Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… well, you know the rest. This famous mantra has welcomed Superman for almost 80 years now, and yet it still elicits a happy chill in even the most seasoned, cynical superhero fan. There’s just something about the Big Blue Boy Scout that universally strikes a chord with people. His creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster not only carved a new pathway for the fledging Detective Comics, it also effectively birthed the entire superhero genre as we know it. Superman is technically not the first superhero, but he is certainly the big bang responsible for the DC universe.
There are far too many reasons to explain Superman’s enduring popularity, mostly because he has a pretty dynamic character history. Every new creative team has added their own flavor to the Superman mythos, with enough callbacks to the 1938 canon to comfort readers… at least, one would think. But in reviewing Superman’s earliest adventures, it’s clear that DC has significantly shifted certain aspects of the Man of Steel’s original storyline. Some are as small as missing side characters, but others are as significant as rewriting Superman’s entire characterization and motivation to be a hero. Check out the 15 most egregious examples below!
15. WELCOME TO THE STAR
Before we get to Superman, we need to discuss the early days of Clark Kent. Both alter egos were featured prominently in Action Comics #1, thereby solidifying the importance of both identities in the introduction of the Man of Tomorrow. In his inaugural comic, readers find Clark in his natural habitat — the newsroom, where he has just gotten the exciting journalism job that he will cherish for the rest of his life. But this early iteration was much different than what we know now.
Metropolis’ daily newspaper was originally called The Daily Star rather than The Daily Planet, an homage to Shuster’s local childhood paper The Toronto Daily Star. At the Star, Clark works under the editorial leadership of George Taylor, since Perry White wasn’t created until 1940. Lovable photographer Jimmy Olsen didn’t exist at the time either, leaving Clark’s social life incredibly lacking.
14. THE HILARIOUSLY PATHETIC LIFE OF CLARK KENT
In fact, when he was first created Clark Kent’s life was rather… pathetic. And that’s putting it nicely. He spent a noticeable amount of his early comic run alone, living the life of a perpetual bachelor in a sparse apartment outside of his corporate and superhero activities. He had no friends as Superman, and as Clark he was the constant butt of his co-workers’ subtle jabs, outright insults, and excessive criticisms.
Of course, a somewhat pitiful Clark has always existed in the DC mythos. The difference in its depiction now and back then lies in its purpose. Rather than inspire pity, Clark’s empty life was a source of humor for his founding creative team. The duo based him on silent film star and comedian Harold Lloyd, who elevated the lonely absurdity of man into a lucrative career. We take Clark’s solitary plight a little more seriously these days.
13. LOIS LANE: INVESTIGATIVE AGONY AUNT
While Action Comics #1 lacked most of Superman’s modern cast, there was one other well-known character who shared the spotlight: Lois Lane. The ace reporter and love of Clark’s life has had her share of grand storylines and dynamic roles over the years, effectively existing as a determined investigator, a mother, and a very human hero in her own right.
But remember, Lois was created in 1938. While it was revolutionary to show Lois as a working woman at all, her initial job at the Star leaves something to be desired for modern readers. She was a “sob sister” at the time, meaning she wrote frivolous feel-good stories and other fluff for the paper. Her requests for more hard-hitting work were undermined, and her independent quests for a story were criticized. Her early comic role was thus that of a decidedly — and understandably — bitter young woman.
12. CLOIS: HATE AT FIRST SIGHT
What happens when a timid young man and a hotheaded young woman meet? These days, you’d probably expect a drawn-out “opposites attract” love story. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, you’d definitely expect this relationship to look like what occurred between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, which can be succinctly described as such: loathing… unadulterated loathing, at least on Lois’ end.
Comics’ most iconic couple had an incredibly antagonistic start. As always, Clark was hopelessly in love with his colleague and often stumbled his way through an invitation to dinner and dancing. Meanwhile, Lois made it abundantly clear she couldn’t stand him. She often tried to sabotage his journalist investigations, called him a “spineless worm” to his face, and unfavorably compared his weak personality to the confident “he-man” Superman. But Clark eventually wore her down with his dogged persistence, which is… not super romantic, and a little creepy… and also sad.
11. SUPERMAN THE SUPERVILLAIN
Now, let’s turn our time machine back to Superman’s humble origins. Siegal and Shuster first met at a tiny high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and they immediately saw their combined creative potential. In these early days of adolescence, the duo spent their time creating a variety of science fiction stories for their self-published zine. The idea of Superman loomed large in their minds even then, though the first iteration was vastly different than the character we know now.
Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical theory of the Übermensch, Siegel (under a pseudonym) and Shuster at first created a bald, mad scientist hellbent on world domination. He starred in their 1933 story “The Reign of the Superman,” and he mostly outwitted his enemies with raw intelligence rather than any superhuman powers. Their idea of the Superman soon turned more heroic, but they clearly used aspects of this concept later in their work.
10. (NOT) KEEPING UP WITH THE KENTS
Of all the characters in the Superman mythos, none are quite as influential in the formation of his superhero identity than his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. The creation of this tight-knit little family is well-known: Clark’s ship crashed onto Earth just as the Kents were driving by, and they decided to take him in as their own. Their love and support shaped Clark’s entire life, and these attributes also firmly established them as fan favorites among comic readers.
However, the original Superman never grew up with the Kents. In 1938, a passing motorist did find Clark’s crashed ship, but they immediately took him to an “orphan asylum” where he remained until he aged out of the system. The early days of Action Comics didn’t focus on the minute details of Clark Kent’s life, remember? Thankfully, the Kents were finally introduced a year later in a new Superman title.
9. THE ORIGINAL SUPERBOY
Once Superman became a national sensation in 1938, the ever-entrepreneurial Siegel tried pitching a story to DC about Clark Kent’s childhood — as a superhero named Superboy, surprisingly enough. While Action Comics made it clear that Clark didn’t adopt the red booty shorts until adulthood, Siegel was obsessed with establishing Clark’s heroic nature in his youth. This idea would appeal specifically to younger audiences, and finally give Clark the rich backstory not explored in his main title.
DC finally developed the idea in 1944, once Robin joined the Batman title. Without consulting Siegel on the project — he was fighting in WWII at the time — DC partnered with Shuster to bring Superboy to life, first in More Fun Comics and then in his own solo book soon after. The original Superboy enjoyed relatively solid sales until Crisis on Infinite Earth retconned this history in 1985.
8. A NOT SO SUPER MAN
Our current version of Superman has a grab bag of amazing powers and superhuman abilities: x-ray vision, super hearing, super speed, artic breath, that relatively new solar flare thing… whatever you can think of, he’s probably had it at some point in his continuity. But his early days of superheroics were decidedly less super — not for any malicious intent on the part of his creators, but because Superman was a new breed of hero. His powers didn’t have to be extravagant to make him stand out.
So, his superpower arsenal really featured only three main abilities. When he was a child, Clark already possessed super strength. Interestingly, he didn’t develop any other powers until he matured into an adult. Then, he also developed super speed and, rather than flight, a “super leap.” Sure, his early abilities might seem unimpressive now, but they certainly did the trick for the era.
7. STRONGER THAN AN ANT, MORE POWERFUL THAN A GRASSHOPPER…
Speaking of Superman’s abilities, Siegel and Shuster rooted their existence in clear and simple scientific fact — just not the cool, but improbable ones that we’re used to. Now, Superman’s powers are a consequence of Earth’s yellow sun, which feeds his Kryptonian body in a surprisingly positive swell of chemical reactions. Kryptonians do not naturally possess these superheroic abilities, however, because their planet was under a red sun.
Action Comics #1 gave a different interpretation of the Kryptonian physiology. All Kryptonians had superhuman abilities after centuries of advanced development, but like Clark, they didn’t develop these powers until adulthood. Their super strength and super leap were apparently similar in design to the abilities of insects like ants and grasshoppers. Certainly not the most compelling comparison, but it soothed the skepticism of an audience just becoming acquainted with the superhero genre. Still, we’re glad this one has been abandoned in DC canon.
6. NO KRYPTONITE, NO PROBLEMS (?)
For all his fantastic abilities, comic fans know that Superman has one serious weakness: kryptonite, a radioactive element native to his destroyed home planet. Its importance in the Superman mythos has made the lethal element an omnipresent stable in our everyday lives now. It’s used as shorthand for one’s “Achilles’ heel,” it’s been referenced in numerous pop songs, and a strange substance found in Serbia in 2008 reminded its discoverers of it. Kryptonite has basically become a character in its own right.
