Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steelby Les Daniels, Chip Kidd
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The first, the strongest, and the most enduringly popular super hero has been captivating audiences around the world for 60 years. Since his humble comic book beginnings in 1938, Superman has conquered every dimension of media entertainment, launching
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The first, the strongest, and the most enduringly popular super hero has been captivating audiences around the world for 60 years. Since his humble comic book beginnings in 1938, Superman has conquered every dimension of media entertainment, launching radio and television shows, major motion pictures, books, toys, and more. Now take a nostalgic, colorful, and entertaining look back at the first 60 years of this cultural iconfrom his scrappy beginnings as a Depression-era champion of justice to the modern mega-hero of today. Designed by Chip Kidd and boasting hundreds of examples of rare comic book art, interviews with writers and artists, working sketches and original character designs, Superman: The Complete History will satisfy the collector and captivate fans of all ages.
1998 DC Comics. SUPERMAN, all titles, characters, their distinctive likenesses, and related indicia are trademarks of DC Comics.
- Chronicle Books LLC
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Read an Excerpt
An Excerpt from Superman: The Complete History
When Superman burst onto the scene sixty years ago there had never been a character quite like him, and he remains unique today. The innumerable imitators who followed in his wake have acknowledged his priimacy by taking on the title of super hero, but Superman did more than start the trend that came to define the American comic book. His influence spread throughout all known media as he became a star of animated cartoons, radio, recordings, books, motion pictures, and television, while his image appeared on products ranging from puzzles to peanut butter. He is perhaps the first fictional character to have been so successfully promoted as a universal icon, yet he also continues to remain a publishing phenomenon whose adventures appear in no fewer than five monthly comic magazines. This triumphant mixture of marketing and imagination, familiar all around the world and re-created for generation after generation, began humbly with an infant art form in search of a subject, and two teenagers with an improbable idea.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both born in 1914, first met around 1931 when they were students at Glenville High School in Cleveland. Shuster, a native of Toronto, had recently moved into the neighborhood, and Siegel sought him out after hearing that the new arrival was an artist. "Joe and I were tremendous science fiction fans," recalled Siegel. Their friendship was forged out of a shared enthusiasm for the first magazines to publish the genre regularly, including Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. They were also interested in films, particularly those that showcased the swashbuckling exploits of silent screen star Douglas Fairbanks. In addition, they were fascinated by the newspaper comic strips of the day. "At the time that we became interested in the comics field," Siegel said, "the two outstanding adventure strips were Buck Rogers and Tarzan." Drawn by Dick Calkins and Harold Foster, respectively, these two features had introduced new elements of fantasy into the field when they first appeared in 1929. Comic books were still almost unheard of, so Shuster clipped and saved the colorful Sunday pages drawn by his favorite artists.
Conventional wisdom held that such interest in the more lurid aspects of the day's pop culture did not bode well for the two poor boys living in the depths of a disastrous economic depression, but the pair clung to the hope that such escapism might also provide them with an actual avenue of escape from the gray realities of daily life. When no money could be found to heat the Shuster apartment, Joe had to wear gloves while drawing. Jerry's after-school job as a delivery boy brought in four dollars a week to help keep his family afloat.
Most of the boys' energy was directed toward work on their school paper. Joe drew humorous cartoon features for the Glenville Torch, and most of Jerry's prose had a similarly comedic slant. Among his contributions was a series of short stories, illustrated by Joe, about "Goober the Mighty." This character was a parody of Tarzan, and the mockery indicated a certain amount of ambivalence about the idea of aggressive, muscular heroes. "In a fit of superhuman energy," Siegel wrote of Goober, "he snapped a twig between two great hands." Still, these tales from 1931 represent the first time the team toyed with the idea of a powerful protagonist. When they returned to the theme again, the superman they created would be a villain.
Outside their worlds of fantasy, Siegel and Shuster were classic nerds: bespectacled, unathletic, shy around girls. It's hardly surprising, then, that many of their dreams centered on omnipotence. While Shuster applied himself to lifting weights, Siegel began envisioning a man of limitless might. Given his unarticulated agenda of creating a modern myth that would both embody adolescent angst and offer a palliative for its pains, it's hardly surprising that it took Siegel several years to come up with the final version of Superman. What's amazing is that he ever got there at all.
