The Early Superman

Though I was never a regular reader of Superman comics, his presence was felt. In the Justice League comics and on cartoon shows of the era, Superman was always featured, his powers looming large over other characters. His early days as Superboy set up the Legion of Superheroes, which I did read. The multiple members of the Super Family – including non-superheroes like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen – meant Superman was never too far away from any comic in the DC Universe. In television and cartoons, Superman led the way for other comic book heroes.

As an irregular reader, Superman’s influence on me came most directly from the 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve. Its iconic nature stays with me as a memory: I can still remember being in the theater as the film began with a shot of Action Comics #1 being opened. Sitting in the darkened cinema, on the film’s debut weekend, seeing a comic book on the big screen – a comic as a legitimate entertainment option – brought a hope of acceptability for an art form that meant so much to me, yet seemed so demeaned by other’s views. Even now, superhero films have not conferred as much respect on their comic book origins as I had hoped, but there is a grudging respect slowly being offered, if only for the amounts of money these films can make.

Yet for me it is always the story, the myth a story can create no matter the media, which brings meaning to any comic or film. The 1978 film echoed Superman’s character from many of the years leading up to it: Superman as “boy scout,” the doer of good deeds, the protector of truth, justice, and the American way (when the American way was “known,” even through the radical debates on politics and troubling world events of the sixties and seventies). There seemed to be an agreement on what was considered wrong – it was obvious – and Superman was the hero to defend what was obviously right. Even today, with Superman comics intensely complicated over the character’s history, and a trend toward darker heroes, it seems difficult to change the general perception of Superman: he is the truest hero in the minds of most of the public.

As I worked on my book about Marvel Comics, I kept thinking about DC. When thinking and writing about superheroes, the path has to begin with DC and with the original caped hero, Superman. So much has been written about Superman, but I felt the need to gain a deeper knowledge of the hero through his stories, the early stories that were mostly unavailable for reading until the current era of widely available reprints. I wanted to know how this superhero genre got started. I began with Brad Ricca’s bio of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in “Super Boys” and then picked up DC”s “Golden Age Volume 1.” I was rather surprised by what lay within.

Superman begins with an attitude. I wouldn’t say he was a “dark” character, as we know superheroes today, but he is a sort pf smart-ass, more in deed than in words, though examples of both will follow. Superman is more human in the beginning, but also less, in the sense that his knowledge of what is right is true – and he will not be deterred from doing the right thing. When someone is living under some injustice, he does what needs to be done to get a fair, possibly even redemptive, result for that person. Superman, as they say, doesn’t take any guff. He doesn’t presume to act nice to anyone who is not acting nice themselves – Superman wants justice, pure and simple, and he wants it quickly.

In his very first panels, Superman is bounding through the air (unable yet to fly) with a woman who is gagged. We are not introduced to the details, but he leaves her, bound and gagged. He doesn’t have the time to attend to her.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #1), DC Comics, 2016, p.9.

I will admit to being surprised. My impression of Superman, besides being the ultimate hero, was of the gentleman hero – leaving the woman unable to speak or move seemed rather un-Superman like. He then barges into a mansion determined to see someone. As it’s late at night, he is told to come back at daylight. Superman says, “I’ll see him NOW!” and busts open the door. As it turns out, this is the governor’s mansion, so when Superman refuses to listen, and picks the man up and carries him through the house, it is a page of introduction to someone not quite fitting my image of who Superman is.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #1), DC Comics, 2016, p.9.

Besides a rather more direct and almost surly Superman, one of the stranger tropes Siegel and Shuster were employing stemmed from Superman as yet being unable to fly. This two panel sequence from Action #8 illustrates it perfectly, though he seems to be flying, Superman has leaped out a window. When he gets to his destination, he is clinging to a roof to spy on the criminal inside the window, acting more like the Batman than the powerful Superman I know.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #8), DC Comics, 2016, p.103.

