Superman is arguably the most popular Superhero ever. Now remember, ‘popular’ doesn’t mean ‘liked’ because that title has already gone to batman. Superman today probably would top the charts for the most hated Superhero because the new generation of us do not get him. We are more practical and less into symbolism. And this is one of the not so many things that Zack Snyder actually got right in Batman v Superman, people will not just fall in love with Superman today, and he will in the end be forced to question himself.
But a true comic book fan should have nothing but a bit of respect for Superman if not love. Because if you love the way comic books are today and you ‘hate’ the man in blue tights, you need a lesson in history.
We’re going to look back at the beginning. The beginning, some believe, of the comic book as we know it. Back to the first “superhero” of his kind to gain real popularity, Superman. The refugee from Krypton was cooked up by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s.
Love him or hate him, he was the first real force of his kind, a costumed superhero with super powers, to appear in a comic book. Debuting in his current form in June of 1938 in Action Comics #1, he predates Batman by 11 months, and plenty of others who followed in 1940 & 1941. Some of the characters to follow Superman are Captain America, Namor, the original Human Torch, The Flash, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel to name a few. All of these characters debuted within three & a half years of Action Comics #1‘s publication. Superman wasn’t the first superhero as people refer to him, but neither was iPhone the first smartphone. They’re referred as such because its them that popularized the idea, it was Superman that revolutionized superheroes. How much influence did Superman have in their creation and development? How much influence did he have on the medium in general?
Siegel and Shuster continued to refine their Superman. They shopped him around to publishers, but got no bites. Then an illustration of Shuster’s ended up in a desk drawer at National Comics in New York. This image was eventually fished out and slapped on the cover of Action Comics #1. After choosing the cover, they contacted the boys from Cleveland for a story to stick in the issue. And the rest is sequential history.
The influences of Superman on comics over the past 70 years is something I’m not going to try to quantify here. Needless to say, Clark Kent’s secret identity has impacted a lot of people. He has also spawned other characters, some outright copies, some not so much. Let’s take a look at some of what Siegel and Shuster’s creation has nudged along.
Batman was created after Superman was introduced to the public. Superman’s success had editors, including Bob Kane’s, calling for super heroes from their creative teams. This really drove a lot of competitive creating back then to get their piece of the super hero pie. For an example of just how successful Superman was, let’s look at some numbers. Siegel and Shuster were reported to have been bringing in around $75,000 a year, each. That was 70 years ago. Batman creators Kane and Bill Finger were under pressure, as were most creators of that time, to turn out a super hero to try to cash in on the sales that Superman was gaining. In addition to the pressure, there was the salary difference between the super hero work that Siegel and Shuster were doing, and the humor comics that many others were producing. Before Batman took off, Kane was making around $25 per week, compared to Siegel and Shuster who were bringing in $1500. Shortly after Superman, Batman came into existence in the pages of Detective Comics. This is not really a unique case, as many characters were created a short time after Superman was introduced to the public. Superman’s success spurred on the creation of many characters in the early forties.
Would we have Batman without Superman? How different would things be on the comic landscape if we didn’t have Batman?
Captain Marvel, as in Shazam!, was introduced in February of 1940 by Fawcett Publications. This company had decided in 1939 that it needed to form a comic book division to capitalize on the popularity of the new medium. The popularity of comic books at that time can be traced to Superman. Shortly after the decision to enter the comics business is made, they introduced Captain Marvel. During the 1940s, Captain Marvel would go on to outsell Superman, becoming the most popular character of the decade. The Marvel family has had a huge impact on the DC Comics universe over the years.
Was Captain Marvel a copy of Superman? This issue was brought before the courts, and in 1953, Fawcett settled, and ceased publishing Captain Marvel stories. Apparently the Captain reminded the folks over at DC a little too much of Superman.
Copies of Superman
There are several characters that appear to be copies of Superman, altered just enough to get by legally, and others whose powers seem to be based on Superman’s. Some that come to mind are Marvel’s Hyperion, Sentry, and Gladiator. These aren’t shallow, empty rip-offs of DC’s flagship hero. They are interesting, richly developed characters who can carry a story all by themselves.
Superman pretty much began the super hero genre of comics. There were heroes before him, but none became as successful as the Kryptonian. Super hero books dominate the American comic market. Would that be the case without Superman? What about other genres?
Horror comics became popular in the years following the initial super hero boom of the late 1930s / early 1940s. Would horror comics have become even more popular if there was no competition from the super heroes? If the horror books had become the dominant type of comic, would Dr. Wertham have succeeded in his efforts to stop comic books from corrupting the minds of young people? Would the flood of horror books have made it easier for him to influence Congress to clamp down on the creativity of comic creators? Would every comic we read today have to come from the underground?
I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. — Christopher Reeve
I think all of us who enjoy comics do so, at least in some small part, thanks to the success that Superman has enjoyed over the 70 years since his introduction. Thanks goes to those two teenage boys who gave us the most recognizable character in comics, perhaps in all of fiction, that the world has ever known.