The Evolution of the Superman Symbol

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The Superman Symbol From 1939 To Today

Superman symbol. 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 said Superman’s red-and-yellow S-shield is the second-most-recognized symbol in the world, surpassed only by the Christian cross. Whether that's true or not, you can't argue that the symbol is iconic. That diamond shape and "S" is immediately recognizable. But it wasn't always that way.

While the symbol has been around for over seven decades it's changed over time. Sometimes it was a minor shift. Sometimes it's a major change.

To keep it fair, this 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 list. Read on to find out how Superman's symbol has evolved over the years. Which one is your favorite?

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

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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 seven. Instead, they showed Canadian Mounties and giant gorillas.

Finally, they put the "Man of Tomorrow" on the cover. Besides showing Superman flying through the air, it showed a new shield. The Superman logo has a red letter "S" in the center. Although the shield is shown inconsistently throughout the comics it's one of the first times the Superman logo is intentionally changed in the comics.

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New York World's Fair (1939)

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

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

The fair is also the first live-action appearance of Superman, played by an unidentified actor that could have been Ray Middleton.

The Superman shield has the triangular shape from the early days, but a big difference. The superhero is so new that they wrote the word "Superman" over the triangular shield. That way people know who he is. 

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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. Joe Shuster was overworked and they hired several ghost artists to fill in for him. Artists like Wayne Boring and Leo Nowak.

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

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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 approached Fleischer Studios and asked them to make a cartoon out of the hero.

On September 26, 1941, the show aired with changes from the comics. One change was that the traditional S Shield was changed from a triangle to a diamond shape.

This is either because of the comic or inspired the comic. The show came out several months after the comic, but you better believe DC saw the concept art before it came out.

Either way the coloring was changed as well using a yellow border, a red S and a black background.

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Superman Trademarked (1944)

Superman symbol
Superman symbol. DC Comics

In 1944, Detective Comics trademarks the Superman symbol. They basically trademarked the Wayne Boring version of the symbol. But the basic design is trademarked and applied to all the other variations. This is about the same time that Disney trademarked Mickey Mouse and it's a smart business decision. The trademark was applied for SUPERMAN and  "SUPERHOMBRE" for good measure. They filed with the United States patent Office on August 26, 1944. It was approved in 1948.

DC described the copyright saying 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 the pants off anyone that tries to make a Superman shield even if the center letter is different.

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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 than the comic version. It also has a serif at the top of the "S" which is adopted by many other interpretations.

It was followed up by another one in 1950. The serials were released in black and white. So, the shield was actually brown and white instead of red and gold. It looked better on screen. When George Reeves took over the role in the serials modified the costume slightly but used the same symbol.

That symbol shows up on another live-action actor.

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The Adventures of Superman (1951)

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

George Reeves wore the Superman symbol in the new TV show The Adventures of Superman. The show was broadcast in black and white. So, like the Kirk Alyn version, the shield is 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. The shield is similar in design to the Kirk Alyn version except the bottom tail has an extra curl.

It's rumored that Reeves would burn his "S" at the end of every season. But, considering the costumes cost about $4000 each (after inflation), it's unlikely.  

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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 the long-time artist Wayne Boring as the penciler for Superman in 1955.

This is known as the Silver Age-Bronze Age for Superman comics and has a huge influence on the look of Superman for decades. The symbol keeps its overall shape, but the S is much thicker and heavier than before. Plus it has a large round end. 

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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 on Christopher Reeve's chest. Most of the designs were by award winning costume designer Yvonne Blake. "Superman’s costume was created for the comic and I could not change it," Blake remembered, "It was not allowed. So I try 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."

Costume designer Yvonne Blake made notes on her costume design saying, " 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.” With that simple description, they created a new interpretation of the Superman logo. Her production sketches used the Curt Swan version of the Superman symbol, but the final version has a square end similar to the George Reeve's version.

It's one of the most faithful of the Superman shield adaptations and iconic.

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John Byrne Superman (1986)

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

John Byrne had a massively successful run on the X-Men comic for Marvel and DC approached him to work on Superman. He agreed on one condition. DC had been planning to start over and erase the previous 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 miniseries called “The Man of Steel.” In the comic, the symbol is designed by Jonathan Kent and Clark. His logo is very similar to the Curt Swan version except it's much larger than previous versions and is across Superman's chest. Byrne also made it top heavy and put the focus on the large line in the middle of the S. 

The next live-action version of Superman is less faithful to the Curt Swan version.

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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 is heavy, the series costume has a different look. It's basic shape is based on the classic design but is the most whimsical of all the Superman symbols. It uses large sweeping lines and focuses on the swoop at the bottom to draw the eye and has a very pronounced "S".

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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 has a classic feel. So, it's no surprise that the symbol is the classic Curt Swan symbol, only it has a thinner S. 

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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.

Why not? What could go wrong? Pretty much everything and it's considered the low point in Superman history. Instead of his familiar abilities, Superman is 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 are the red and gold. Instead, he wears a white and blue stylized lightning bolt that looks kinda like an S.

It didn't last long.

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Smallville (2001)

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

The 2006 American television series Smallville took the character in a different direction. Smallville tells a story about the history of Clark Kent and his days before he became Superman.

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

Eventually the pentagon shows the traditional “S” in the center and Clark adopts it as his symbol of “hope”. The symbol is very similar to the one from Superman Returns.

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Superman Returns (2006)

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

For the 2006 movie, Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer turned to designer Louise Mingenbach. The familar red-and-blue colors are darkened and the fabric of the costume has a webbed pattern. But that's not the only change. The Superman chest emblem changes too.

Bryan Singer said that the flat Superman chest emblem would look like a billboard. He wanted the new shield to have an "advanced alien look". So, for Brandon Routh's Superman emblem he wore a raised 3-D shield.

In case we didn't get the idea, Superman covered his symbol with hundreds of little Superman symbols. Of course, no one would notice unless they were standing really close to Superman. And staring right into his chest. 

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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. That basically means they could pick and choose what they wanted to keep. As part of the process they revamped Superman and gave him two new costumes.

The first is when he's first starting out and wears a blue t-shirt  emblazoned with his logo. It has the look of the classic Swan Superhero symbol.

The second is a Kryptonian battle suit with a large Superman shield on the front. The emblem has a very sleek angled look and gets rid of the serifs.

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Man of Steel (2013)

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

For the new 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 make him work. "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,” Zack Snyder said.

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

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Your Citation
Mitchell, Maurice. "The Evolution of the Superman Symbol." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Mitchell, Maurice. (2016, August 23). The Evolution of the Superman Symbol. Retrieved from Mitchell, Maurice. "The Evolution of the Superman Symbol." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2018).