Don’t kid yourself. Superman couldn’t fly, wasn’t invulnerable and wasn’t raised by Ma and Pa Kent. At least according to historical sources. Well, kind of historical, and kind of records.
The scoop on Superman is found in the newspapers. And his story does not resemble anything on TV or cinema.
As chronicled in Superman/The Dailies,” a reprint of newspaper features from 1939 to 1942, Superman debuted in the first issue of Action Comics in September of 1938. But comics was not the big time. The upper class of superheroes was found in newspaper syndication, or the “Dailies.” Before Superman, characters like Flash Gordon, the Phantom and Buck Rogers ruled. But when Superman showed up in comic books and newspaper serials, the public response was so overwhelming that, within two years, Superman ended up in radio, film and merchandising.
But Superman’s history is more interesting and complicated than most people realize.
Jerry Siegel and Joey Shuster, the writer-artist team that invented Superman, had come up with the concept of The Superman in 1933. He would have been costumed in slacks and a T-shirt and limited to feats of merely human prowess. He would never have become as “super,” as we know him.
Fortunately, the publisher, Humor Publishing Company, rejected the project in 1933—even though the first issue had already been written and drawn by the team—concluding that a comic book about a superhero was a financial loser. Upon received this rejection, Shuster tore up his original art for The Superman and tossed it into the fireplace. Between 1933 and 1938, Superman was also turned down by every newspaper syndicate in the business, because he lacked “extraordinary appeal.”
But these rebuffs were providential, because at the time of the earlier incarnations of their hero, the creators lacked the skill to successfully develop his potential. Comic books themselves were not at the level that would have propelled Superman into success.
In 1938 Siegel and Shuster, and comic books were ready. And Superman, the Joker, the Super-Kidder, entered the scene.
Superman went from comic books in 1938 to newspaper serials in 1939. He debuted in The Houston Chronicle and then The Milwaukee Journal. By the end of the year he was starring in sixty more newspapers. In the comics, Superman’s origins were explained in a single panel that read: “As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son in a hastily devised spaceship, launching it toward Earth!” It was only in the dailies that readers learned that his real name was Kal-L, that his father was Jor-L, and that his home planet, Krypton. was destroyed by earthquakes
Twelve newspaper panels depicted his escape from Krypton, crash landing on Earth, and rescue.
Except that he wasn’t saved by kindly Ma and Pa Kent. He was pulled out of the burning ship by a passing motorist, and promptly placed in an orphan asylum. It was asylum attendants that discovered the child’s amazing physical abilities. His reputed foster parents, the Kents, were never mentioned. How Superman came up with the pseudonym Clark Kent is never explained. He just decided to call himself that.
He also got a job with The Daily Star, not the planet. He just decided to become a reporter, and got a job without applying for it.
In that way, he was superhuman.
But he wasn’t really super otherwise. He didn’t fly, though he could easily leap one-eighth of a mile and outrun a train. He wasn’t invulnerable either. A bursting shell could penetrate his skin. But bullets didn’t faze him.
He didn’t have X-ray vision, or heat vision. Those ocular capabilities started appearing in 1940. All he had at first were super-sensitive ears, super-strength and Lois Lane.
He also lacked a moral code that prohibited him killing anyone, even a villain. That was imposed later. He tortured confessions out of them, by knocking them around the room, carrying them onto telephone wires, and even ripping off a bad guy’s clothes till he sang.
He wasn’t a super exemplar of virtue. But he was a super-kidder.
When a car tried to evade him, he lifted it off the ground and said, “Stick around!” He fended off a princess’s advances with the admonition, “This is no time to get romantic!” When gangsters opined that they must have blanks in their ineffectual guns, he quipped, “Not in your guns–but in your heads!” He did superstunts, declaring them “A cinch!”
He had to contend with a “Pseudo-Superman,” a notorious criminal named “Lippy” Jenks who looked just like him. Not only did Lippy rob banks, but also put the moves on Lois. The police started calling the real Superman a “superhuman hoodlum, until the truth be known.
He played himself in a movie, uttering such lines as “And when I hold you like this, my darling, I too forget everything—everything.” Of course, he griped about how terrible the lines were. But his self-review of his performance was favorable.
There was always the unresolved sexual tension between him and Lois. And Lois never thought much of Clark, as we know.
By 1940 he was not only on the radio but, more importantly, on the covers of cereal boxes. He was the impetus for superheroic success on radio and TV, and in the movies.
It must be acknowledged that, throughout his apprenticeship, he battled crime and corrupt politicians, and fought in World War Two.
All told, Superman was about ninety percent super, even in the early days.
And we ain’t kidding.
By: Tom Ukinski