The Evolution of the Superman Symbol

It's one of the most recognized icons in the world

The superman

 DC Comics

What's the most recognized superhero symbol in the world? If you ask Zack Snyder, who directed "Man of Steel," it's Superman's. He believes Superman’s red-and-yellow S-shield is the second most recognized symbol in the world, after only the Christian cross. Whether or not that's true, you can't dispute that the symbol is iconic; that diamond shape and "S" are immediately recognizable. But it wasn't always that way.

While the symbol has been around since the 1930s, it has changed over time. Sometimes it was a minor shift, sometimes a major change.

Here's a list of those changes. To keep it simple, the list doesn't include any of the alternate universes of Superman. So, while Alex Ross' "Kingdom Come" Superman is amazing, his symbol didn't make the cut:

01
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Action Comics #1 (1934)

Section of comic cover of Action Comics #1 (1938)
Comic Cover of Action Comics #1 (1938). DC Comics

In 1934, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster designed their hero and decided to put something on his chest. They chose the first letter of Superman’s name, although they jokingly said, "Well, it's the first letter of Siegel and Shuster."

While it looks more like a shield now, originally they were thinking of a crest. “Yes, I had a heraldic crest in the back of my mind when I made it,” Shuster said. “It was a little fancy triangle with curves at the top.”

When the comic was published, the artwork inside didn't match the cover design. Inside the comic, the shield was redesigned as a triangle, and the "S" in the center changes color. Sometimes it's red and sometimes it's yellow.

02
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Action Comics #7 (1938)

Section of Action Comics #7 (1938) Comic Cover
Action Comics #7 (1938) Comic Cover. DC Comics

The concept of Superman was considered too fantastical by the publisher, so they didn't show Superman on the cover again until issue #7. Instead, they showed Canadian Mounties and giant gorillas.

Finally, the "Man of Tomorrow" returned to the cover. Besides showing Superman flying through the air, it displayed a new shield: the Superman logo with a red "S" in the center. It's one of the first times the Superman logo is intentionally changed in the comics.

03
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New York World's Fair (1939)

Picture of Superman from
Superman from "World's Fair Day" (1939).

The 1939 New York World's Fair hosted a "Superman Day." The fair was all about celebrating the future and Superman was known as "the Man of Tomorrow."

The fair was also the first live-action appearance of Superman, played by an unidentified actor thought to be Ray Middleton.

This Superman shield had the triangular shape from the early days but one big difference: The word "Superman" was written over the shield so people would know who the new superhero was. 

04
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Action Comics #35 (1941)

Cover of
Action Comics #35 (1941). DC Comics

The logo stayed the same basic triangular shape until 1941. Shuster was overworked, so they hired several artists to fill in for him, including Wayne Boring and Leo Nowak.

As early as Superman #12 they started drawing the shield as a pentagon. Boring made it the most pronounced. That shape, the most recognizable part of the shield, has remained throughout the run. The background is red and the “S” and outside line are yellow.

05
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Fleischer Superman Cartoon (1941)

Still from Fleischer's Superman Cartoon (1941)
Superman Cartoon (1941). Paramount Pictures

Superman was enjoying a massively successful comic book run when Paramount asked Fleischer Studios to make a cartoon out of the hero. On Sept. 26, 1941, the show aired with changes from the comics. The traditional shield was now a diamond shape. The coloring was changed as well, with a yellow border, a red S, and a black background.

06
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Superman Trademarked (1944)

Superman symbol
Superman symbol. DC Comics

In 1944, Detective Comics, which by then published Superman, trademarked the Superman symbol, basically the Boring version. The trademark applied to the basic design and all variations. This is about the time that Disney trademarked Mickey Mouse, and it was a smart business decision. The trademark was applied for "Superman" and "Superhombre" as well. The application was filed with the U.S. Patent Office on Aug. 26, 1944, and approved in 1948.

The copyright says:

“[The] copyrighted Shield Design consists of a bordered five-sided shield in red and yellow, with the text inside the shield sized and positioned according to the proportions and shape of the shield.”

That's why they can sue anyone who tries to make a Superman shield, even if the center letter is different.

07
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Superman Serials (1948)

Still of Kirk Alyn in
"Superman" 1948, Kirk Alyn. Columbia Pictures

In 1948, a 15-part serial was screened at matinees and featured Kirk Alyn as Superman. The shield is wider than the comic book version and the "S" takes up a larger space. It also has a serif at the top of the "S," which is adopted in many other interpretations.

It was followed by another serial in 1950. They were released in black and white, so the colors didn't matter. The shield was actually brown and white instead of red and gold because that looked better on-screen. When George Reeves took over the role in the serials, the costume was modified slightly but used the same symbol.

08
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'The Adventures of Superman' (1951)

Promotional still of
"Adventures of Superman" (1951). Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Reeves wore the Superman symbol in the new TV show, "The Adventures of Superman," which was broadcast in black and white. So, like the Alyn version, the shield was actually brown and white.

In 1955, color televisions became more common. After two seasons, the show was broadcast in color and the shield used the same red and yellow color scheme of the comics. It was similar in design to the Alyn version, except the bottom tail had an extra curl.

It was rumored that Reeves burned his "S" after every season, although, considering the costumes cost about $4000 each (after inflation), it's unlikely. 

09
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Curt Swan Superman Symbol (1955)

Cover of Superman vs. Lex Luthor
Superman by Curt Swan. DC Comics

Artist Curt Swan took over for Boring as the penciler for Superman in 1955. This was known as the Silver Age-Bronze Age for Superman comics and had a huge influence on Superman's look for decades. The symbol kept its overall shape, but the "S" was much thicker than before and had a large, round end. 

