Superman is a superhero who appears in American comic books.
He was created for DC Comics by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Superman first appeared in Action Comics, no. 1 (June 1938).
The success of Action Comics no. 1 spurred the creation of a new superhero industry, with a host of comic book publishers sprouting virtually overnight. For their part, Siegel and Shuster received $130 from DC Comics for the exclusive rights to Superman.
Superman’s origin is perhaps one of the best-known stories in comic book history – he was born on the fictional planet Krypton and was named Kal-El. As a baby, his parents sent him to Earth in a small spaceship moments before Krypton was destroyed in a natural cataclysm. His ship landed in the American countryside, near the fictional town of Smallville. He was found and adopted by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who named him Clark Kent. As a child, Clark exhibits a collection of superhuman powers—invulnerability, incredible strength, the ability to leap incredible distances, and super speed—that would later become the hallmarks of his alter ego, Superman, the “Man of Steel.”
Superman has sold more comic books over his publication history than any other American superhero character. Exact sales figures for the early decades of Superman comic books are hard to find because, like most publishers at the time, DC Comics concealed this data from its competitors and thereby the general public as well, but given the general market trends at the time, sales of Action Comics and Superman probably peaked in the mid-1940s and thereafter steadily declined.
The first adaptation of Superman beyond comic books was a radio show, The Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1940 to 1951 for 2,088 episodes, most of which were aimed at children
In made his first onscreen appearance in the Fleischer Studios’ animated short film, Superman (aka “The Mad Scientist”). In addition to being an enjoyable, well-made film, this cartoon marked a major point in the
character evolution of Superman. Prior to this, Superman did not have the power of flight – he was only “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” similar to the high jumping ability of earlier pulp hero John Carter. Animators at Fleischer Studios decided that repeatedly animating high jumps made the Superman character look comedic, so they went for a more dramatic style of flight. Watching Superman fly into battle became so popular among his fans that this ability was quickly incorporated into the comics.
During World War II, with the top-secret Manhattan Project in full swing, any mention of nuclear weapons in the popular press drew the government’s ire. DC found this out when it developed a comic book in which Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor, launches an attack with what he calls an “atomic bomb.” Though Luthor’s “atomic bomb” in no way resembled an actual atomic bomb, the U.S. War Department demanded that publication be delayed. The War Department likewise censored another comic book, written after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which Superman films an atom bomb test for the Army, along with a Superman newspaper strip featuring a cyclotron particle accelerator, also known as an “atom smasher.”
In 1966 Superman had a Tony-nominated musical play produced on Broadway. It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman featured music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams and book by David Newman and Robert Benton. Actor Bob Holiday performed as Clark Kent/Superman and actress Patricia Marand performed as Lois Lane.
Starting with the Pop Art period and on a continuing basis, since the 1960s the character of Superman has been “appropriated” by multiple visual artists and incorporated into contemporary artwork, most notably by
Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Mel Ramos, Dulce Pinzon, Mr. Brainwash, Raymond Pettibon, Peter Saul, Giuseppe Veneziano, F. Lennox Campello, and others.
The first big-budget movie was Superman in 1978, starring Christopher Reeve and produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind. It was 143 minutes long and was made on a budget of $55 million (equivalent to $218,000,000 in 2020). It is the most successful Superman feature film to date in terms of box office revenue adjusted for inflation. The soundtrack was composed by John Williams and was nominated for an Academy Award – the title
theme has become iconic.
Superman (1978) was the first big-budget superhero movie, and its success arguably paved the way for later superhero movies like Batman (1989) and Spider-Man (2002).
The first electronic game was simply titled Superman, and released in 1979 for the Atari 2600.
In a January 1993 issue of Superman, the Man of Steel dies in a battle with the monstrous villain Doomsday. Unsurprisingly, he comes back to life a few months later—with his hair long in the back and short in the front. This much-ridiculed mullet did not disappear until his 1996 marriage to Lois Lane.
In 2006, Superman Returns was released, designed after the 1978–1987 film series. Superman was portrayed by Brandon Routh, who later reprised his role in the Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths (2019–2020).
The television series Smallville (2001-2011) is a reimagining of the Superman mythology, starting from Clark Kent’s teenage years. The series is named after Clark Kent’s home town and focuses on the challenges he faces growing up in the rural midwest, while also discovering his super powers and the details of his alien origins.
In 2013, Man of Steel was released by Warner Bros. as a reboot of the film series, starring Henry Cavill as Superman.