Superman’s rough treatment of the governor’s man is really incomparable to what he does to an actual criminal. Later in the tale from Action #8, he confronts a criminal element and is surprisingly cheeky with him, giving him a face-palm with his left hand, knocking the man to the ground with a kind of shove that somehow just seems out of character. The panel also shows Superman with his right hand in a fist and the criminal’s dialogue in the next panel suggests Superman hit him even as he face-palmed him and shoved him down. And then – he’s suggesting he “wants” to do something more to him, taking “another poke” at the prone man just like a street tough.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #8), DC Comics, 2016, p.105.

This kind of behavior was new to me for Superman, but was building a version of Superman that was refreshing, a hero for the streets that took matters into his own hands and dealt with the wrongdoers in a way they could understand. In these early stories, there is no way to escape the wrath of Superman – unless you have a change of heart and truly learn the error of your ways and actions.

The unexpected actions continue for this early Superman, seen here in Action #12. Here he smashes his way into a radio station and deals with the radio show host using the same face-palm (i.e., complete dismissal and humiliation of someone) he used on the previous criminal. Superman then threatens the radio engineer with similarly serious treatment if Superman is not allowed to commandeer the air waves.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #12), DC Comics, 2016, p.159.

Perhaps most unexpected is Superman’s tactic of scaring the pants off the criminals he needs information or changed behavior from. When he confronts a crook and demands a written confession, the guy knows he will go to jail and refuses. What does Superman do? Hang him outside the window, obviously threatening to drop him, until he concedes.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #14), DC Comics, 2016, p.217.

This begins Superman’s tactic of scaring criminals with his super strength – and his menacing personality – to get them to do what he wants. In a clever sequence of diabolical frightening, Superman here punches around a crook into the wall, creating holes around the man’s head, until he threatens to do to the man’s face what he has just easily done to the wall.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #16), DC Comics, 2016, p.247.

This culminates with our more human Superman, one much less omnipotent, allowing a criminal to die. The death is from his own ineptness, but it is a rather surprising sequence to see Superman allow the man to inhale his own poisonous gas and die on the spot, “One less vulture!” as Superman leaves. The now-familiar super-breath seems not to have been invented yet, but without even moving the man out of the range of the poison gas, Superman’s character as a “boy scout” has obviously not yet been built.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Superman #2), DC Comics, 2016, p.289.

Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Superman #2), DC Comics, 2016, p.290.

The more direct, and less powerful, Superman was unexpected, yet refreshing. While the darker heroes of today’s comics bring up issues for us as to who is right, or gets to decide what is wrong, this Superman, confronting criminals, is not wrong – he unerringly knows who the criminals are and does what he needs to do to stop them. The feelings of the criminals are not held as equal to the feelings of their victims: threatening a crook with dropping them out the window is acceptable if they give in to what Superman needs. Still, in another early story, when a crook has a heart attack and dies from this kind of treatment, in addition to this last one wherein the crook is allowed to die in a cloud of poisonous gas, it is still a bit of a shock to see these origins.

Siegel and Shuster’s own origins, including Jerry’s father having died during a robbery at his modest shop, almost certainly set the tone for their new creation. Superman needed to deliver direct justice. His instincts needed to be correct and he needed to help those who could not get real help elsewhere. For two young adults from a typically crime-ridden American city of the thirties, Superman seems to have been invented to eliminate that crime so the lives of normal citizens, not the politicians and the wealthy, could proceed without harassment.

