Written By: Richard Jerome
Who knew, back in 1938? That was the year two young men from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster—the socially awkward sons of Eastern European Jews—sold the first Superman strip to a precursor of DC Comics. In the 85 years since then, the world has known few constants—but their Man of Steel endures, first and foremost among fictional superheroes. The character has generated a vast pop culture industry—comic books, radio and television series, and of course numerous films, including the 1978 classic Superman: The Movie, starring the late Christopher Reeve, which marks its 45th anniversary in 2023. But Superman isn’t merely a commercial juggernaut—he is something more, a transcendent figure, representing human hopes, fantasies, and ideals.
“Superman took on a symbolic, emblematic life surprisingly early in his career—and to a degree that even his most successful superhero peers, such as Batman and Wonder Woman, have never matched,” says Ben Saunders, founder of the University of Oregon Program in Comics Studies and author of Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. Following Pearl Harbor, three years after Superman’s debut, the Man of Steel truly came into his own. “It was a rare period of national unity—when the abiding inequalities and hypocrisies of American life were overshadowed by the looming Nazi threat,” Saunders says. “Superman went from the latest kids’ craze to an emblem of America itself, representing the ideas of ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’ I think that heightened symbolic resonance—or the lingering reverberations of that resonance—have clung to the character ever since.”
Superman’s emblematic power has changed along with the country over the past eight decades. “The truth is that he has always evolved to reflect the zeitgeist and America’s idealized self-image of the time,” says Roy Schwartz, author of Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. “When he debuted in 1938, he was known as ‘Champion of the Oppressed,’ a firebrand New Dealer promoting immigration reform and racial equality. When America entered World War II, Superman changed from rabble-rouser to role model and became a national icon. In the 1950s, he became a patriarchal authority figure and a ‘Big Blue Boy Scout,’ which is the version people remember from The Adventures of Superman TV show starring George Reeves. Then in the 1980s, he became a Yuppie ‘Super Republican,’ embracing the Reagan Revolution and the era’s esthetic. But, for all the changes, he’s still the same guy Siegel and Shuster created. A hero who preaches tolerance for all but the intolerant, and who personifies the indomitable human spirit.”
Whatever Superman represents on a macro scale, he also connects to audiences on a more personal, intimate level. Many, if not most of us, feel from time to time that we’re getting kicked around or bullied by malevolent forces large and small. We see evil people doing terrible things to the innocent—an isolated robbery, rape, or murder; one of America’s daily mass shootings; a genocidal war—and we’re seemingly unable to do anything about it. That helplessness can bubble over into rage or spiral into despair. And so, the idea of an all-powerful, virtually indestructible champion of righteousness can be appealing. Perhaps it’s aspirational—we fantasize that, like Clark Kent, we might duck into a utility closet, change into something a little more superheroic, then fly off to vanquish this or that villain.
“Superman resonates, very instinctively and very universally,” says Schwartz. “He’s the ultimate human fantasy; that our weakness, insecurity and awkwardness are just a facade. That, hidden not too deep, there’s a secret Super-me that’s invulnerable, omnipotent, and confident.”
Jerry Siegel sounded that note when he discussed the character’s genesis in a 1983 interview in the magazine Nemo: The Classic Comics Library. “Joe [Shuster] and I had certain inhibitions . . . which led to wish-fulfillment which we expressed through our interest in science fiction and our comic strip,” he said. “That’s where the dual-identity concept came from, and Clark Kent’s problems with Lois. I imagine there are a lot of people in this world who are similarly frustrated. Joe and I both felt that way in high school, and he was able to put the feeling into sketches.”
Siegel and Shuster both acknowledged that their youthful yearning for unattainable women played into the creation of this square-jawed hunk. As Saunders points out, there is certainly an undeniably erotic component to Superman’s lasting appeal. “One thing I think doesn’t get talked about enough is the sexual nature of the superhero fantasy,” he says. “Superman and other superheroes aren’t just powerful. They are gorgeous and glamorous, and they wear costumes that might as well be painted on. These fantasy figures of glamour and power are then spliced into stories that emphasize ethics, morality, decency, sacrifice. It’s a heady brew.”
An argument can be made—and has been made—that the Man of Steel is a bit bland in comparison with other more flawed and complicated superheroes. Yet Superman’s reign over his fantastic universe remains unchallenged. “In a genre teeming with heroes who are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” says Schwartz, “the one thing Superman still does better than anyone else is inspire hope. That we can live up to our own potential, that we can make tomorrow better than today, that we’re innately good. He makes us look up in the sky and see ourselves.
“Plus, he looks really cool when he flies.”
Here is a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue to Superman.