Superman: Still flying high at 75
For a guy who's 75 years old, Superman is quite fit and surprisingly hip.
The world's first superhero has been seen in millions of copies of comic books, heard on the radio and seen in multiple TV series and movies - from Kirk Alyn's portrayal in the 1948 serial "Superman" to Henry Cavill in the new blockbuster "Man of Steel," which opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.
In every incarnation, he's a little bit different.
"Superman was, in every era, an evolving character," said Larry Tye, author of the book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, which was recently released in paperback. "He's evolved more than the fruit fly."
When Superman was introduced, in issue No. 1 of Action Comics in 1938, he supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and defended the economically downtrodden. In the 1940s, he took us to war - though he was careful not to use his powers to interfere in the war's outcome. And so on through the decades.
"In every era, he evolved to what we thought we needed," Tye said. "But he stuck to his truest self, to his belief in right and wrong."
It's Superman's acquired humanity that made him appealing to Rebecca Frost, one of the hosts of Salt Lake City's all-female geek-centric Hello Sweetie! podcast.
"In his origin stories, you see more of him as a person, what shapes him into what he is," Frost said. "His influences, like the Kents, make him a good person."
After 75 years, said Mimi Cruz, manager of Salt Lake City's Night Flight Comics, "you'd think there would be nothing new to say."
But Superman endures for the same reason people still produce Shakespeare's plays or keep adapting Jane Austen's novels. "After all these years, it's all about the artistic expression of the writers and the artists," Cruz said.
It was two Jewish kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who first envisioned a superstrong hero in blue tights and a red cape.
To Siegel, according to Tye, Superman was very personal. In Siegel's unpublished memoir, Tye said, Siegel "was giving us the hero he thought could fight back against the neighborhood bullies."
In his research for the book, Tye said he was surprised to discover Superman's Jewish roots. Not only were Siegel and Shuster both Jewish, but the roots of the Man of Steel's powers come from the Jewish mythology of the Golem. And the origin story - of the baby Kal-El (which means "vessel of God" in Hebrew) pushed into space by his parents to be raised by outsiders - echoes the biblical story of Moses.
Symbolism in Superman has also paralleled Christian icons. In the 1978 movie "Superman," it was Kal-El's father, Jor-El, played by Marlon Brando, who talked about how human beings "only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you ... my only son." In the original 1970s productions of the stage musical "Godspell," Jesus wore the big "S" shield on his T-shirt.
Superman fans treat their beloved character with similar reverence and will get upset when someone messes with the character's legend.
One example of this came earlier this year, when DC Comics released "Injustice," a comic-book series that tied into a video game featuring DC characters. The comic book depicted Superman accidentally punching his longtime lady love, Lois Lane, into space, killing her and their unborn child. Fans were outraged.
Cruz chalked up the ensuing outrage to fans who don't separate the main Superman comic books - or, as hardcore fans call it, "the canon" - from offshoot titles (like "Injustice").
"What some writers do is they try to push those emotional buttons on fans and readers, and push the envelope as much as they can," Cruz said.
Playing the part
Throughout Superman's history, Tye said, there has been a back-and-forth between writers and editors - especially as the Man of Steel's story has been handled and shaped on different platforms, including comic books, comic strips, radio, movies and TV.
Sometimes the different groups of writers would add elements to the Superman legend that were incorporated elsewhere. For example, Superman's Achilles' heel - kryptonite - was introduced on the radio before it appeared in comic books. So were Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent's young pal at The Daily Planet, and Superman's famous cry, "Up! Up! And away!"
Editors, Tye said, would "let the writers go out and do their thing. 'We'll manage it,' they would say. 'If he gets too powerful, we'll take those powers away.' ... You could say it was a random process."
The same could be said for the way each fan chooses a favorite onscreen portrayer of Superman.
"Everyone's favorite on-air Superman is the first one they fell in love with," Tye said.
For a lot of Gen X fans, that probably was Christopher Reeve's performance in "Superman" and "Superman II." (The less said about "Superman III" with Richard Pryor or the cheaply produced "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," the better.)
For Tye, who's 58, it's George Reeves, the stalwart hero of "The Adventures of Superman" on TV from 1952 to 1958 (and long after in reruns). Tye knows that Reeves was "the worst actor. He couldn't change the timbre of his voice [between Superman and Clark Kent], and he couldn't change his acting." But Reeves is forever Tye's Superman.
Frost doesn't play favorites. Though she's 24 years old, her first exposure to Superman on the screen was a friend's VHS copy of the Fleischer brothers' old "Superman" cartoons from the 1940s. She watched the TV shows "Lois & Clark" and "Smallville" occasionally, but she gravitated toward the comic books.
"I don't picture any actor as my Superman," Frost said. "Everybody playing him is literally just that: playing him."
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