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S Is for Superman

The Man of Steel. The Blue Boy Scout. The Man of Tomorrow. Comics’ most easily identified hero.

But ironically, Superman wasn’t created a hero. Six years before his first appearance in Action Comics #1, Superman was created… not as a supreme being of galvanic might and a champion of the American way, but as a bald, bulbous-headed telepath, bent on world destruction. The short story was published in the third issue of Siegel’s Science Fiction fanzine, taking a pessimistic and pulpy view of the ubermensche of Nietsche and George Bernard Shaw. The character was not met with much enthusiasm; indeed, it soon became clear that it was much harder to build a series of stories around a villain than a hero. Going back to the drawing board, Siegel and Shuster re-envisioned Superman as an extra-terrestrial champion of his adopted homeland… then, for good measure, decided he should have most of his adventures in his underpants.

The result was the Superman we all know and love. Most of the elements of the Superman myth are laid-out in Action Comics #1: his powers, his alter-ego as Clark Kent, reporter at the Daily Planet. His magnetic attraction to perpetual damsel-in-peril, Lois Lane. Metropolis. Krypton.

But not every element was in place. For one, early Superman was
unique in that he couldn’t fly: He could only use his superpowers to
jump enormous distances, like the Hulk. Hence the confusing line:
“Capable of leaping over tall buildings with a single bound.” In fact,
the entire nature of Superman’s powers in earlier appearances were
based upon a sort of half-baked gravitational theory: Superman was so
incredibly strong because he was an alien, and Krypton had far greater
gravity. Therefore, upon Earth, he had super-strength. This stopped
being very plausible as Superman’s powers grew to include things like
heat-vision and flight. The current scientific theory explaining
Superman’s powers is murkier, but more satisfying: Superman’s powers
are now admitted to be beyond the ken of science, but it has something
to do with being solar-powered by Earth’s white sun.

But more has changed than Superman’s powers. The Superman of the
1930s is an abrasive brawler who shows now reservations about laying
the same sock to the jaw of a profiteer or wife-beater that he might
use to vaporize an incoming comet. As the ’40s began, Superman began to
show greater compunction about kicking petty crooks’ skeletons out of
their bodies. But that betrayed another problem… who could Superman
fight that was as powerful as he?

After Pearl Harbor, the answer was obvious: Nazis. No one cares if a
Nazi is hurled by Superman into the sun, or hit so hard he starts
sneezing brains. But as the war continued, Superman’s creators found
themselves in a pickle: if Superman was so strong, why hadn’t he won
the war for America already? The answer had to be that the Germans had
similarly strong champions on their side. By 1945, Superman was no
longer spending most of his time battling regular humans: It was clear
that the only plausible nemeses for a hero of Superman’s character were
giant robots, aliens and super-villains.

But the problem with villains shows the inherent problem with
Superman. Gifted with superhuman strength, speed and the power of
flight; blessed with atomic vision, ice-cold breath and impervious
skin, there is nothing that Superman can’t do. So why care what
happened to him? Where’s the drama? Where’s the danger? Where’s the

So for the last 80 years, Superman writers have turned their
attention to subtly tearing Superman down a notch. Superman has
emotional attachments, so he’s always vulnerable by threatening his
loved ones. But his flesh is impervious: Enter Kryptonite and magic. In
the ’80s, Frank Miller took a new tack: in The Dark Knight Returns,
Miller depicts Superman as a stupid, zealously patriotic tool of a
dystopian American presidency. But the most withering dissection of the
Superman myth was issued by Larry Niven in his hilarious 1971 essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.
By pointing out the in-universe impossibility of Superman having a sex
life — luridly painting pictures of indestructible sperm capable of
firing through Lois Lane’s back like a shotgun blast — Niven
essentially deconstructed the whole Superman myth, painting comics’
most virile man as a virtual castrati… right in the middle of the
20th Century’s Sexual Revolution.

Nevertheless, no matter how many problems face Superman as a
literary character — including an innate sense of patriotism and naive
do-gooding that makes his character seem utterly antiquated when
compared to the world we live in today — Superman’s still a hell of a
franchise. Director Bryan Singer took a stab at re-inventing the character for film in Superman Returns a few years back. Smallville is entering its eight season. Superman might be laughable, but he’s no joke… at least not to DC’s accounting department.

Silly as he is, Superman has become one of American pop culture’s
prevailing icons over the last 80 years. And in a way, that’s touching.
An illegal alien (albeit, from another planet) has become one of the
most prevailing symbols of America this side of baseball, apple pie and
the bald-eagle. He’s made billions of dollars. And, according to Niven,
he did it as a virgin. That’s pretty super in my book.

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