By Chris Calzia
There was once a Golden Age (determined by comic books as the era from the late 1930’s to the mid 1950’s), when life was much simpler. When the family was considered a whole unit, with father working to supply an income and mother tending to the house and children. When people’s money was deposited it banks and kept safe until their retirement. When criminals were easily distinguished by a sinister grin, a pencil-thin mustache, or a low hanging fedora hat that hid their face. Kids went to school, graduated, got a job, then married and bought a house. This was the American way of life and it was upheld and exemplified by a man wearing a red cape and blue tights with an “S” emblazoned on his chest. He was no ordinary man. He was a …Super-man.
But who is this Superman? And why is he so popular, even in this modern age of overwhelming complexity and chaos? His legacy as a fictional character has outlasted presidents and celebrities alike. His popularity has garnered millions of dollars for DC Comics and Warner Bros. All that one needs do is flash his red/blue/yellow emblem at another person of any ethnicity or culture and they immediately know who they’re referring to and what he represents. He celebrated his 75th anniversary in 2013, and now he’s steadily approaching his 100th anniversary. There’s no stopping him. He’s invulnerable and impenetrable to every substance or invention known to man (except that one green element called Kryptonite) and he does not age with time. How’s this possible? How does any man, fictional or real, survive this long? What makes him so…super!?!
A loose interpretation of Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1934. After four years of attempting to solicit their Superman character to newspaper syndicates, the pair grew despondent and eventually settled with an agreement, relinquishing all rights to Detective Comics in 1938 (The agreement would be unsuccessfully appealed in court in later decades in attempts to return the rights to Siegel and Shuster). By selling the complete rights of Superman, the writer and artist team thought they would at least see their character in print. At that time, and for many decades afterwards, it was standard for new characters/superheroes to be tested in compilation comic books (i.e. Detective Comics) that featured three to four separate stories in order to rate the success of a character. However, Superman did not fit the mold of a detective and therefore Action Comics was created with Superman as their lead character. Action Comics #1 debuted in June 1938, featuring Superman on the front cover as he magnificently lifts a gangster’s automobile over his head and smashes it against rocks. This first issue quickly introduced the origin of Superman from the planet Krypton and established his super powers of ricocheting bullets off his chest, tearing down steel doors, and rescuing alluring women from danger. Superman was bold, confident, and clear in his intentions of righting wrongs and doing away with criminals. He was any kid’s fantasy and role model.
The success of Superman in Action Comics #1 paved the way for more stories from Siegel and Shuster and gradually the writer and artist team needed to establish a headquarters in New York City with a team of assistants working full time to produce the character in both Action Comics and his own self-titled comic book, Superman, debuting one year later in June 1939. It’s absolutely astounding that both of these comic book series continue today (with the exception of an interruption in numbering). Superman’s success over the competition of other Golden Age superheroes can be attributed to his super ability to evolve with current affairs through the decades. Take for example, Plastic Man, another golden age comic book hero, created by cartoonist Jack Cole, who first appeared in Quality Comic’s Police Comics #1 in August 1941. He was an oddball, slapstick character, who was once a criminal himself, but later employed by the FBI to fight crime. Plastic Man had his own methods of stopping criminals, despite them being completely surreal and strange, of maneuvering and manipulating his body into any possible form. Plastic Man was a decent-looking, strong young lad who stood for justice and equality among people, however the tone of his comic book included more cynicism than that of Superman and there was never a love interest created for the wacky stretch-o-matic crime fighter, therefore Plastic Man never caught on with mainstream audiences. The series was discontinued in 1956 when Jack Cole, for reasons unknown, committed suicide and the character was sold to DC Comics where he remained a favorite among writers and artists, yet hid in anonymity until he received his own comic book series again from 2004-2006, written and drawn by artist Kyle Baker. However, even to this day, nobody knows or remembers Plastic Man (except for maybe a handful of rare comic book enthusiasts).
Superman’s popularity can be attributed to his immigrant status. His story, after all, is an immigrant story, and much like many of the immigrants that come to the United States seeking wealth, prosperity, or asylum, Superman has had to work hard to achieve his status. Superman is an alien, hailing from the late planet Krypton, yet he’s managed to carve his own way under the alias Clark Kent, a news reporter for the Daily Planet, while living among a race of people that he does not belong to. He maintains a strong kinship and bond to his original people (the Kryptonians), and longs to be reunited with them, but he’s done what’s needed to be done in order to assimilate himself amongst these foreigners and sustain a comfortable life. Superman is also an orphan. His original parents were killed in the cataclysmic disaster that destroyed his home world and he was rocketed to Earth where he was discovered and raised by Jonathon and Martha Kent in Smallville, Kansas. His upbringing is iconic Americana, amongst small-town wheat fields and high school football games, yet his strife resonates like that of the underdog. Unable to show his super powers, Clark Kent as a teenager is isolated and alone, but don’t all teenagers feel isolated and alone? It’s these attributes and characteristics that make Superman so relatable and a true American.