For all its significance, Kryptonite didn’t exist in many of Superman’s early adventures. Siegel tried introducing a substance named “K-Metal” that could drain Superman’s powers a 1940 comic, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the element became well-known thanks to The Adventures of Superman radio show. In the meantime, Superman was impenetrable… unless you shot him at point-blank range, apparently, per Siegel’s introductory explanation of his powers.
5. ULTRA-HUMANITE: THE ULTIMATE ENEMY
When we said that Siegel and Shuster’s “Reign of the Superman” character design would be used later in his comics, you totally thought we meant Lex Luthor, didn’t you? While you technically wouldn’t be wrong, you would be a little early. When Lex Luther finally appeared in the Golden Age, he was intended to be a one-time, redheaded, geriatric villain. Superman’s real archnemesis back in the day was Ultra-Humanite, first introduced in Action Comics #13.
The mad scientist was one of the first supervillains to ever be created, and he was Superman’s first recurring villain. As an explicit contrast to Superman, Ultra-Humanite was bald, incredibly intelligent, and paralyzed. His greatest achievement was unlocking the ability to swap minds with other living things. After a few dozen decades of erasures and retcons, Ultra-Humanite now lingers around the edges of DC canon as an alien nightmare from Clark’s childhood.
4. SUPERMAN: CHAMPION OF THE OPPRESSED
With 80 years of comic history behind him, Superman has always stood for principles grander than his battles against mad scientists and alien invaders. Like many superheroes in the 1940s, Superman became a symbol of human values that often come under attack in times of war and oppression. The most popular summary of his symbolism is that Superman fights “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way,” thanks to the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show.
But a much stronger message existed for the superhero in his original iteration. As the creation of two poor Jewish kids, whose parents were recent immigrants, Superman has always been explicitly tied to the struggles of marginalized populations. Action Comics #1 introduced him as the “champion of the oppressed… sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” The title may not be written out anymore, but its power definitely remains.
3. METROPOLIS’ WAR ON CRIME
While fans take the superhero genre pretty seriously, sometimes we gotta sit back and acknowledge that it’s about a bunch of people in brightly colored workout gear beating up strange and improbable creatures. It’s just the nature of the game these days. In terms of creativity, our current supervillains and evil monsters offer a much more diverse roster of enemies. Superman’s early adventures were rather limited to everyday human threats.
As the Champion of the Oppressed, his war on crime specifically targeted gangsters, murders, abusers, corrupt politicians, and even two warring nations in Action Comics #3. These men and women were the kind of domestic evildoers that Siegel and Shuster frequently saw prosper in their everyday lives, so it’s no surprise that their creation would have a passionate vendetta against them. These threats were on a smaller scale, but they were just as socially damaging as any Brainiac or Doomsday.
Superman has always been a protector of the innocent and oppressed, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s nice about it. Modern comic fans consider him something of a sweet boy scout thanks to his charm, his patience, and the unwavering compassion he displays to friends, enemies, and strangers alike. But in the Golden Age, his approach specifically against crime was a lot less pleasant.
All the times when a young Superman harassed, tortured, and accidentally killed the petty criminals of Metropolis deserves its own article. His favorite forms of interrogation include leaping around the city while dragging his enemies by their feet, dangling them off tall buildings, and notably even “dancing” with one on an electrified telephone wire. Superman’s no-mercy antics were only matched by Golden Age Batman, who was fond of guns and snapping his villains’ necks in battle. Talk about a couple of superjerks.
1. PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1
Superheroes have always had a tumultuous relationship with law enforcement and the government at large, but it’s often a resolvable issue born from years of miscommunication and fear. Superman forms a truce with the U.S. government in Man of Steel, after all, and Batman has always had an intimate partnership with the G.C.P.D. The two forces can work together. Just not in the Golden Age.
Superman never purposely sought out police attention, but because of his reckless superheroics and the property damage he caused, the police had a warrant for Superman’s arrest and a $5,000 reward for his capture. Firing squads welcomed him at crime scenes, and eventually Superman was forced to respond aggressively in order to neutralize them and save the day. But especially in today’s political climate, this mutual antagonism is really something DC doesn’t want you to remember from Superman’s origins.
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