He was not born the man of steel the world knows today. He was not called Kal-El, sole survivor of the planet Krypton. There was no Ma and Pa Kent, no Smallville. And the building-bounding, bulletproof skin, and locomotive speed were genetic traits, not the side effects of our yellow sun. But Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and the big S smack in the middle of his blue chest were intact when Superman made his 13-page debut in ”Action Comics” No. 1, which hit newsstands on June 1, 1938.
Superman’s parents were writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The Cleveland neighbors were steeped in Depression-era fantasy, pulp, and cartoon heroes like Zorro, Flash Gordon, and Popeye. Siegel and Shuster concocted an early version of Superman in 1933, but would refine him before selling the character to ”Action” publisher Detective Comics (which would become DC Comics in 1976). Within months after his launch, Superman had a newspaper strip and his own self-titled comic book. Radio serials, cartoons, and movies quickly followed.
”If you’re going to work in this genre, you’re going to trip over the myth that is Superman,” says comics artist Alex Ross, who tried his hand at Big Blue in the award-winning series ”Kingdom Come.” ”He’s on the same level as Mickey Mouse. He’s as important to pop culture as George Washington is to our history.”
But Siegel and Shuster’s golden age didn’t last long. With the Superman rights sold, Siegel and Shuster didn’t earn ancillary profits. In 1947, they sued to get them back and lost. They did agree to a cash award from DC (reports place it between $100,000 and $400,000) and surrendered their claim. For nearly 30 years, as Superman became DC’s signature character and generated hundreds of millions, Siegel and Shuster struggled, and by the mid-’70s, Shuster was reportedly destitute, and Siegel was a postal clerk. In 1975, prior to the release of 1978’s ”Superman,” DC’s new owner, Warner Communications, gave Siegel and Shuster annual stipends and a ”created by” credit in every Superman property. Siegel died in 1996; Shuster in 1992. (Siegel’s estate recently entered into discussions with DC over the copyright.)
And yet, Superman has endured. Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee thinks he knows why. ”Most every guy wishes he could be more than he is. Who wouldn’t love to fly? Who wouldn’t love to be bulletproof? And X-ray eyes! I won’t even get into that.”