While they found some satisfaction in amusing their fellow students, Siegel and Shuster's goals were a little loftier. In fact, Siegel was regularly submitting samples of his prose to the science fiction pulps, but no sales resulted. Eventually they decided to start their own little magazine, with Jerry as editor and Joe as art editor. Entitled Science Fiction, the mimeographed publication made its debut in October 1932. The preceding month, two New York youngsters named Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz had started a journal of news and gossip called Science Fiction Digest. These magazines, available by mail to those in the know but unseen by the general public, constituted a method of networking long before the dawn of the computer era. "One of our first subscribers was someone named Jerry Siegel from Cleveland, and he said he loved the magazine," said Schwartz, who believes it helped inspire Siegel to start a magazine where he could publish his own fiction. "Jerry wrote story after story," recalled Schwartz, "and got rejection after rejection."
"Joe and I enjoyed the pulp magazines and we two wanted to come up with some sort of heroic character," Siegel said. Pulp protagonists of note included a dark avenger called the Shadow and a scientific mastermind called Doc Savage; even the comic strip favorites Tarzan and Buck Rogers had first appeared in prose form in the rough paper pages of the pulps. Siegel and Shuster made Science Fiction (subtitled "The Advance Guard of Future Civilization") look as much like one of the professional pulp magazines as they could, with Joe's illustrations drawn in a strong style that stood up to the crude printing process. Acting as his own editor, Siegel published his short story "The Reign of the Superman" in the third issue of Science Fiction (January 1933). His first strongman, Goober the Mighty, has been a clown, and his first Superman, Bill Dunn, would be a megalomaniac.
"The Reign of the Superman" is set pointedly in the Depression of the 1930s. Bill Dunn is a homeless derelict snatched from a breadline by Professor Ernest Smalley, who needs a subject for an experiment. In a variation on the Frankenstein theme, Smalley creates a monster called the Superman out of Dunn. After being treated with an unknown chemical, Dunn escapes and gradually achieves extraordinary mental powers, which begin with telepathy and expand until he can control the thoughts of any individual he chooses to possess. As a diversion he casts his mind into outer space and views a battle between strange creatures on the planet Mars, but his more practical goal is to achive wealth, first through mental mugging, then through gambling and stock manipulation. When Smiley realizes what he has wrought, he plans to take the treatment himself, but he is killed by the Superman, who will tolerate no rivals. Dunn uses his powers to disrupt a peace conference, reasoning that war and chaos will pave the way for his conquest of the planet. The world is spared at the last minute when the effects of the experiment wear off, and Dunn shuffles away to be a forgotten man again.
Siegel seemed to be saying that the powers he could imagine would be too much for any mere human to handle, and that was the end of Superman -- at least for the time being.
Jerry Siegel's first Superman story features an ugly, evil Superman who seems completely different from the later incarnation that is so well known today. Yet there are interesting points of comparison between the two versions. The first Superman was an Earthling, but his powers came from exposure to an element found in a meteor from outer space. So the extraterrestrial concept was already in place, as was the notion of an alien rock with great powers (later to be introduced as a menace to Superman called kryptonite). And years before the creation of Clark Kent, Siegel paired his wicked but seemingly omnipotent Superman with a reporter who was not quite as helpless as he seemed. The fact that the two of them were meant to be part of a matched set was emphasized by Joe Shuster's bold drawings showing the duo confronting each other on facing pages of the magazine.
Siegel also employed some in-jokes. He published the story under the alias Herbert S. Fine, combining his mother's maiden name with the first name of the cousin who had introduced him to Joe Shuster, and he called his reporter hero Forrest Ackerman in honor of the science fiction fan who would later edit the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and coin the term sci fi.
Excerpted by permission of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 1998 by DC Comics.
Meet the Author
Les Daniels is a renowned comic book expert. He's the author of DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
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