"Still Going Strong": DC Comics' Superman franchise

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Newsday (Sunday, October 14, 2001). By Frank Lovece. Includes interviews with "Smallville" co-creator Al Gough, DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz, comics historian Les Daniels, Museum of TV and Radio (now Paley Center for Media) curator David Bushman and media scholar and author Dr. Robert Thompson, Syracuse University.

Text of "Still Going Strong": DC Comics' Superman franchise

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    At 63, why does Superman have the power


    nF neur

    Superman, strange visitorfrom another planet




    who, created there bymild-mannered cartoonistsJerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,fights a never-ending battlefor...

    LovncnOOK! Up inthe air-waves! Andthe moviescreen! Andthe Broad-way stage!And theprintedpage! It'sSuperman!"

    Yes, it's

    Qh, you know the rest. Andthat's the point. Supermanand almost everything abouthim


    the big "S," Kr5rytonite,Lois Lane


    are pieces ofAmericana as recognizableworldwide as Mickey Mouse,cowboys, Coca-Cola and.ham-burgers.

    With extraordinary adapt-ability to changing times-

    perhaps his most potentsuperpower


    Superman for60-plus years has remai4ed asymbol for part of how Ameri-cans see themselves. For whilehe's popular throughout theworld, this seminal superhero,the first, the progenitor of all

    to eaptivate us? It's the American way.

  • others, sprang from an art form-

    comic books -

    that is asnative to America as jazz.

    The latest incarnation of th'emythos, the TV series "Small-ville" (premiering Tuesday at 9p.m. on WPIX / t1-), findsl5-year-old Clark Kent (TomWelling) a modern-day Kansasfarmboy awkwardly coming tognps with paranormal abilitiesthat have been developing sincehe came to Earth amid a meteor-ite shower 12 years earlier.There is no costume and caPe,nor is anything like thatplanned.

    The overriding metaphor is ofadolescent awakening. "The

    notion of learning about andcoming to grips with superpow-ers is directly associated withcoming-of-age stories with the'superpowers' of adolescence

    -sexual desire, puberty, all thissort of thing," says Dr. RobertThompson, director of the Cen-ter for the Study of PopularTelevision at Syracuse Universi-ty.Al Gough, who created theseries with Mark Millar, saysthat is just so. "He's a teenagerat the onset of puberty, hispowers are starting to growexponentially


    yeah," Goughsays, chuckling, "I think it's safeto say we're in metaphoric terri-tory."

    The Man of Steel has hadmany incarnations andcontinues to answer ourneed tor a hero as hechanges with the times.At left, it's ChristopherReeve to the roscuo.

    That territory has been hometo the most enduring of thesuperheroes created since Super-nlan's hirth in Action ConricsN

  • STIII GOING STRONGhe was the first madehim popular in the Gold-en Age"


    the periodfrom about 1938 to 1946,when comic books con-taining new material, asopposed to comic-stripreprints, defined them-selves as a unique story-telling idiom.

    That uniquenessevolved from a marriageof form (comic strips,which tell stories insingle or sequentialpanels of art and text)and content (heroic ad-venture fiction in the

    ' tradition of Robin Hoodfolk tales, Tarzan, cow-boy magazine stories andthe protagonists of thethen-current rage, the1O-cent pulp magazines).Yet whereas pulp heroessuch as the Shadow andDoc Savage were extraor-dinary men, they werestill only human.

    Superman creatorsSiegel and Shuster, twohigh school sci-fi fans,made the leap to a super-human hero, albeit inmore than a singlebound. With inspirationfrom, among other things, Philip Wylie's 1930science-frction novel, "Gladiator," a naturalistictragedy of a man with a degree of superhumanstrenglh and invulnerability, they first envi-sioned an evil, non-costumed Superman in the

    ' January 1933 isSue of a sci-fi fanzine they pro-duced.

    By the following year they created a Super-man eomie strip with the basic elements of themythology and spent three years trying unsuc-cessfully to sell it. After breaking into DC Com-ics with characters such as their "Federal Men"'and

    "Dr. Occult," they sold the company "Super-man."

    Born of the Great Depression, Superman origi-nated. as a Nietzschean strongman in the tenorof the times. (In a nod to this, "Smallville" showsClark with a copy of "The Portable Nietzsche"and has Lana Lang teasingly ask if he's "man orsuperman.") The earliest stories depict Super-man as a swaggering, even thuggish championof the people: In early adventures he roughs upwife-beaters, petty criminals and union busters.

    What kept him from a purely Nietzscheanstance was that "superman wasn't a figure ofauthority," says DC Comics publisher Paul Lev-itz. "He was a figure of solution. A figure ofauthority is when people are looking for someoneto tell them what to do with their lives, andthere was certainly a lot of that around theworld in the '30s. But Superman wasn't there totell anyone what to do. He was there to solvethings people couldn't solve."

