Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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The first and best-known Superhero of US Comic books. The character was created in the early 1930s by writer Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and artist Joseph Shuster (1914-1992), and tagged "The Man of Steel". Based on ideas created by Philip Wylie (1902-1971) in his book Gladiator (1930) (see SFE), the feature was hawked around the newspaper syndicates for several years before bought by publisher Harry Donnenfield (for $130) for publication in Action Comics #1 (1938). This story consisted of a brief introduction followed by a narrative made up of rearranged frames from the unsold newspaper version.

Born on the doomed planet Krypton, whose natives have mental and physical abilities far greater than the human, the infant Kal-El is launched towards Earth as a spectacular cataclysm destroys Krypton. He is adopted by a kindly couple, the Kents, who name him Clark. As he grows, he discovers that he can "hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, run faster than a streamline train, and nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin!". His foster-parents advise him to hide his prodigious physical prowess; on their death he decides to "turn his titanic strength into channels that will benefit mankind. And so was created Superman, champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who has sworn to devote his existence to those in need." As mild-mannered Clark Kent he works as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, but dresses in a blue costume with red trunks, boots and cloak whenever he perceives a need for his remarkable abilities.

These abilities subsequently included flight and X-ray vision: indeed, he became so invulnerable that the stories became predictable and simplistic, and potentially fatal fragments of his home planet – green kryptonite – had to be introduced to provide plot variation. Various differently coloured kryptonites were added later.

From the outset, the character was enormously popular, with both daily and Sunday newspaper strips from 1939 and a radio show from 1941 (it was here that green kryptonite was first featured). The newspaper version was soon taken over by artist Wayne Boring (1916-1986), whose drawing was more accomplished than Shuster's, and the plots became more sophisticated than those in the comic books. During the 1950s Boring was also the standard illustrator of the comic books. The strip's phenomenal success continued throughout the 1940s, but declined during the 1950s, and the newspaper feature was terminated in 1967. In the comic books, however, Superman remained popular. Shuster's rather crude drawing was quickly superseded: Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson (1926-2015), Neal Adams and others contributed much to the development and continued popularity of Superman, with scripts by talented writers like Alfred Bester (1913-1987), Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), Henry Kuttner and Manly Wade Wellman.

The difficulty of maintaining a high level of plot originality with so eminently invincible a character was a perennial problem. Super-Villains whose powers matched Superman's had to be introduced; writer/editor Mort Weisinger (1915-1978) created the mad scientist Lex Luthor, the weird and surreal Mr Mxyztplk (later Mxyzptlk), and other eccentric adversaries. Striving to retain reader interest, the feature became increasingly implausible during the 1970s, leading ultimately to Frank Miller's lampoon of Superman in his Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (graph 1986). Publishers DC Comics determined to rationalize Superman, doing so first in Crisis on Infinite Earths (#1-#12 1985-1986) written by Marv Wolfman (1946-    ), and subsequently with a complete overhaul of the character by writer/artist John Byrne (1950-    ) beginning in Adventures of Superman #424 (1987), in which finite limits were set upon Superman's powers and abilities: he could no longer Time Travel or go at the speed of light, nor survive in space longer than he could hold his breath. The ploy worked, largely through Byrne's originality and attractive drawing, and the announcement of Superman's engagement to long-time girlfriend Lois Lane (who finally twigged Clark's secret identity in 1990) was made much of in DC's publicity. This storyline did not, however, end as expected at the altar, but in the death of Superman (in Man of Steel #18 1993), with a further surge of publicity. A free memorial armband was included in Superman Vol II #75 (1993) along with a clipping from the Daily Planet. All DC's superheroes went into mourning in a crossover storyline, "Death of a Friend". Superman titles were suspended until later that year, when "Reign of the Supermen" began in Adventures of Superman #500, culminating in the return of the "Last Son of Krypton" in Superman Vol II #82 (1993). Superman, haunted by memories of his own death, obsessively pursues his killer, Doomsday, in the mini-series Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey (#1-#3 1994).

DC has succeeded in retaining reader interest in Superman against what must be recognized as considerable odds. Despite the vast profits they had harvested, however, it was not until 1975 that they were finally persuaded to pay creators Siegel and Shuster (the latter by then blind and the former working as a clerk-typist) an annual stipend. The creators' names must now appear on every Superman story. [RT]

see also: The Adventures of Lois and Clark (1993-current); The Adventures of Superman (1951-1957); Magic Words; Superboy (1988-1992); Superheroes; Superhero Teams; Superman Movies; Roy Thomas.

Due to production errors the entry fails to mention the iconic figures of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White as well as Superman's extensively chronicled adventures as Superboy, his longstanding partnership with Batman, and his increasingly important membership in the Justice League.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.