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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Man of Steel: 75 Years of Superman


"Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They 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."
-- Jor-El, Superman (1978)

Exactly seventy-five years ago today, Action Comics #1 was published in 1938 by National Allied Publications, the early version of DC Comics.  The most important comic book ever made featured the debut of the world's greatest superhero, Superman, in a thirteen-page story by Glenville, Ohio creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that paved the way for the entire superhero genre that continues today.

The issue also featured the debut of Superman's love interest (and occasional wife) Lois Lane, who was based physically on Siegel's wife Joanne.  It wasn't long before supporting characters JImmy Olsen and Perry White and arch-nemesis Lex Luthor were added to the world of Superman, which continued to grow over the decades to include Superman's parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, his cousin Supergirl, his Smallville love interest Lana Lang, and a number of great villains including Brainiac, General Zod, Metallo, Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Mongul and Doomsday.

In 1939, Superman became popular enough to receive his own self-titled series, which sold even better than Action Comics.  Just a year later, Superman branched into other media with The Adventures of Superman, a radio drama series starring Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander that ran until 1951.  In 1941, Fleischer Studios produced the first of seventeen Superman movie cartoon shorts that remain some of the best ever created.

Superman continued to grow in popularity and in 1948, the first live-action movie serial starring Kirk Alyn began with a second, Atom Man vs. Superman, following in 1950.  The first Superman featured film arrived a year later, with George Reeves taking over in Superman and the Mole MenReeves remained in the role for Adventures of Superman, the first regular Superman television series, that ran for six seasons in syndication from 1952 through 1958.  Bud Collyer returned for a new series of television cartoons titled The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 that ran for a few years and then in 1973, Danny Dark defined the role for Generation X kids on the various Super Friends Saturday morning cartoons on ABC.

Those Super Friends cartoons were my first introduction to Superman at the age of four, creating my deep lifelong fondness for the character and encouraging me to read his adventures in Action Comics and Superman.  As the adopted son of two loving Midwestern parents, cursed with glasses at a young age, I easily identified with Clark Kent and was constantly inspired by his neverending battle for truth, justice...and simply doing the right thing.

My fan appreciation for Superman was made even more permanent in 1978 with Richard Donner's Superman, starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.  Reeve defined the role of Superman for me and most of my generation in the first truly epic superhero film with gorgeous cinematography, powerful music by composer John Williams, and an incredible cast including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper.  The sequel Superman II folowed in 1981, which helped me get through one of the most difficult times of my young life.

In 1986, DC Comics relaunched its fictional universe in the limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths and restarted Superman continuity from scratch in the six-issue series The Man of Steel by writer/artist John Byrne.  For far too long, Superman comics had lost much of their appeal with bland, repetitive stories and I, like a number of fans, was only checking in every so often.  Byrne's reboot gave Superman's world a desperately-needed cleaning, updating the characters and storytelling for the eighties.  As Byrne continued on with Action Comics and the renumbered Superman series, my interest in Superman was reignited and I haven't stopped buying the comics since.  I attended the 1988 International Superman Exhibition in Cleveland, Ohio, which celebrated Superman's 50th anniversary and gave me the opportunity to meet Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn, along with a number of Superman comics creators.

Later that same year, the syndicated television series Superboy debuted starring John Haymes Newton and later Gerard Christopher.  The series was film at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida and in 1990, I was able to appear as a background extra in the episode "Roads Not Taken, Part II" and managed to get a personally autographed photo from Christopher that I still have to this day.

In 1992, DC Comics began one of the most ambitious Superman storylines ever in "The Death and Return of Superman" saga.  The Man of Steel was killed in Superman (vol.2) #75 by a new creation called Doomsday, in a devastating battle on the streets of Metropolis.  DC left Superman dead for almost a year, with four different Supermen filling in, until revealing the character was slowly recovering in stasis inside the Fortress of Solitude.

Superman returned to ABC in 1993's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.  The show blended superheroics with a romantic comedy, resulting in the long-awaited marriage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane.  In an attempt to capitalize on the event, DC Comics also had the two characters marry in the Superman: The Wedding Album special published that very same week.  On a personal note, my future wife Lori and I spent time together watching the series, growing closer as time passed, and enjoyed all four seasons the show aired.

Superman appeared in animation once again in 1996, with the popular Superman: The Animated Series starring Tim Daly and Dana Delany.  The series captured a lot of what made the original Flesicher cartoons so appealing, while incorporating various elements from nearly sixty years.  As part of an animated universe crafted by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the series carried into a new Justice League animated series starring George Newbern in the role of Superman.

Just one month after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the television series Smallville debuted to an America in desperate need of inspirational heroes and who better than a fictional icon like Superman?  The series starring Tom Welling continued to beat the odds and lasted for an incredible ten seasons on the WB network though its rebranding as The CW.  And thanks to the kind people at DC Comics, I was finally able to contribute my own tiny addition to the Superman mythos by writing four stories for the Daily Planet 2017 newspaper included as an extra feature for the Smallville: The Complete Series DVD gift set.  After all these years of reading and watching Superman stories, the feeling was indescribable.

At long last, Superman returned to the big screen in 2006 with Bryan Singer's appropriately-named film Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey.  Despite pulling in almost $400 million worldwide, the film was considered a disappointment and took the Superman film continuity that began in 1978 into a creative dead end.

2011 saw DC Comics relaunching its fictional universe once again in the five-issue series Flashpoint.  Superman's continuity from 1986-2011 was wiped clean and the character was given a heavily detailed armored look.  In the renumbered Action Comics, writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales took Superman way, way back to his original depiction by Siegel and Shuster as a social crusader.  The character was made single, slightly younger and according to the new timeline, has only been active for five years.

And now in 2013, we're less than two months from another Superman movie, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon.  The third trailer for the film was released earlier this week to rave reactions, promising a different approach to Superman's origin than the Richard Donner film while maintaining elements essential to that film and to the original comics source material.  After replaying Trailer #3 several times, I absolutely can't wait to see Man of Steel when it premieres just two days before my birthday.

Seventy-five years of Superman, the last son of a dying planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities beyond mortal men.  My deepest and sincerest gratitude to the late Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for...well...for everything.

Look.  Up in the sky...

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