocks.
Superman’s classic mythology was built-up in the 40s, 50s and early-60s and has presented a problem for some readers and editors. Even in the 1960s Superman appeared dated, but attempts to inject more modernity found little traction — Krypton, in particular, continued looking like a 1930s era-Flash Gordon world until the mid-1980s. In the 1980s DC hired superstar writer/artist John Byrne to completely reimagined Superman’s world. The reboot caught headlines and drew in new readers, but the sheer weight of the old stories was too great. Fortresses of Solitude, Phantom Zones, and rainbow shades of kryptonite eventually started leaking through into the new continuity.