Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 with a publication date of June 1938, although the issue was almost certainly on newsstands in April 1938 because of prevailing magazine distribution processes. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the success of Superman created a new genre of comic book feature, the superhero comic, which featured costumed heroes with powers obtained through accident, birth, science, or effort. Superman, then, refers to a specific character but is also used more generally to refer to someone with extraordinary qualities. This latter usage predates the origin of the superhero character with newspapers like the New York Times often labeling a person or character—for example, President Herbert Hoover or Fu Manchu—a superman (May 10, 1931, and November 27, 1932).
Two related issues figure in any consideration of Superman: first, the origin of the word and, second, the nature of superheroes who mostly operated outside of legal frameworks. The origins of the use of superman as a common word lay in the loose English translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch, a word more complex in meaning than simply a superman. Nietzsche’s übermensch and the associated will to power (understood in part as making oneself a superman through self-discipline and thus achieving broader power and overcoming the individual self) cast a negative, fascist-like shadow on much of the use of superman. Used by George Bernard Shaw in his 1903 play Man and Superman, the word rapidly became bastardized to refer to people capable of outstanding feats. Nonetheless, the term superman retained its negative connotations, and indeed Jerry Siegel’s first use of it occurred in a 1933 fanzine story illustrated by Joe Shuster in which a man empowered by a scientific development uses his new superskills only to enrich himself (Regalado 2007). Just why Siegel called his character the “Superman” is unknown. In the five years preceding that story’s publication, however, over two hundred New York Times articles contained a mention of a “superman.”
The word superman then carried a range of connotations, from the heroic to the villainous, and any consideration of superhero comics should pay some attention to the ways in which being super constructs their characters. Siegel and Shuster’s use of it for their 1938 character gave the word a heroic inference, but their hero was given to taking action without necessarily thinking of the consequences, For instance, in Action Comics #8 (January 1939), Superman knocks down slum housing so the government will be forced to replace it with splendid high-rise apartments. The action places him outside of the law, even if the local police chief admires his action and shows little concern for the daily lives of the slum residents who, although evacuated before the destruction, have no say in the decision and live with the consequences. The tension between the valiant nature of characters and the conceit of the rightness of their cause simply because of their superness has been an issue of some debate over the years, and the reflex action of academics has been to link this to fascist ideology. In 1945, a Jesuit priest, Walter Ong, claimed that Superman and by extension superheroes were true to their source in Nietzschean philosophy, although he suggested that the mere name damned the character by association rather than making an argument. Later, in the early 1970s, Wolfgang Max Faust (1971), a German academic, argued that mere publication of superhero stories created fascist-like dependency on heroic individuals because readers of such comics would infer the irrelevance of their own agency. If these opinions contained a kernel of truth, they lacked any analytical force based as they were on assertions and the thinnest awareness of the contents of Superman stories. Ong cites no comics, and Faust based his argument on just the title page of Action Comics #368 (October 1968); his argument ignores the thrust of the two-part story by Otto Binder in that issue and the next that questions the premise of Superman’s greatness and reveals him to be flawed in his understanding of the need for heroics.
The Second World War threw the problem of Superman’s superness into sharp relief for his publisher, DC Comics, not so much because of associations of his name with fascism, but because a creature so empowered could easily finish the war. The solution was that DC had Superman affirm his faith in the American people as the purveyors of democracy and capable of defeating fascism without his help. Thereafter, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Superman’s powers were attenuated by a variety of factors: a weakness to Kryptonite, his human identity as Clark Kent, his pal Jimmy Olsen, his girlfriend Lois Lane, and a series of very human problems that played out in Superman comics alongside the heroic stories.
The tension contained in the word superman also finds expression in different interpretations of Superman’s character. Superman, in his first comic book story, arrived fully formed as Superman. His powers were simply part of his being and not acquired. Yet to realize those powers, Superman had to behave in human ways. Many comic book stories had Superman try to be Superman without Clark Kent or Clark Kent without Superman. The question of whether or not Superman is a human or an alien entity also crops up from time to time. The resolution of these stories usually insists that he is both: Superman cannot be Superman without being Clark Kent and vice versa. Superman learning to be Superman by coming to terms with his humanity first—and by extension with the powers he possessed—found major expression in the 1978 film Superman, in which Christopher Reeve as Superman only appears almost a third of the way into the film. The narrative possibilities of that approach were strong enough to carry ten seasons of the television series Smallville (2001–11), in which Clark Kent only donned the Superman uniform and took that name in the final episode.
In his 2004 film Kill Bill: Volume 2, director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino had the eponymous Bill offer a monologue on Superman in which he argued, “Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.” Tarantino’s monologue drew heavily on Jules Feiffer’s 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes in its understanding of Clark Kent being the disguise. But Feiffer made the point that Kent’s purpose was to humanize the character, to suggest that the mild-mannered (readers of the comic book) might just aspire to more. As Tarantino has Bill frame the issue, Superman’s alter ego is a decision he made, but of course Siegel and Shuster’s Superman is not real and was created by the writer and artist. For all the iterations and bastardization of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, just maybe this is the essential meaning of their Superman: aspiring to be more, to be better than our found or known selves. That Superman in the hands of many creators has not met that challenge is in some ways yet more proof that this figure is a very human undertaking subject to failure—which is to say, Superman is not always particularly a superman.
But then again, the demands of the Superman serial narrative stretched over eighty years require the character to be super. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1986 comic Watchmen is often held up as the moment when writers began to examine the nature of superheroes, but Otto Binder took tentative steps in that direction in the aforementioned 1968 story, and in Superman #247 (January 1972), writer Elliot Maggin more directly did so when he had Superman question whether he had been making decisions—and enforcing them because he could—without regard to the role of self-responsibility in the development of human potential. This story was one of the first to open up the narrative possibilities of this tension in the nature of Superman and superheroes as vigilantes or benevolent potentates, which has become one of the mainstays of superhero stories in comics and films, including Watchmen and Marvel’s Civil War comic books and the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War.
The Superman name has become iconic in American—and indeed global—culture in part because of the sheer amount of product bearing the name. Superman exists or has existed in a comic strip, radio serial, several live-action television series, animation of various sorts, and numerous films, just to name his media incarnations (Gordon 2017). Legal scholar Mitchell Adams has shown the international reach of Superman through an analysis of DC Comics’ extensive filing of trademark registrations for its characters across numerous countries, including the European Union, Brazil, and Korea (2019). These filings underpin Superman’s widespread appearances in, or on, a variety of goods and services. These appearances, in particular the use of the Superman symbol from his chest insignia or chevron, circulate the notion of Superman more broadly, often without using the word itself (Gordon 2016). Like the Nazi swastika before it and the Nike swoosh tick after it, the Superman symbol is an emblem that is recognized throughout the world, as are the characteristics attributed to the symbol. However, unlike Nike, which in addition to the swoosh needs a slogan, “Just Do It,” Superman is his own slogan, recognizable the world over as a comic book superhero. Yet just what Superman designates even simply as a “superhero” is a situational negotiation between power and the need to hold it in check with notions of human limitations. For comics scholars, there is much to be limned here in the many ellipses necessary in Superman’s narrative for this tension to be an effective storytelling prospect.