“Faster than speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall building in a single bound. “Look up in the sky!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” It’s Superman!” Yes, it’s superman strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”
My friend Bob Falkenstein was very pleased with himself when he memorized the above quote. As a kid every one of us could recite with ease the above opening to one of the greatest TV shows ever made. But that television show as in the 1950s to see the real origin of superman we need to travel back to 1938.
It was April of 1938. America was still in the great depression. MGM had not yet sent Dorothy down the yellow brick Road, nor had the great city of Atlanta burned to the ground in the film version of Gone with the Wind. Orson Welles had yet to scare the country with his ill-timed broadcast of The War of the Worlds. We were a nation watching Germany wondering if we would get involved in another war. There was a real family in Salzburg Austria wondering if they could escape the Nazi’s by touring the US as a singing group. Into all of this dropped a 64-page magazine called Action Comics. On the cover a man holding a car above his head while he shook villains out of it. Who was this guy? What was this magazine? Kids wanted to know and thousands of them would spend their dimes to find out.
Superman’s Birthday… April 18. It is amazing to see how much the character has changed over the decades and it is equally amazing how much the character has changed us, our culture and our world.
Superman was the first superhero. He often called the granddaddy of them all and rightfully so. Without Superman there would be no Batman, no Wonder Woman and no Spider-Man. Marvel’s Avengers rule in Hollywood, but without Superman, The Avengers wouldn’t exist.
Superman was the brain child of Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. They originally imagined him as a newspaper strip but constantly were rejected by news syndicate after news syndicate. National Periodical Publications decided they wanted something totally new to open their new comic book Action Comics the character came to their attention and the rest is history.
When Action Comics hit the stands it wasn’t clear at all what was making the magazine popular. There was no internet no way to find out why the kids were buying this magazine. It took several months to find out that the answer was Superman. During those uncertain months different characters were featured on the cover but when the realization came that people were buying the magazine for Superman he graced the cover of every issue after that and still does to this day.
Action Comics was different than any comic magazine the came before it. Prior to Action Comics almost all other comic books were simply republished newspapers strips. More Fun Comics was one of the few magazines that published new material but none of what was being being written at the time was really notable. Action Comics changed that and soon a new genre of magazine would arrive. The comic book all new stories with all new heroes. More Fun Comics was influenced by Superman and soon would begin publishing superhero stories most notable The Spectre, but soon would come Superboy The adventures of Superman when he was a boy. With a country on the brink of war and scared of what the future would bring this new magazine format gave us hope that we can do anything. That we did not have to be afraid.
Superman is the ultimate classic American. He is an immigrant, he came to this country with nothing, he was taken in and cared for and became something wonderful. He is the incarnation of the dreams of every American. Given the right circumstances we can do anything.
Superman is a symbol hope. In Superman we see goodness magnified 100 times. We can hope that others will see this character fighting for what is right and want to imitate him. Many have. I’m not sure how many will right out and say they chose to do a good deed because they read Superman Comics but deep down we all know we have become better people for reading him.
Superman is a symbol of justice and equality. Superman doesn’t see color, he doesn’t see religious affiliation or sex or sexuality he sees people in need and helps. He doesn’t wonder if your rich or poor or black or white or gay or straight or man or woman. He sees your need and meets you there. This is as it should be. This how we all should be.
On a personal note I was a young man of about 14. I decided to where a Superman T Shirt to school that day and was teased relentlessly. It was not a good way to fit in. I remember walking into the gym for some unknown reason and there was this skinny kid with glasses in the stands as I recall he yelled out “DC or Marvel?” I was stunned and shy and wanted to get away, but he asked again, “DC or Marvel?” DC, I courageously yelled back and from that moment on one of the greatest friendships of the 20th century was born. All because of Superman.
Superman would become popular across every form of entertainment. He finally made it into a syndicated newspaper strip. He had animated big screen adventures and then serialized movie adventures. He was published in the form of a novel several times. He has been a major character in at least three television series and a minor character in others. There have also been at least two animated TV series that have been graced with his name. There have been songs written about him and he even made it to Broadway in an all out musical version of his story. It is said that there are three fictional characters that the whole world knows, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse and Superman.
Happy Birthday Superman! May you have many more to come. Thank you for what you have given us and continue to give us. You entertain us you inspire us and help lead us to becoming better than we are.