It’s hard to imagine an American pop culture without Superman. Perhaps no other superhero character is so recognizable and so embedded in our national psyche. Even those who aren’t fans of comic books will recognize names like that of his girlfriend Lois Lane, his alter-ego Clark Kent and his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. The irony is that Superman isn’t technically American; he isn’t even from planet Earth but instead hails from a planet known as Krypton. With his rippling physique, his patriotic red and blue costume and his commitment to uphold the forces of good, however, Superman is as firmly embedded in American myth as our stories about the Old West or the Founding Fathers.
Before 1938, however, when he first appeared in the pages of Action Comics, the public had never even heard of Superman. Within a few short years, Superman had not only established himself as a beloved comic book figure but had spawned spin-offs including Superboy and comics detailing the adventures of Lois Lane and boy reporter Jimmy Olsen.
Superman might not have survived through the years, however; he might have fallen away, seen as a corny relic of a bygone era. Yet artists, writers and publishers worked to keep updating the hero and keep his story fresh. Leaping from the pages of comics into radio, television and film, like all good myths, Superman’s story has had many versions spun by many tellers and has been portrayed in a number of different ways, and some of the actors and actresses from his films such as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are forever associated with their roles.
His earliest incarnation was as a rougher, less moral character; he’s died once; he’s even existed in parallel universes. He’s not just the best-known superhero; he was also the first. But who is this man of steel who has become such a recognizable and beloved figure in the American pop culture landscape? What are the creative origins of Superman? Who invented him first, and what are some of the ways we’ve seen him portrayed over these many decades of his existence?