Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Episode #62: Superman's Origin Stories!

On this week of Superman's traditional birthday, I thought a good topic for this episode would be the many origin stories over the years. Superman's origin has been retold many times over the decades, and has been developed, added to and changed for each new generation of Superman readers.

Superman's original origin was a very brief one page origin at the beginning of Action Comics #1, the June 1938 issue, on sale approximately on May 3, 1938. This brief origin contained the basics of Superman's origin that has remained unchanged for 70 years, even if the details have not. The first panel showed a rocket flying away from a city of collapsing building, barely escaping the destruction of the planet, from old age. The rocket is found by an unnamed motorist who took the infant to an orphanage. This toddler shows incredible strength at the orphanage. The next panel shows the adult, dressed in a normal suit, showing his incredible powers. He can leap 1/8 mile, raise tremendous weights (shown lifting a steel girder), and running faster than an express train. The Superman identity is created so Clark can use his abilities for humanity's benefit. The last panel shows insects who display incredible strength for their size. In this basic origin Superman is shown using his super powers as an adult. There is no Superboy at this point. Superboy did not appear until 1945 in More Fun Comics #101, after DC vetoed the original Siegel and Shuster version a few years earlier, before Siegel was drafted into the army.

The next origin was told in Superman #1 1939, on sale on May 18, 1939. This origin added more details to Superman's origin, and expanded to two whole pages. This origin is the first to mention the Kents being the people who found the infant. The husband is unnamed, but he calls his wife's name Mary. The Kents return to the orphanage to adopt the baby. The orphanage are only too happy to oblige before the terrible toddler breaks everything in their building. The Kents are briefly shown counseling young Clark on his powers. They tell him to keep his powers secret because humanity will fear him, but when the time is right he must use his powers for good. Clark is shown at their graves after they die, then appearing as Superman.

A full origin story did not appear until Superman #53, July/August 1948, published on May 5, 1948, ten years after he first appeared in comics. This story appeared in two reprint editions: The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told (1987) , and Superman In The Forties, both trade paperbacks. The Origin of Superman was written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Wayne Boring and inked by Stan Kaye, during the editorial reign of Mort Weisinger. This story has been reprinted in several editons: The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told (1987 edition), and Superman In The Forties.

Other stories added details to Superman's origin. One example was Adventure Comics #210, March 1955. This issue contained a story which marked the first appearance of Krypto the Super-Dog. In the story we learned that Jor-El launched a prototype rocket, using the toddler Kal-El's pet Krypto as a passenger. The launch was successful, but before the rocket could return, it was knocked out of orbit and floated into space to eventually land on Earth. This story was reprinted in Superman In The Fifties and Showcase Presents: Superman vol. III.

Superman Returns To Krypton, in Superman #61, Nov./Dec. 1949, approximately on sale on September 7, 1949, told the story of Superman discovering his Kryptonian heritage. This story was also written by Bill Finger, with art done by Al Plastino. This story was reprinted in the Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told and Superman In The Forties. I have not read this story, but have listened to the plot, as described by Bill Jourdain on his excellent podcast the Golden Age of Comic Books, episode #42, for August 15, 2006. The enhanced version has cover photos embedded, so you can view them on your mp3 player.

Superman's origin was retold again in Superman #146, July 1961, originally on sale on May 4, 1961. The Story of Superman's Life was written by Otto Binder and drawn again by Al Plastino. This story incorporated details of Superboy's life and the origin of the Superboy / Superman costume, adding details from past stories.

Another retelling of Superman's origin appeared in The Amazing World of Superman (Metropolis Edition) from 1973. Simply titled The Origin Of Superman, the story was reprinted in Limited Collector's Edition presents Superman, issue C-31, November 1974, an oversized tereasury edition. Carmine Infantino did the layouts, Curt Swan the pencils, Murphy Anderson the inks, and E. Nelson Bridwell wrote the dialogue. This story did not add any new details, but touched on general details previously told in past origin stories, including Clark's first name coming from his adopted mother's maiden name, Superboy's special goodbye to Smallville and Superman being granted citizenship in every member nation of the United Nations.

