85 Years of Superman

85 years ago, in April 1938, Action Comics #1 arrived on newsstands, telling for the first time the story of an orphaned alien baby growing into a man of incredible speed and strength. The issue introduced Superman and his civilian disguise, the famously mild-mannered Clark Kent. The story would be retold and refined several times in the years and decades to come, fleshing out Superman’s home planet of Krypton, introducing his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, and balancing action and adventure with the colourful cast of the city of Metropolis.

Cover of Action Comics 1, showing Superman lifting a car with his hands

The publication of this first issue not only heralded the beginning of the popularity of Superman and superhero stories, but of comic books and their storytelling itself. Before this, comics had generally been relegated to newspaper strips, and typically served to tell a quick joke. Action Comics, and the similar books starting to find buyers at this time, helped the writers and artists to find audiences to tell more detailed, ongoing stories. Twelve months after his first appearance in Action Comics, Superman starred in the first issue of his own, self-titled comic book series, which continues to today, along with cross-over appearances and team ups with other comic book heroes.

Superman moved beyond comic books for the first time in 1940 to radio in The Adventures of Superman. Running regularly for over ten years, the series introduced for the first time elements to the story which would continue. Kryptonite, the one material able to harm Superman, was first defined in the radio show, and each show opened with the famous ‘It’s a bird! It’s a plan!’ now synonymous with the character. Bud Collyer provided the voice for Superman, and effectively demonstrated the shift between he and his alter-ego Clark Kent by dropping the tone of his voice, another character trait retained to this day.

Superman carrying Lois Lane in his arms while flying. A frame from the animated serial Superman.

Bud Collyer continued to voice Superman when he moved to his first screen appearance in the cartoon series by Fleischer Studios. He was joined by his radio co-star Joan Alexander as Lois Lane. Released in cinemas in 1941, the animated serial gave Superman his most iconic power – flight. Previous stories had described Superman as ‘able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,’ but initial attempts at animating this ability reportedly had awkward results. Now, some of Superman’s most memorable moments are scenes in flight.

A live action Superman was seen on screens for the first time in the 1948 serial, simply titled Superman. The Man of Steel was here portrayed by Kirk Alyn, who returned for a sequel in 1950, Atom Man vs Superman. The second serial is notable for introducing Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor to cinema audiences for the first time.

The first feature film to star Superman was Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves as Clark and his heroic counterpart. Released in 1951, the film was originally created as a test for the viability of a Superman television series – an experiment which proved a success. Adventures of Superman launched onto TV screens the following year. Christopher Reeve starred as Superman in a big-budget relaunch starting in 1978, returning the character to the big screen for a series of four films. They would have a further sequel added in Superman Returns in 2006, with Brandon Routh starring. A new film series, launching the DC Extended Universe of movies, commenced with Man Of Steel in 2013, with Henry Cavill as Superman, and his version of the character crossing over into other films in the series.

George Reeves as Superman

Superman has been a consistent fixture on television since George Reeves’s first series. Several animated series have appeared, along with live action series visiting Clark Kent at different points in his life, in Superboy, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and most recently in Superman & Lois. Along with Superman himself, several other Kryptonians have appeared in their own media, including Supergirl, Superboy, and even Kryto the Superdog.

With new comic books being produced each month, and new video games and films in the works starring Superman, the Man of Steel looks set to thrive well beyond his 85th anniversary. Superman’s first screen appearance in his original animated adventures can be found from One More Reprise, along with radio and television episodes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *