Superman is not only the most important superhero in the history of the medium, but he is also the first superhero and the one that started this movement of characters with superpowers that protected the weak and the innocent from various types of evil.
Regardless of what you think about the character of Superman, the whole concept of the superhero started with the Man of Steel.
But now, how was Superman created? What were the concepts behind his design, values, power and stories? We’ll tell you everything you need to know here.
A Relief from Depression
It’s important to understand the context during the creation of Superman and how that played a very significant role for both creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men from Ohio who would go on to define the superhero comic book until our modern times.
1938 was a time where the Great Depression was in full swing and the political climate in Europe was gaining a lot of tension due to Hitler’s action with Germany and Austria. In this situation where tension was building up and the United States was struggling with its economy, Siegel and Shuster took all that frustration, amplified by being two young men who were struggling at the time, to create someone to stand up for them: the Superman.
One of the most interesting aspects of the creation of Superman is the fact that Siegel and Shuster wrote a character that was a power fantasy: an individual that had the power to lift off cars with ease and was out there flying, protecting the innocent and doing justice, which is something that we can really tell by just reading the character’s first adventures on Action Comics.
Siegel and Shuster were friends since they were both sixteen years old and at that age they were already seasoned comic book professionals, writing a lot of science fiction stories that were becoming a lot more experienced and detailed as time went along.
One of the most interesting aspects of the original creative process of Superman was that they were originally thinking of turning him into a villain, but then they got the idea for the familiar concept that we all know about the Man of Steel and the villain concept was quickly cast aside.
In 1933, Siegel published a story in his own magazine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, called The Reign of the Superman, which was about Bill Dunn, a man who is deceived by a mad scientist to consume a dangerous and experimental drug that would result in him gaining multiple powers, such as mind-reading, mind-control and clairvoyance.
While it’s true that this story doesn’t have much to do with the character of Clark Kent/Superman, it’s interesting to see that Siegel already had the name in mind for several years and the concept of the mad scientist was something that he would do later on in the form of Superman’s greatest nemesis, Lex Luthor. You see these little deeds getting more and more developed as the years went by, which could say that Superman was the result of an almost decade-long creation by these two artists.
There have been many different stories and rumors about what was the idea that sparked the concept of Superman as a defender of the weak, with one of the most prominent being the fact that Siegel’s father was murdered by gunshot in 1932 and that impacted his son so much that one of the first scenes of the first issue of Action Comics in 1938 (Superman’s legendary first appearance) shows him stopping a bullet that is aiming to a man that seems to be very similar to Siegel’s father.
Another factor that weighed in was the fact that Siegel, who was heavily invested in the character of Superman, made his alter ego, Clark Kent, a reporter because that was his dream when he was a child. So you can see the degree of interest and dedication that they implemented on the character to make him as unique as possible.
The Influence of Superman
Siegel and Shuster were very determined to make Superman, a character with so much power and capacity to do good, a champion of the oppressed, as the first Action Comics issue says, creating stories where Superman was dealing with abusing husbands, corrupt politicians and even going as far as confronting Adolf Hitler in one issue, which resulted in the two creators receiving the attention of the Nazi media, quickly rejecting their stand on this particular subject.
This was something that really hit home for both creators because they were both Jewish and the anti-sematic nature of the Nazi regime gave them something very important to say to their target audiences, which became one of their main traits throughout their work with Superman and that influenced a lot of people from the Jewish communities, including legendary comic book writer Jack Kirby.
As you can imagine, the character of Superman was an immediate success for the company that published Action Comics, Detective Comics (also known as DC for the vast majority of people all over the world), flying off the shelves from the moment of the first issue. That cover art of Superman lifting and smashing a car with a lot of people running and screaming is perhaps the first iconic superhero cover of all time, which has been referenced throughout the years in various ways and in multiple styles.
And while the character has changed throughout its more than eighty-year-long existence in multiple media (and involved in a lawsuit of the Siegel and Shuster families to DC for the rights of the character), its essence is still the same: Superman is a symbol of hope and a protector of the weak, often trying to help others in any way he can to make a difference and create a better world.
No one can deny the degree of influence that Siegel and Shuster had with Superman in pop culture, creating one of the most important characters in the history of Western civilization.