A Brief History of Superman

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CCreated by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics #1, which sold for a staggering $3.25 million in 2021. Starring in 1939’s Superman #1, this was the first comic book ever devoted to a single character. Interestingly, Superman was first created as a homeless villain given temporary powers by a mad scientist, but thankfully Siegel and Schuster gave him a cape, spandex, a Midwestern childhood, and a cool alien backstory instead!

Although earning moderate salaries, Siegel and Schuster unbelievably sold the rights and royalties to Superman for $130. When they asked for a raise, DC Comics falsely told Siegel, “Our company has very little to gain in a monetary sense from the syndication of this material.” After filing a lawsuit, they were fired in 1947. Siegel returned to DC in 1959 at standard pay and no byline (aka no credit), leaving again in 1965 and filing another lawsuit. When the Superman movie began production in the 70s, Siegel launched a successful PR campaign and secured $20,000 annual pensions for himself and Schuster, an amount that has increased over time. As of 2016, their estates have launched further copyright lawsuits for additional compensation.

But let’s get to Superman’s backstory, if you don’t know it from the many comics and films… The planet Krypton is facing climate collapse and destruction, but the leaders won’t listen to Superman’s father, Jor-El, the planet’s best scientist. Fearing the worst, Jor-El and Lara put baby Kal-El into a small spaceship and send him to Earth. Krypton explodes, orphaning Kal-El, and the planet’s remnants become kryptonite, Superman’s one vulnerability. And the red blanket Kal-El is wrapped in becomes his cape! His spaceship crashes in rural Smallville, Kansas, where he’s adopted by the Kents and leads a typical albeit concealed life as Clark Kent, a farmer’s son. But he can’t contain his powers for long, and he yearns for the excitement of the big city. Leaving behind his parents and childhood love, Lana Lang, he moves to Metropolis to become a reporter for the Daily Planet, falling in love with Lois Lane, and sneaking off as Superman whenever danger calls.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Superman’s most important moments in comic book history: The Death of Superman and Crisis on Infinite Earths. 1985’s Crisis was a meta-attempt to restart the continuity (or lack thereof) for Superman and all of DC Comics’ characters, whose backstories had gotten so tangled and contradicted that no one could keep them straight anymore. DC’s solution was to create the multiverse, where all the various versions of characters could live —Golden Age Superman, for instance, lives on Earth 2—and in this “event,” the big baddie, The Anti-Monitor, wants to destroy the multiverse. It’s mind-boggling, epic, emotional, staggeringly illustrated, and a surprisingly fun read that forever changed DC Comics. 1992’s The Death of Superman, a PR stunt cash grab and one of the worst comics ever written in my opinion, made $30 million the first day and sold 6 million copies. The unprecedented idea of Supes’ death shocked the world at the time, but for me it just lacks substance. Superman has survived just about everything, like Batman, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, interdimensional super gods, time travel, and flying through the sun. But Doomsday, a big brute, punches Superman to death for 160 pages! Thankfully, Superman is revived in the incredibly written and redeeming The Return of Superman by Dan Jurgens. If you read Death, make sure you read Return immediately after!

One of the most iconic symbols and recognizable superheroes ever, Superman has forever changed pop culture since his inception 84 years ago! Spanning nearly a half century of films and tens of thousands of comic book pages, the Man of Steel continues to capture the hearts and minds of readers young and old. Watch a movie or pick up a comic book today to celebrate this pop icon!