10
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'Superman' (1978)

Promotional photo of Superman for Superman (1978)
Christopher Reeve as "Superman" (1978). Warner Bros

For the 1978 "Superman" movie, they designed a slightly different symbol for Christopher Reeve's chest. Most of the designs were by award-winning costume designer Yvonne Blake. Blake remembered:

"Superman’s costume was created for the comic and I could not change it. It was not allowed. So I tried to make a costume as attractive as possible for the actor and as correct as possible for Superman fans. I was not particularly a fan; but I had to reproduce a costume that did not seem ridiculous; it had to be credible and manly, and not similar to the one worn by ballet dancers."

Blake made notes on her costume design:

" 'S’ motif in red and gold on breast and again in all gold on the back of the cape. Gold metal belt with ‘S’ buckle.”

That simple description created a new interpretation of the Superman logo. Her production sketches used the Swan version of the Superman symbol, but the final version had a square end similar to the George Reeves version. It was one of the most faithful of the Superman shield adaptations.

11
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John Byrne Superman (1986)

Comic frame of
"Man of Steel" by John Byrne. DC Comics

John Byrne had a great run on the X-Men comic for Marvel, and DC approached him to work on Superman. DC had been planning to start over and erase the recent history of Superman, with its endless series of alternate universes and continuity problems.

Byrne introduced a new Superman with a new logo on the 6-issue series called “The Man of Steel.” In the comic, the symbol is designed by Jonathan Kent, whose logo is very similar to the Swan version except it's much larger and goes across Superman's chest. Byrne also made it top-heavy and put the focus on the large line in the middle of the S. 

12
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'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' (1993)

Promotional Photo of
"Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (1995). Warner Bros Television

The live-action TV show "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" had a new shield. Costume design was initially done by Judith Brewer Curtis.

While the pilot Superman symbol was heavy, the series costume had a different look. Its basic shape recalled the classic design but was the most whimsical of all Superman symbols. It used large, sweeping lines, focused on the swoop at the bottom to draw the eye, and had a very pronounced "S."

13
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'Superman: The Animated Series' (1996)

Publicity still from
"Superman: The Animated Series". Warner Bros

Starting in 1996 a new animated Superman series aired. After the success of Batman, the animated the series was a natural move. The Superman series had a classic feel, so it was no surprise that the logo was the classic Swan symbol, only with a thinner "S." 

14
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'Electric Blue' Superman (1997)

Comic Superman 1997
Superman 1997 - Electric Superman. DC Comics

After killing Superman, DC needed something big to shake up the comics. So they decided to change Superman's powers and have him struggle to learn them all over again.

What could go wrong? Pretty much everything, and it's considered the low point in Superman history. Instead of his familiar abilities, Superman was given electrical powers and a "containment suit" to keep him together. Part of the new costume included a new Superman shield drawn by artist Ron Krentz. Gone were the red and gold. Instead, he wore a white and blue stylized lightning bolt that looked kind of like an S. It didn't last long.

15
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'Smallville' (2001)

Still from
Clark's scar on "Smaillville". Warner Bros

Starting in 2001, the American television series "Smallville" took the character in a different direction. "Smallville" told the story of Clark Kent and his days before he became Superman.

It gave an alternative background for the shield as a Kryptonian family crest known as the “Mark of El,” Superman's birth family. It had the familiar pentagon shape around it, but the symbol in the center was different. At first, the symbol appeared like a figure “8” instead of an “S.” The "8" was described as an ancestral Kryptonian symbol for the house of Jor-El, Superman's father. It’s said that the symbol also represented “air” and the letter “S.”

Eventually, the pentagon showed the traditional “S” in the center, and Clark adopted it as his symbol of “hope.” It was very similar to the symbol from "Superman Returns."

16
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'Superman Returns' (2006)

Still from
"Superman Returns" (2006). Warner Bros

For the 2006 movie, director Bryan Singer turned to designer Louise Mingenbach. The familiar​ red-and-blue colors were darkened and the fabric of the costume had a webbed pattern. The Superman chest emblem changed, too.

Singer said the flat Superman chest emblem looked like a billboard. He wanted the new shield to have an "advanced alien look," so Brandon Routh's Superman wore a raised 3-D shield. The symbol was covered with hundreds of little Superman symbols that no one would notice unless they were standing really close to Superman and staring right at his chest. 

17
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Superman: The New 52 (2011)

Promotional still of Superman by Jim Lee
"Justice League" #1, Jim Lee. DC Comics

In 2011, DC initiated a “soft reboot” of the comic book Superman, which meant they could pick and choose what they wanted to keep. They revamped Superman and gave him two new costumes.

He wore the first when he was first starting out. It was a blue T-shirt emblazoned with his logo and had the look of the classic Swan Superman symbol. The second was a Kryptonian battle suit with a large Superman shield on the front. The emblem had a sleek, angled look and lost the serif.

18
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'Man of Steel' (2013)

Publicity Still of
"Man of Steel" (2013). Warner Bros Pictures

For the Superman movie "Man of Steel," director Zack Snyder wanted an updated and modern look. He made dramatic changes to the costume but felt that some things needed to be faithful to the early look. Snyder said:

"So obviously the things that make him visually distinctly Superman are his cape and obviously the ‘S’ symbol on his chest and the color scheme.”

The new symbol had the same shape as the familiar pentagon but more rounded edges. The "S" was still there but had a broader line in the center and thin ends. 

Sources