The world’s most famous superhero, Superman (Clark Kent) began as a human supervillain and ended up as an alien immigrant who chose to protect the planet on which he was raised.
Superman is the standard by which other heroes are judged.
When people ask if Flash is really the ‘Fastest Man Alive’, they’re probably not thinking about a race between Flash and Batman. When people ask if Batman even is a superhero, they’re probably wondering about whether or not he even has superpowers.
Superpowers – even the name we give the special abilities shown by comic characters comes from Superman!
Superman is, simply put, not A superhero – he’s THE superhero. He wasn’t the first superhero (not even in modern comics), but nobody can argue that he doesn’t remain the archetypal superhero to this day.
With his iconic red-and-blue outfit, and his caring nature, this alien who calls Earth home is easily one of the most important fictional characters who ever existed.
Superman: Real-world origins
In the early 1930s, Jerry Siegel was a budding student writer (pen name Herbert S Fine) who self-published a sci-fi anthology magazine, which means that the magazine would contain many short self-contained stories.
One such story was ‘The Reign of the Superman’, which was illustrated by a fellow student and aspiring artist, Joe Shuster.
The story revolves around a bald homeless man named Bill Dunn, who agrees to help a mad scientist with his experiments. Dunn is given an experimental serum that grants him mind-based superpowers – mind control, telepathy, that kind of thing. Dunn soon goes mad with power and treats other humans as his playthings, often being needlessly cruel. Eventually, the serum would wear off, and he’d find himself homeless again.
The story was the first time the name Superman had been used, but that character was a far cry from the beloved DC Comics icon of today.
Siegel and Shuster decided to make the move to newspaper comic strips, wanting to get away from sci-fi and more into comedy and adventure. Their Superman character, who they already thought was excessively powered, didn’t impress newspaper editors. Siegel and Shuster were told to ramp up his powers even more, but they didn’t agree: What was needed was a completely new set of powers, which were more physical in nature (such as superhuman strength and nigh-invulnerability).
They also decided to make him a superhero, because heroes were more popular than villains, so they’d be more likely to be able to sell their comic strip to a newspaper.
The reworked Superman still didn’t interest newspaper editors, so they changed tack: They started contacting artists instead, while still fleshing out the character.
At this stage, Superman was actually a human infant who’d been sent backwards in time right before the Earth exploded, and the time machine (not the alien spacecraft) is what’s discovered by the Kents (who were named Sam and Molly in this iteration of the story).
Eventually, Siegel and Shuster decided that Superman should be from another world, and set about designing his costume. They then fleshed out his secret identity (‘Mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent’) and created Lois Lane. They also created Lex Luthor, whose bald appearance was copied from the original Bill Dunn version of Superman.
After years of working on the character, they were able to achieve their goal of selling the rights for the character to DC, which was standard practice at the time.
Their hard work would pay off, and Superman would appear in the very first issue of a new title, Action Comics – which is still running to this day.
Superman would soon become the best-selling superhero character for not just DC, but across all of America – and he’d maintain that accolade for the next 50 years.
Superman: in-universe origins
Millions of light-years away, a planet named Krypton was slowly breaking apart, due to the way the inhabitants had treated their environment.
A scientist on that planet, Jor-El, had made a tiny spacecraft so that his infant son could be saved. Looking for a planet with an appropriate atmosphere, Jor-El was forced to settle for an obscure and distant planet known as Earth. Although the yellow sun and low gravity of the planet might affect the physiology of his son in some unforeseen fashion, it was better than the alternative. The scientist and his wife said goodbye to their son, and sent him on his intergalactic way.
The spacecraft had barely left the atmosphere when the planet heaved and splintered into millions of shards, some of which would even make it all the way to Earth, completely independent of the infant-carrying spacecraft.
The alien craft would crash-land on a road in a rural area of Kansas, near a town known as Smallville.
Seeing the craft crash, a barren Smallville couple named John and Martha Kent went to investigate. They took the baby and raised him as their own, naming him Clark, and keeping (but hiding) the spacecraft and everything in it.
As the boy reached puberty, he began to exhibit strange powers. Realising that it was time to tell him the truth, they told him of his origins and showed him the spacecraft wreckage. The spacecraft, amazingly, still had working Kryptontian technology on-board. Clark found out his birth name was Kal-El when he was able to speak to his sire’s hologram.
His father’s hologram explained that, due to the yellow sun and weak gravity of the planet Clark lived on, it was very likely that he would have have powers well above and beyond normal Earthlings. His father suggested that, as Clark had survived long enough to come of age, that perhaps he’d made Earth his home. He then implored the teen to use his powers to protect his new home, and make sure that it didn’t suffer the same fate as Krypton.
His adopted parents agreed, but they also wanted Clark to have a normal life.
Perhaps Martha Kent had made it for him, or perhaps he found it in the ship, but Clark now owned an outfit that he could wear – an outfit that would separate him from his Clark Kent identity, and hopefully keep it safe.
Strangely, Clark would find shards from his homeworld which had landed on Earth, and they’d make him weak – sometimes even removing his powers completely. He called these shards Kryptonite.
Clark found he had a talent for journalism, and eventually moved to a large city called Metropolis to work for a newspaper named The Daily Planet. One of his fellow workers, a reporter named Lois Lane, began to follow stories of a superhuman hero who’d save people in danger and then fly away before anybody could get a good look at him.
She’d coin the name that would make him famous world-wide: Superman.