Later mini-series added details to Clark Kent/Superman's back story. World Of Krypton, a three issue mini-series from July to September 1979 detailed Jor-El's life. The Krypton Chronicles, a three issue mini-series from September to November 1981, fleshed out some of the history of Krypton and of the El family line. It included a visit to the restored city of Kandor by Superman and Supergirl, a sequel of Superman #338, the August 1979 issue, published on May 21, 1979. Superman: The Secret Yearswas a four issue mini-series from February to May 1985. It detailed Clark's college career and showed how he matured from Superboy to Superman after defeating Lex Luthor's latest world threatening plot.

The most extensive revision of Superman began after the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series. Superman's new origin was told in the six issue mini-series Man Of Steel, collected in the trade paperback by the same name and still in print. This origin story appeared in bi-weekly issues from July to September 1986. Krypton, instead of being a scientific paradise, was an arid desert world with an advanced civilization, as a result of a terrible civil war eons in the past. (This civil war was told in the four issue mini-series World Of Krypton, which appeared about a year after Man Of Steel.) The citizens of Krpton led solitary lives with few personal interactions because of their advanced technology, allowing them to communicate remotely. Kal-El was not rocketed to Earth as an infant, but came to Earth as an embryo in a "birthing matrix" attached to a small star drive. The orphanage was skipped completely. The younger Kent couple found the infant Kal-El, just before the winter storm of the century snowed them into their home for months, enough time for it to be feasible that Martha conceived and gave birth to the infant Clark. Clark was never Superboy, which messed up Legion of Super-Heroes continuity, and was a football star at Smallville High as his powers slowly developed. There was no Kandor or Supergirl. Kal-El/Clark Kent was returned to his place as the the only survivor of Krypton, which has changed in recent months of Superman stories in 2008/2009.

World of Smallville and World of Metropolis completed the trilogy begun by World of Krypton in filling in the backstory of this new Superman continuity. Issue 3 of World of Metropolis featured the young Clark Kent, after leaving Smallville at the end of Man Of Steel #1, moving to Metropolis after months of travel. In this issue he got a job as a cook at a diner and enrolling in Metropolis University.

Subsequent mini-series developed Superman's origins in his post-Crisis continuity. Superman For All Seasons, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, explored Superman's first year in costume, using the seasons of the year as a framework to tell the story through the point of view of a different member of Superman's supporting cast; Spring was Jonahtan Kent, Summer was Lois Lane, Fall was Lex Luthor and Winter was Lana Lang. This four issue mini-series was published in 1998 and is still in print. Superman:Birthright was a revision of Superman's origin for the 21st century. The twelve issue mini-series was published in 2003-2004, and was written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu. The Kents were made younger, close to the same age of the actors who portrayed the Kents in the tv show Smallville. There is more conflict between Jonathan and Clark. Jonathan feels left behind as Clark/ Superman explores his Kryptonian heritage. This story also details Superman's first meeting with Lex (in Smallville), Lois, Perry and Jimmy. Krypton was revised to be a scientific paradise. and the S symbol had a significance on Krypton, meaning hope for a better tomorrow.

The latest revision began in Action Comics #850, late July 2007, on sale May 30, 2007. Supergirl is stuck in the 31st century, and she is viewing her era through a Brainiac 5 invention. It is part of his research to return her to her correct timeline. We see a reconnection of Superman to the Legion of Super-Heroes as Clark is shown with a Legion flight ring. Kryptonian dress and architecture, similar to that found in Superman:The Movie is shown, as well as a crystalline Fortress of Solitude. A new Superman origin will appear later in 2009: Superman: Secret Origins, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank. A panoramic cover art, showing a young Clark Kent in a Superboy costume, hints at a possible return of Supeboy to Legion continuity. (This is a slight surprise, with the ongoing Superboy litigation between DC Comics and the Siegel heirs.) With recent Johns/Franks stories, this new origin promises to be an excellent story and I can't wait to see it published.

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Thanks for listening to Superman Fan Podcast, and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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