Superman is the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both Jewish immigrants who met in high school, together they became fast friends. By age sixteen they began publishing their own comics.
On April 18, 1938, DC released the first issue of Action Comics with the picture of Superman lifting a car. The rest? Is history. In fact, Superman is one of the most well-known comic book characters of all time.
Naturally, then, Superman is a character with a long history. He has grown and changed with each successive era of comics. Now, we will explore this history below.
Golden Age SupermanDespite his extraordinary abilities, Superman’s popularity is due to how much he reached out to the common man. Action Comics Issue #1 tells the audience this directly.
Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.
In the first few issues, Superman battles everyday evils. He saves trapped miners in a reference to a real-life tragedy that struck Ohio in the 1930s. He also fought corrupt businessman Superman #2 and domestic abusers Superman #3. There’s actually no trace of the larger-than-life villains until later on.
A scientist on a dying planet Krypton sends his only son to Earth. An old married couple then discovers a baby in a crashed rocket, Moses style. They name the baby Clark Kent and raise him as their own.
As he grows up, Clark discovers his extraordinary abilities. He moves from small-town America to the city of Metropolis. There, he takes a job as a reporter and starts living a double life as the costumed hero Superman.
Superman’s origin received several updates over the years, but admittedly, it always follows this same basic formula. The names and details, however, slowly changed over time.
Originally, Clark’s name is Kal-L, and his parents are Lor-L and Lora. A 1942 novel changed the names to Jor-El, Kal-El, and Lara. The Adventures of Superman radio series changed the name of his workplace from the Daily Star to the Daily Planet and named Clark’s boss Perry White. The character of a young reporter named Jimmy Olson also debuted on the radio.
The same serial introduced the concept of Kryptonite a material that poisons Superman. Superman did not learn of Kryptonite or his homeworld Krypton until Superman #61 in the comics.
As the number of comics about him grew longer, Superman slowly grew stronger. However, originally he could only leap 1/8th of a mile at a time. He gained the ability to fly because of the popular Fleischer Cartoons. By Action Comics #1, he could pick up a car, outrun an express train, and was bulletproof.
His childhood is explored in the series Superboy. The series names his hometown Smallville, and his parents Jon and Martha Kent. In this comic, he saves the people of Smallville as Superboy before he moves to the city and becomes Superman.
Silver Age SupermanIn Showcase #4 DC Comics passed the mantle of the Flash from Jay Garrick to Barry Allen. The popularity of the new Flash led to DC rebooting several of its heroes. This kicked off the so-called “Silver Age” of comics.
Older heroes were moved to a parallel universe called “Earth-2,” while the new characters belonged to “Earth-1.” They used this to explain mistakes in continuity. They named Earth-2 Superman Kal-L while Earth-1 is Kal-El. The Earth-2 characters grew up and settled down with Kal-L marrying Lois Lane.
The Superfamily first appeared in the Silver Age. Action Comics #252 The Supergirl From Krypton introduced Kara Zor-El, the cousin of Clark Kent. Krypto the Superdog, Kal-El’s pet on Krypton also appeared. They added more Kryptonian animals: Streaky (a cat), Comet (a horse), and Beppo (a monkey).
Superman finds Kandor an entire Kryptonian city shrunken down and stored in a bottle. A city stolen by the alien foe Brainiac. Inside, he finds even more Krypton survivors.
At this point, Superman’s powers started to get weird. He often discovered new powers as the plot needed him to. Some of the stranger examples are super-ventriloquism, super-weaving, and creating tiny versions of himself.
In fact, the lore surrounding Superman grew so complex that editors began believing that comics were unfriendly to new readers,.
Crisis on Infinite EarthsDC editors wanted to condense the confusing continuity into one single universe. This move promised to give each character one simplified origin and history. Hence, this line of thinking led to DC’s first major crossover event.
In Crisis on Infinite Earths a villain known as the anti-monitor plans to destroy the multiverse. He succeeds partway ending the DC multiverse. Heroes said goodbye to their Earth-2 counterparts. Kal-L, Lois Lane, and Superboy ascended to a paradise dimension.
This event killed a lot of characters, including Barry Allen and Supergirl. (As it turns out, Kara’s death was an editorial mandate to make Clark a more unique character.)
End of the Superfamily
Editors believed too many Kryptonians survived and went about fixing that. In the hardcore Crisis on Infinite Earth TPB Marv Wolfman writes:
Before crisis it seemed that half of Krypton had survived the explosion. We had Superman, Supergirl, Krpto, the Phantom Zone criminals the bottled city of Kandor, and many others. Our goal was to make Superman unique.
They erased the rest of the Superfamily from continuity. Hence, Kal-El never owned a dog named Krpyo on Krypton. The bottle city of Kandor and its residents disappeared into the land of comics past.
However, the Earth-2 version of Supergirl, renamed Power Girl, stayed. In order to keep the character, though, they retconned her into an Atlantean.
Post-Crisis SupermanIn the comic series Man of Steel, Superman becomes the last son of Krypton again. This story updates all of Superman’s regular cast. Plus, unlike in previous versions, Jon and Martha Kent live and become supporting characters.
Man of Steel also changes Superman’s relationship with his alter ego Clark Kent. Previous comics barely gave focus to his job preferring Superman’s adventures. Yet in Man of Steel, his job as a reporter became more important. Superman becomes a costume Clark Kent wears to do good.
The reboot also simplifies Clark’s powers to a few core abilities. He retains his fight, speed, strength, and super senses. However, the character becomes more vulnerable, more human, in order to craft more interesting stories.
That’s not all that changed. Clark’s interactions with his fellow heroes also changes in Man of Steel. Previously, he and Batman teamed up as best friends in World’s Finest. Post-crisis, his working relationship with Batman becomes one of grudging respect. Both the conflict and respect come about due to the difference in the two character’s ideologies.
Post-Crisis Superman is what many consider to be the “modern” Superman. However, this version itself still went through many changes. Several major comic book events have passed between then and now, impacting the character.
The Death of Superman
In 1992, Superman writers decided to kill the character to revitalize him and raise sales.
The Death of Superman is divided into three arcs. The first arc, Doomsday, shows Superman fighting the villain and ends with his death. Funeral for a Friend then depicts the DC universe’s response to his death. The third, Reign of the Superman introduces four new characters to replace Superman.
Two heroes rise up to help replace Clark. Connor Kent, a clone of Superman’s manufactured in Cadmus Labs, becomes the second Superboy. John Henry Irons, a weapon engineer, forges a suit to enhance his abilities. He fights crime as the hero Steel.
A cyborg even pretends to be Superman for a time. Hank Henshaw, an astronaut who lost his body when a solar flare destroyed his ship, believed Superman was responsible for the solar flare because he threw a Kryptonian AI (the Eradicator) into the sun at the same time. He become the villainous Man of Tomorrow to ruin Superman’s reputation.
The Eradicator’s consciousness awakens after Clark’s death. It steals Superman’s body and copies it to create a humanoid form. This, in turn, creates the Last Son of Krypton, a murderous vigilante believing himself to be Superman. Meanwhile, the Eradicator keeps Clark’s corpse in a regeneration matrix to siphon away its powers.
However, the regeneration matrix they placed Clark inside slowly returns him to life. Clark reappears in a black costume without his powers. Although, he regains them after a hard-fought battle with the Eradicator.
Superman: The Wedding Album
In Superman #44 Clark finally proposes to Lois. This follows a year-long breakup between the two characters. However, he did not reveal his secret identity to her until Action Comics #662. They marry after Lois accepts the two sides of Clark. In fact, the two of them stay married up until the reboot.
Superman Red and Superman Blue
This storyline begins with Superman losing his solar-based powers. Afterwards, he gains energy-based abilities. He retains his original powers and gains an energy sense, electricity control, and magnetic tractor beams. However, his powers prove so strong he needs to wear a special blue and white suit to contain them.
Eventually, in the Superman Red / Superman Blue one-shot, Cyborg Superman and the Toy Man teamed up to trap him. The trap split him into two different beings. Red and Blue represent two sides of his personality. Superman Blue uses his brain to solve problems, while Superman Red relies on his brawn.
Both Supermans even competes for Lois Lane’s love. Lois isn’t having it, though, and she eventually tells them to leave until they find a way to reunite. They merge in the Superman: Forever one-shot. Both Superman sacrifices all the energy in their bodies to save the world. Hence, the Red and Blue Supermen die in order to resurrect again as a single Superman.
Infinite CrisisThis event served as the sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The Earth-2 Superman Kal-L and Lois Lane return with several other Golden Age heroes. This event questions if modern-day heroes have become too cynical, and the earth-2 counterparts believe earth-1’s heroes are corrupt.
Superboy Prime also returns in this event. This character actually first appeared in Dc Comics Presents #87, and is based off of the Superboy spinoff comics. He comes from Earth-Prime, an earth without any superheroes. Their heroes only exist as comic book characters. Superboy-Prime gains Clark Kent’s powers and becomes Earth’s only superhero.
He ascends to a paradise dimension after Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, he returns to try to destroy the multiverse. At one point Superboy-Prime even punches reality and brings back Jason Todd from the dead.
Kal-L crosses the multiverse to save Lois-2’s life. He believes bringing Power Girl back to her home universe will heal Lois. This event returned Power Giirl to her original origin as Earth-2’s Supergirl.
The event ends with a major change to Superman’s character. He loses his powers for an entire year!
One Year Later
After the Infinite Crisis, DC introduced a universe-wide time skip. The series 52 covers what happened during the time gap. Classic Superman villain Lex Luthor serves as a major focus of 52.
Alas, Lex loses his money and status. Now bankrupt, he turns into an underground crimelord.
Superman’s story continues after 52 in Up Up and Away. During the time without his powers, Superman fights crime as a journalist instead. As he slowly regains his powers, he faces a vengeful Luthor, who attempts to destroy Superman with Kryptonian battle technology.
Superman regains his powers in time for a final showdown with his old enemy.
Super Family Reunion
After years as the Krypton’s only survivor, Clark reunites with the Superfamily.
First, Superman’s old enemy the Kryptonian criminal, General Zod, returns in a new way. Lois and Clark actually end up adopting the son of General Zod and Ursa. They rais Chris Kent while his parents remain trapped in the Phantom Zone, an alternate dimension where Krypton once sent its prisoners.
Zod eventually escapes and attempts to conquer Earth once more. They manage to stop him. However, this time, the Phantom Zone traps Chris along with his parents. He does not reunite with Lois and Clark until he becomes teenager. Afterwards, Christ takes the title Nightwing.
The most famous Nightwing is, of course,Dick Grayson. However, the term Nightwing comes from a Kryptonian legend. A Kryptonian fAk-Var from the Bottle City took the title of Nightwing during the Silver Age.
Plus, Kara returna in the Superman/Batman comics. Shortly after Kara’s reintroduction, the bottled city of Kandor returns as well in the New Krypton story arc. In this event, the citizens of Kandor escape the bottle. They create a new Krypton planet on the opposite side of Earth’s solar system hidden from the sun.
New 52This event flashpoint reboots the entire DC Multiverse. This erases Superman’s old continuity and replaces it with a new condensed history. It undoes Clark Kent’s marriage with Lois. Jonathan and Martha Kent are also dead in the version. Superman’s costume changes as well, removing his iconic red briefs.
Action Comics tells the story of Clark Kent’s first days as Superman, while the New 52 run of Superman takes place in the present day. It begins with Clark quitting the Daily Planet to work as an independent blogger.
Clark Kent eventually starts a relationship with Wonder Woman. They officially become a couple in the Superman/Wonder Woman storyline. However, the relationship does not last.
RebirthThe New 52 universe ends with the Convergence event. This event brings back the pre-flashpoint married versions of Lois and Clark. In Convergence, Brainiac kidnaps entire cities from several dead or erased universes. Lois and Clark live in one such city, and during their time trapped there, Lois gave birth to Jonathan Samuel Kent.
Rebirth brings Clark’s history pre-flashpoint with the addition of Jonathan. The Superman Reborn arc unite the New 52 and Rebirth versions of Superman. They exist as two different versions of Clark in the Rebirth universe, and eventually merge into one Superman again.
Jon Kent becomes Superboy on his 10th birthday. Later, he also teams up with Batman’s son Damian Wayne for the popular Super Sons series!
Modern SuperfamilyThe Superfamily eventually expanded beyond Kara, Krypto, and Conner Kent post-rebirth. John Henry Irons’ daughter also designs her own Steel suit and joins the family.
Another new character introduced is Kenan Kong, is the Superman of China. While not a Kryptonian, he apparently inherited Kryptonian powers from the New 52 Superman.
Clark and Lois also adopted two new alien children: Otho-Ra and Osul-Ra. They are native residents of Warworld, ruled by the dictator Mongul. The two siblings fight crime together as the Super Twins.
The reboot erases Chris Kent’s history as Lois and Clark’s adopted son. However, he is set to return as a villain in a new series called Sinister Sons. However, seeing as other characters such as Conner Kent have memories of pre-flashpoint, perhaps Lor-Zod might remember his past days in this new series.
Superboy to Superman
A storyline aged up Jon Kent from his ten-year-old self. Using time travel Jor-El visits his grandson. He offers to take Jon on a trip through space. Lois agrees, but only if she could accompany them. This leaves Clark alone on earth.
However, their ship falls into a black hole, separating Lois from Jon. Lois returns instantly to Earth, while Jon crashes into Earth-3. There, the villain Ultraman imprisons him in a volcano for 7 years. When he returns to Earth, only three weeks passed for Lois and Clark, but Jon os now 17.
Jon eventually shares the name Superman with his father. During Dark Crisis, Clark apparently dies with the rest of the Justice League. Jon then steps up as the only Superman while his father was missing. After his father returns, the two of them go back to sharing the title of Superman.
Superman’s Villains Through the YearsA hero is only as good as their rogues gallery, after all. As Superman grew more complex, so did his villains.
Superman’s first villain is not actually Lex Luthor but the Ultra-Humanite. Appearing in Action Comics #13, he is a paralyzed super genius. The modern-day version eventually transferred his brain into a gorilla body.
Still, Lex Luthor is the best-known of Superman villains. His history is just as long as Superman’s.
He first appeared as Luthor, a red-headed mad scientist in a flying city. Luthor lost all his hair due to an artist’s mistake. The red-headed Luthor eventually became known as Alexei Luthor of Earth-2.
Yet Lex did not gain his obsessive hatred for Superman until later on.
DC Comics published his first origin in Adventure Comics #271. This story revealed Lex Luthor and Superman both grew up in the town of Smallville. They started as friends. However, when Luthor’s lab catches fire ,Superboy uses his super-breath to extinguish the flames. This causes a chemical spill that destroys Luthor’s research and causes him to go bald.
This backstory suggests that under different circumstances, Luthor and Superman could have worked together.
The most well-known version of Lex Luthor, though, is his post-crisis self. John Byrne, author of Man of Steel, changed him from a mad scientist to a ruthless ’80s businessman.
Other major Superman villains did not appear until the Silver Age. For example, Brainiac first appeared in Action Comics #242 as a green-skinned alien. He did not become an android until his next appearance.
In some ways, Superman’s most fearsome enemy is and has always been himself. The concept of Superman is an all-powerful hero who uses those abilities for good. Over the years, writers have toyed with the idea of a villain with all of Superman’s strength.
Bizarro is the first character of this type. A defective clone of Superman, his damaged mind makes him unpredictable. He can be dangerous, or just an annoyance.
Ultraman is the first evil Superman from a parallel world. He first appeared in a Justice League of America storyline where they visited Earth-3. The Justice League are villains known as the Crime Syndicate on Earth-3. In actuality, there are many Supermans of alternate earths, but Ultraman is the first one Clark was forced to face.
The idea of Clark and the Justice League ruling the earth later became used in the popular Injustice games. In this version Clark loses Lois and his unborn son in one day. The Injustice series then covers Superman’s slow decline from vigilante to supposedly benevolent dictator.
Post-Modern SupermanSuperman recently celebrated its anniversary with the 850th issue of its solo comic Superman #7.
He is a character who persisted through every major era of comics. The Golden Age created the classic character. While the creativity of the Silver Age expanded upon him. Crisis on Infinite Earths gave rise to the modern-day Superman.
Superman’s writers tried many different things over the years. He’s died and come back, settled down, and raised children. Yet, he’s still stayed the same optimistic hero his creators originally envisioned him as.
As a part of the Dawn of DC initiative, Joshua Williamson’s Superman became the “main” Superman book. Dawn of DC is like a new beginning for the DC Universe as a whole. After reading this, if you want a place to start, try picking up Superman Vol 1: Supercorp.