    The mythology continued to develop -

    notjust in the comic books, but in a radio show,movi6 serials, a 1942 novel and 17 acclaimedtheatrical cartoons. It was the 1940-51 radio

    The image ol the original Superman as heappeared in DG Comics, starting in 1938. Overthe years he has also soared on radio, in mov'ies and on television.

    show, for instance, thatgave us the character ofcub reporter JimmyOlsen and the phrases"IJp, up and away!" and"This looks like a iob forSuperm.an!" (Future TVgame-show host BudCollyer provided Supe'svoice on radio and in thecartoons; actor-dancerKirk Alyn was the first toembody him on film.)

    The 1950s and early'60s brought us, depend-ing on one's point of view,either the silly Supermanor the sci-fi Super-man


    and in this way,from the ridiculous (theimpish Mister Mxyzptlk)to the sublime (the utopi-an vistas of legendaryKrypton), Supermanstayed with the times."Adventures of Super-man,' the highly popularTV series starring GeorgeReeves, kept the charac-ter going strong duringthis.time.

    During the'60s andearly'70s, when DCComics found itself out-paced in the public con-sciousness and eventual-

    ly in sales by rival Marvel and its revolutionary'buperheroes in the real world" approach,Super-man remained a steady presence, joining Bat-man and others in the animated superhero car-toons in vogue at the time.

    Pushed to new prominence with the hit 1978Christopher Reeve movie and its sequels, Super-man underwent a tie-the-loose-threads-togetherrevamp in 1986 anil has continued in popularityon telef ision and in such iconic e\-ents as ClarkKent's headline-making marriage to Lois Laneand, later, his death and resurrection.

    Says Daniels: "I remember Mike Carlin, -who

    was Supennan editor.at that time, saying Super-man's death proved to people hon'much theywanted Superman afber all."

    We still seem to today, although "'today'is aweird concept," cautions Daniels. "'Today' is adifferent concept than it was a month dgo,"before the Sept. 11 tragedy. Since then, saysDavid Bushman, a curator at the Museum of TVand Radio, "the answer to Superman's populari-ty is more apparent than maybe ever. It startswith Superman's tremendous appeal amongkids, having to do with their own fantasies andwish-fulfrllment. But even adults, in times likethese, kind of think,'Wouldn?t it be nice to haveSuperman right now?"'

    That's today. Tomorrow the Man of Tomorrowmay remain r-elevant for other reasons, especial-ly in America. '

    "He's sort of the ultimate American dream,"says "smallville's" Gough. "An immigrant whoenied up in the Midwest and raised with goodold-fashioned American values who goes to thecity and becomes a hero." I

    Franh Louece is a freelance writer.

  • $u GFmil WffimwffiffimwJune 1938: First appearance,"Action Comics" No. 1.Jan. 16, 1939: First daily comicstrip (through May 1966).Summer 1939: First issue of"supermhn" comic book.

    Feb. 12, 1940: First radio show,"The Adventures of Superman"(syndicated).Sept. 26, 1941: First of 17theatrical cartoons.Au9.31,1942: Radio show goesnetwork.

    January 1945: Superboy's firstappearance, "More Fun Comics."1948: First movie serial.March 1949: "Superboy" comicbook debuts.Nov. 23, 1951: First feature film,"Superman and the Mole Men."

    Fall 1952:First TVseries, "Ad-ventures olSuperman"(first-runsyndicationthrough1 e57),March 29,

    1966: Broadwaymusical, "lt's a Bird,It's a Plane, lt'sSuperman."Sept. 10, 1966: Firstanimated TV series,"The New Adven-

    tures ofSuper-man."

    Sept. 8,1973:Animated

    "Superman"movie opens.June 19,1981: "Super-man ll"0pens.June 17,1983: "Super-man lll"0pens.Nov. 23,1984: "Super-girl" opens.

    TV series,'"SuperFriends."Dec. 15, 1978:

    July 24, 1987: "Superman lV:The Quest for Peace" opens.Fall 1988: "Superboy" syndicat-

  • ed TV series debutsSept. 12, 1993: "Lois & Clark:The New Adventures of Super-man" TV series debuts.September 1996: Animated TVseries "Superman" debuts.January 1998: Superman lJerrySeinfeld American Express

    commercial airs during SuperBowl XXXIl.

    0ct. 16, 2001: "Smallville"

    debuts on The WB.

    The Man of Steel has hadmany incarnations andcontinues to answer ourneed lor a hero as hechanges with the times.At lelt, it's GhristopherReeve to the roscuo.

    WB Photo / Brian Cyr