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Joseph P. Muszynski, Ph.D., is a managing editor at the University of Chicago Press. Joe earned his doctorate in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute with a dissertation titled “Structure, Form, and Content: Mythology and Comics.” He blogs on comics and myth at “Into the gap…” ( Check out his book “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” on Amazon. Email him at

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1 Comment

  1. Samil says:

    If you mean superficial things like red pants then yeah, modern superhero movies “missing out”. But if you delwe deep into true history of DC then Zack Snyder’s DCEU films and following films by other directors coming closest to most honest adaptation of, not just one particular “Earth” of DC, but about whole history of DC Comics characters. How they went from very well grounded heroes inspired by sci-fi (and in terms of Superman a missing adressed social-political problems from Doc Savage or Zorro stories as claimed by Siegel and Shuster in one of their last interviews years later) that will to kill to more light hearted corny stories like Superman turned into lion, tiny Batman and giant Batman, etc. But with a balance. And acknowledgment of all previous MEDIUMS, because unlike Marvel Comics heroes, DC’s big ones weren’t built solely by comics (at least not officially). Batman gained bat-cave only in 40′s movie adaptation (or grappling gun, which Batman gained only after Tim Burton movies, even though in comics Daredevil or Cyborg climbed building with them for years while Batman and bat-family relied on ropes), Superman started flying in radio and cartoon adaptations. Etc.
    Though most of this “evolution” was forced by editors. NOT by writers themeselves.
    And some evolution was slowed down, artificially kept out of line. Like K-Metal from Krypton story for example. 1940 story where reader’s would have met with proto-kryptonite, Perry White being named as Clark’s chief, Clark revealing his secret identity to Lois, 50 YEARS before “official” comics made him do that for real. And all that was made by original Creators of character, not by some other writers or artists.

    And now more on subject :
    Going back to character’s roots it’s not only refreshing, but it makes sense on things that initially don’t
    Why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have weapons, even though the punching non-robotic guys with their feet all the time? It’s because it’s cartoon adaptation, in original comics they kill people with them and they even murdered Shredder in the very first issue
    Why Batman uses sharp knives as his primary weapon if he is so against killing anyone, why not use something like sleep gas like Green Hornet? Because original Batman will do what it takes, even it means killing someone, and Robin (yeah, 10 years old Dick Greyson version in funny green shorts) will do to if it’s self-defence or defence of another, or plain clumsiness situation, after all they are just (well-trained but still) humans in light costumes (though even then Batman used armor plates) to move fast not omnipotent gods with ultrafast reflexes.
    Why would you give guy ability to move mountains, reverse time, shoot tiny clones, etc, if at max what he can do to badguys it just grab them and (GENTLY) move them to closest police station and people that he can punch always turn out to be too powerful so he has to trick them? Because original Superman wasn’t that powerful as some of his versions, and even when he could lift cars/throw steelbeams mid-air/change course of flying plane by landing on the ground and jumping up grabbing plane on the fly and it will turn upwards/etc he will sometimes punch badguys, even full force, or throw them (weird how you picked indirect kill, but left cases like when he threw soldier-torturer over a cliff) he has powers and he has his sense of what’s right and wong, and it won’t be necessary be about all this “peace” and “hope” nonsence when people dying at wars or when his friend gets killed by bad car driver (when in process he smashed every car and car factory in town just to force governement for more strict laws, super means for mundane problems, and then get’s justified penalty as Clark Kent in the end). He also isn’t really that all-invincible, there are instances when he hides from big explosions.
    There is also most realistic reaction from people around, including Lois (at their first meet) when they see someone doing super shit Superman did. They get terrified by it.
    First depiction of Kent parents. His father tells little Clark to hide his powers. So it makes total sense why he even has dual identity in the first place (because no one will buy into “kidnap Superman’s friends to make him mad” crap when Superman can already be mad very easily).
    Also you leftout how Clark Kent is shown to be multidimensional persona. Or maybe just didn’t read enough. But there we have (i am speaking exlusively in terms of JS-JS made comics) nice super peaceful guy Clark who won’t pick a fight with rude crooks when they steal Lois from him (counter balanced by Superman that will wreck their car and throw them around, ofc), but also Clark Kent that can point gun to threaten someone and who isn’t always timid with Lois.
    And Lois herself isn’t as 2D “pls marry me Superman” as later comics made her to be. And if we keep in mind stolen evolution from their relationship, it’s whole new character really compared to “classic” Lois.

    It all makes sense when beings of force treated like enforcers, not diplomats or poster boys.

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