Thursday, March 11, 2010

Episode #117: Superman At 50 In Time Magazine!

Continuing a look at DC's 75th birthday, this week we look at Superman as he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine for the week of March 14, 1988, in a cover drawn by then Superman writer/artist John Byrne. The cover can be seen at this link:,16641,19880314,00.html, and the article can be read at this link:,9171,966978,00.html. In this episode I'll outline the contents of the article.

It begins with the famous Nietzsche quote, Behold I teach you the superman, and then quotes Superman writer and co-creator Jerry Siegel conceiving a character like Samson, Hercules and every other strong man he'd ever heard of into one man, only more so.

The article then reviews some of the familiar touchstones of Superman's creation: Siegel conceiving of a villainous Superman, reinvented as a hero, collaborating with friend and artist Joe Shuster on a comic strip, the eventual sale to Detective Comics and launch of Action Comics. The article noted that the first issue was worth around $35,000. In recent weeks, here in 2010, a copy sold for over $1,000,000.

In 1988, and still today,Superman is an institution, even if not as many people read his exploits as did in 1988, or before. The article noted that Superman had run continuously in comic books, and 250 newspapers in a comic strip (as Siegel and Shuster first envisioned), a radio show that lasted 13 years, a number of cartoon series (not including Superman: The Animated Series, which would run for three seasons later in the next decade), two 15 chapter movie serials, a TV series of just over 100 episodes, a Broadway musical and five movies. That didn't include decades of merchandising.

David Newman was quoted as saying that Superman was an American myth, as King Arthur was to England. John Byrne, who the article noted was worn in Great Britian, called the Man of Steel the ultimate success story, a foriegner who came to the states and became more successful than he could have been anywhere else. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellson was noted for stating that there are probably only five fictional characters known around the world: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood and Superman.

The article noted that the week the issue of Time appeared on the newsstands was not Superman's 50th birthday. Even though the Man of Steel's birthday is celebrated on Leap Day, February 29th, the month of April 1938 was when Superman was born on the first issue of Action, dated June 1928.

To commemorate Superman's golden birthday, CBS broadcast a Superman special and DC Comics threw a big party. The Smithsonian Institute held a Superman exhibit that would run until June, and Metropolis, Illinois was refurbishing its Superman statue. In Superman's real birthplace of Cleveland, Ohio, a Superman fan club called the Neverending Battle planned its own Superman exhibit and ticker-tape parade. I don't know if they were able to put it together.

The article also mentioned the book Superman At 50: The Persistence Of A Legend, edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle, published by Octavia Press (which was the subject of episode #9 of this podcast). A number of features in the book were mentioned in the article, including the identity of Lois Lane's inspiration, Lois Amster, A Glenville High School classmate of Jerry and Joe's.

Superman's co-creators did not take part in the Superman festivities. Both were 73 in 1988, and lived in retirement near each other. Both had health problems, Joe was legally blind and Jerry suffered heart issues. Superman's creators would both be gone before another decade had passed. Their legal troubles over Superman's copyright was briefly reviewed.

The article noted Superman gave birth to an army of brightly clad imitators. Looking back, it seemed the Drepression strengthened the idea that anyone could make it, noted cartoonist Jules Feiffer. But the article also asked how Superman has lasted beyond the Depression and WWII. Its answers were that Superman was orphaned, like the characters Huck Finn and Little Orphan Annie. He was a foreigner who came to a land built by foreigners. He was one of the good guys, and Superman's violence was never cruel. He used his powers to deflect violence as much as possible.

Also noted were the religious connotations in the Superman story. Catholic priest and novelist Andrew Greeley compared Superman to angels. Others compared his kryptonian name, Kal-El, to the Hebrew syllables meaning "all that God is". Greek and Norse mythology also had stories of gods who dwelled on Earth as men.To me, the closest religious parallel to Superman would be the story of the infant Moses, who was found and raised in the home of Pharoah's daughter.

Christopher Reeve also noted how, on a secular level, Superman was special. He was quoted talking about terminally ill children whose last request was to talk to him, and passed away knowing that someone of Superman's qualities existed. He said that was why he cold never be silly when protraying Superman. He took him seriously, and that is probably why he was the best actor who played the Man of Steel to date.

The Time article noted how Superman has changed and adapted according to the media he appeared in. "Look! Up in the sky!" and kryptonite first appeared on the radio show. The article also mentioned that the Man of Steel evolved as America changed during WWII. Clark took his physical exam for the draft, and was declared 4-F because he accidentally read the eye chart in the next room with his x-ray vision. Superman fought the war on the home front, catching saboteurs. After the war Superman's powers grew as readers seemed to wanted more pizazz.

Superman's history on film was reviewed, from Kirk Alyn's serials, with an animated flying Superman, to George Reeve's flying Superman had better effects, but were not the level of the '70's movies. And, as Alyn noted, his muscles were real under the "S".

The article noted the storm of Dr. Wertham's campaign against comic books. Superman weathered that storm but was more threatened by the changing attitudes of youth during the 1960's, with the Vietnam War and civil rights. Superman began to be seen as out of touch by some. Then the popularity of nostalgia arose, and Superman was revived, most notably, by Superman: The Movie which premiered in 1978.

Lois Lane has transformed over the decades to match the times, the article noted. While she was a pioneering role model, there were real-life female reporters who filled Lois' shoes, Anne O'Hare McCormick, Martha Gelhorn, Dorothy Thomson, Dorothy Kilgallen and others. Lois even broke off romantic notions toward Supeman in the early 1980's.

The article ended with the biggest changes in Superman, helmed by John Byrne. His idea was to bring down Superman's powers so he isn't as omnipotent. At the time the article appeared, Byrne's revamped Superman had doubled sales to over 200,000 copies, a level the best selling comics in 2010 rearely reach. The last sentence hoped Superman would reach 100. In a few years he will reach 75, so it looks like there's a good chance he will. The biggest threat to Superman now doesn't come from kryptonite, but from the neverending legal battle between the heirs of his creator and his publisher. Will the heirs win the fight, but leave the publisher that has provided decades of Superman stories? Or can both sides come to some licensing agreement similar to the ones with the heirs of the creators of Batman and Wonder Woman. The Man of Steel also faces a bigger scientific challenge than Luthor and Brainiac combined, with the rise of digital publishing. Will DC Comics, and the comic book industry in general, learn the lessons of the music industry and find a way to survive and thrive in this digital age? It's a neverending story indeed.

Next week: MegaCon 2010!

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