75 Years of Superman

Look up at the screen…

It’s a bird…

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Robert Andrew Parker illustration from children’s book To Fly by Wendie Old, 2002.

It’s a plane…

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Robert Andrew Parker illustration, unknown date.

No, it’s just a Superman blog.

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Miniseries Man of Steel #1 (of 6) that rebooted the Superman storyline in 1986.

This past weekend, Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman origin story, debuted in movie theaters. In this reboot, you get to meet Superman’s Kryptonian family, though you won’t get to meet Krypto the dog…

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From the cover of  Superman Annual, summer 1962.

…or Super Monkey either.

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From the cover of  Superman Annual, summer 1962.

Seventy-five years ago in June 1938, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, becoming America’s first superhero.  He was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who became friends in high school because of their love for science fiction and adventure comic strips like Buck Rogers.

The Superman that appeared in Action Comics was actually Siegel and Shuster’s third incarnation of the character.  The first was a human who developed telepathy powers from a meteor and used them for evil.  He was confronted by a seemingly helpless reporter, who wasn’t as helpless as he appeared.

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Superman #297, March 1976

The second version had Superman as a strong, human good guy, but with no super powers.  Elements of these earlier versions found their way into the ultimate third version, along with Siegel’s teenage crush on a girl named Lois, who thought he was strange and ignored him.

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Superboy #9, July 1961

The Superman debut launched a self-named title in the summer of 1939. By the 1950s, Superman titles were the best sellers at DC Comics, with Lois Lane’s title outselling Batman!

In the beginning, Shuster’s bold, cartoony style still showed in the artwork, even if he wasn’t drawing all the panels. The artists would try to copy Shuster’s style, but if Shuster wasn’t satisfied, he would draw on top of the image or just redraw it.

After the 10 year contract to produce Superman ended, Shuster ceased to draw the character, but Siegel would continue to write occassional uncredited stories. Over the years, the stories would evolve and become darker, socially-relevant, and psychologically complex.

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Superman: the Man of Steel #39, December 1994

The art style also evolved, as artists stopped trying to recreate the original look. Immediately after Shuster left, Superman was taller with a larger chin, and eventually become more muscular.  Over the years, the character was drawn more realistically and with greater detail.  In some versions, the attention to detail would cause the character’s attributes (especially his muscles) to be over-exaggerated.

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Adventures of Superman #623, February 2004

Many Superman-related titles from the 1960s – mid 2000s are available for viewing at the Modern Graphic History Library.  You can also view a book on the history of Superman and many of his covers throughout the years.  Olin Library also has the George Reeves television series and Christopher Reeve’s first Superman movie on DVD.

Credits:

All Superman images are from the Center For Humanities Comics Collection.  The Robert Andrew Parker images are from the Robert Andrew Parker Collection.

Information for this blog came from:

75 Years of DC Comics: the Art of Modern Mythmaking by Paul Levitz.  Taschen, 2010. Available for viewing at the Modern Graphic History Library.

Superman: the Complete History: the Life and Times of the Man of Steel by Les Daniels. Chronicle Books, 1998.  Available through MOBIUS.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.