Profile: Superman

Here's everything you need to know about the Man of Steel's history and creation

Action Comics #1 (1938) comic book cover
Action Comics #1 (1938). DC Comics
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • First appearance: Action Comics #1 (1938)
  • Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
  • Place of origin: Krypton

Superman has been around for over 75 years and is considered a cultural icon and the gold standard for superheroes. 

The Creators of Superman

The concept for Superman started out in the mind of two High School kids in Ohio. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the sons of Jewish immigrants living in Cleveland Ohio.

In 1932, Siegel and Shuster published a small fanzine called "Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization". The school was supportive of them and let them use the school's mimeograph machine to copy the magazines. The two sold a handful by mail subscription. This was during the depression and it was a way for the two to help overcome the crushing poverty at the time. The third issue featured a story called "Reign of the Superman". The title came from Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of an "Übermensch". The story is about a mad scientist named Professor Ernest Smalley. He randomly chooses a poor vagrant on the bread lines named Bill Dunn and gives him incredible telepathic powers in return for "a real meal and a new suit." Dunn dreams of world domination and kills the scientist before realizing the formula is wearing off. At the end of the story, the vagrant goes back to his life of poverty in the bread lines.

While the story is nothing like the comic book superhero, the name intrigued them. When they decided to create a hero that would fight crime and bring justice they used the name Superman.

Where Did Superman Come From?

In 1933 the two set out to create a new kind of hero. Both were immigrants growing up the poverty-stricken days of the Great Depression where the poor were victimized by the rich.

The two longed to bring a different kind of hero to the world. To create the superhero, they based his look on Douglas Fairbanks Sr. while they used actor Harold Lloyd for his alter-ego Clark Kent.

Superman's origin has changed over the years but the basic concept has remained the same. On the distant planet Krypton a prominent scientist named Jor-El built realizes his planet is dying and builds a small rocket. Moments before the planet explodes he puts his infant son Kal-El on the spaceship and sends him to Earth. There he's adopted by a kind Midwest couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent in the fictional town of Smallville, Kansas. Under his adopted name Clark Kent learns strong moral values and develops a desire to help people with his incredible powers. He grows up and moves to the fictional city of Metropolis to become a mild-mannered reporter for the "Daily Planet". He uses his incredible abilities to become Superman.

What Are Superman’s Powers?

At first he could only jump long distances but eventually he was able to fly. Superman has super strength, flight, invulnerability, super-speed, heat vision, freeze breath, x-ray vision, superhuman hearing and a healing factor that makes him almost invulnerable.

Over the years, many other powers have been attributed to him based on writers and the franchise, but these are his main superpowers.

How Hard was it to Sell Superman?

At first they had a hard time selling the concept. For one thing, comic books were newly invented and most were just newspaper strips bound together into a magazine. The other problem is people thought the concept of Superman was too fantastical. They shipped the concept around for six years before "Detective Comics" took a chance and bought the Superman concept from them. The character was featured in the first issue of Action Comics. Soon kids everywhere were asking for the "comic with Superman in it." Sales took off and the first mainstream comic book superhero was born. By 1942, comic book sales of Superman’s three titles reached an incredible combined total of over $1.5 million.

Adjusted for inflation that's over $21 million dollars! All that for an idea from a couple of teenagers. DC was doing very well and other people started to take notice.

How Did Superman Change Comic Books?

Superman was the first successful superhero. After his creation, dozens of imitators were created. Some were from DC comics like Bob Kane’s Batman. Others were from rival publishers like Captain Marvel from Fawcett Comics and Will Eisner’s Wonder Man. The iconic tights were based on the carnival strongman who wore tights and briefs on the outside. Every superhero since has shared the same look. The logo on the chest has become standard for all superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel.

Superman’s Influence on Popular Culture

But Superman has influenced more than comic books. Newspaper comic strips, radio shows, stage shows, TV shows, cartoons and movies have been based on the character. The first Macy's parade in 1940 was of Superman. The Navy listed Superman comic books as essential supplies for the Marine garrison at Midway Islands.

Superman has had a huge impact on popular culture. Everyone knows the phrase “look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” The Superman logo is the most recognizable superhero logo in the world. Kryptonite is commonly used to refer to an "Achilles heel" or weakness. Almost 80 years later Superman is more popular than ever and is an inspiration for people around the world.