Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Birth of the Superhero

April 15, 1938

Comic books were just a few years old when the red-caped figure, lifting a 2-ton car as if it were lawn furniture, graced the cover of Action Comics No. 1. Superman was the creation of Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (illustrator). They envisioned him in 1932 and for six fruitless years tried to get him into print. In early 1938, comics publisher Max Gaines (whose son Bill would publish Tales from the Crypt and Mad in the '50s) recommended the lads to DC Comics. Finally someone said yes. From that first issue, the character was fully formed: he could "hurdle a 20-story building ... run faster than an express train ..." and still, as Clark Kent, never impress newsgal Lois Lane.

The final panel seemed boastful — "Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!" — but was simply prophetic. To Americans deep in an economic Depression and hearing the drumbeats of European war, the Man of Steel offered both escape and hope. Readers loved him, and, in a trice, gaudy imitations (Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America) were clogging the racks. Superman spun off into half a dozen TV series and several generations of movies; his example inspired the Daredevils and Spider-Men of a later era. Yet Siegel and Shuster saw little of the profit DC made from their character. Not until 1975 did the company agree to pay a modest annuity to the men who had created the comics' first and most enduring superhero.