Arriving on Earth an orphaned child from a far-away planet, Superman adopted the alter-ego of reporter Clark Kent and dedicated his life to truth, justice, and the American way. Ever since his debut more than 70 years ago, Superman has been an American icon, making the leap from comic books to movies and TV.
But what's the secret to Superman's success while others have faded away? And who was behind the country's first superhero? As the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, crushes box-office records, we revisit our conversation with Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Read an excerpt from his book.
Tye had previously written about pitcher Satchel Paige and “the father of public relations” Edward Bernays, and was interested in the pop culture icons we embrace and what that says about us.
“When I went back and looked at who were the real heroes who lasted, Superman stood out as the longest-lasting,” Tye says.
Superman became a lens Tye used to view American political and social changes since his first appearance in 1938. Superman started out as a “butt-kicking New Dealer,” seeking out corrupt politicians and businessmen. “Those no-goodniks didn’t deserve a Bill of Rights, and they wouldn’t get one with Superman,” Tye wrote.
But over time, Superman changed—partly a response to different social norms, but also as a directive from his publishers in New York who were cautious about offending the powerful with their new cash cow. Superman became the symbol for the status quo, and lived inside the law.
“There were two things crucial to Superman’s success,” Tye says. “One was the things that didn’t’ change in him: he was the clearest of any popular culture heroes and he had a clear delineation of what was right and what was wrong.”
“But just as important was how he evolved. Every era, he reflected not just the creators’ sense of politics, but what America’s was. In the ‘30s, we needed a New Deal liberal. In the ‘40s, we needed someone who would take us to war. In the ‘50s, we were worried about the Red menace and so was Superman. That’s why I’m so fascinated with what’s going to be out next summer in the movies. The heroes this summer spoke to America’s fears and aspirations that turned them into box office successes.”
And some of our modern conceptions of what define the Man of Steel never started out in the comic books, but in his broadcast appearances.
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive”? That may be one of Superman’s classic lines, but it debuted in the 1940s Fleischer cartoons. Kryptonite, the only substance that can weaken Superman? That started out in the Adventures of Superman radio show and became the go-to prop for comic writers looking to make it a fair fight against Superman. Even the ability to fly first came out of the radio show; before that Superman could only “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Listen to Superman's radio debut.
“That’s what’s brilliant about Superman,” Tye says. “J. R. R. Tolkien gave us his whole world in one piece in the beginning. [Superman’s creators] Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were kids who gave us an incredibly crude version at first. Over time, they gave us the universe as they saw it.”
And there's more on what inspired the creation of Superman in our web-exclusive conversation with Tye below: