Superman is easy to take for granted. He is one of the most well-known and popular characters of all time, known by all and loved by most. It almost seems as if the colorful, caped symbol of truth, justice and the American way has simply always been around. But in true superhero fashion, he has an origin story.
It all began with Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and Joseph “Joe” Shuster, two residents of Cleveland, Ohio. Siegel had been a resident of Cleveland since birth, and Shuster (originally from Toronto, Canada) had moved there with his family when he was ten years old. They had much in common: both shared the plight of being small, poor, and unpopular; both were Jewish; both were avid fans of science fiction; both had an interest in the newspaper business; and both had artistic skills and ambitions. Siegel had already written and published (using a hectograph) the science fiction fanzine Cosmic Stories. Shuster had been drawing on every piece of paper he could get his hands on for years. It seems a matter of fate that they would meet and combine their talents.
Shuster had loved comics ever since he was a toddler, when his father would put him on his knee, unfold the full-color comics page of the Toronto Daily Star, and read such strips as Barney Google, The Katzenjammer Kids, and his favorite: Little Nemo. It was the imaginative visions of the future and other planets in Little Nemo that had first instilled in him a love of science fiction, and the fond memories of the Toronto Daily Star that had led him to seek work in the newspaper business. As soon as he got the chance, he became a paperboy for the Daily Star. After moving to Cleveland, he enrolled in Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, where he worked on the comic strip Jerry, the Journalist for The Federalist, the school paper. Jerry, The Journalist was written by none other than Jerry Fine, Siegel’s cousin.
Siegel also had an interest in comics, to the point that he even started collaborating with a cartoonist by mail. In 1931, he mentioned his interest in comics to his cousin, who in turn told him that Shuster would be soon moving into the neighborhood, and that the two should get together. He was right; they met and quickly became friends and collaborators that year, while working on The Torch (Glenville High School’s newspaper). Both were about 16 years old at the time.
Siegel and Shuster’s first published collaboration was a fanzine entitled Science Fiction: The Vanguard of Future Civilization, which they printed with Glenville High School’s mimeograph machine. Contributors to this magazine, the first issue of which was published in October of 1932, included future legends Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman, and of course Siegel and Shuster themselves. For a story in the third issue (January 1933), Siegel drew upon the well-known Superman archetype, a theme at least as old as Samson and Hercules. But his story, “The Reign of the Superman”, (which he wrote under the pen name of Herbert S. Fine, and for which Shuster provided illustrations) featured a variation on the theme. The “Superman” of this story was a homeless man named Bill Dunn, who was given immense intellectual and telepathic powers by a mad scientist. He used these powers for selfish gain. At the end of the story, he lamented, “I see, now, how wrong I was. If I had worked for the good of humanity, my name would have gone down in history with a blessing—instead of a curse.”
A few months after the publication of “The Reign of The Superman”, it occurred to Siegel that a Superman who used to his powers for good instead of evil might have more potential. He envisioned a character in the vein of Tarzan, but who would make his home in the “concrete jungle” instead of the wilds of Africa. This Superman, like Bill Dunn, was to be given his powers by a mad scientist. However, he would use them for good instead of for selfish gain. Siegel and Shuster quickly made a black and white comic book featuring this character, and submitted it to Consolidated Book Publishers of Chicago, publishers of the comic book Detective Dan. But the publishers decided to cease production of comic books, as Detective Dan had been selling poorly.
Siegel decided that he might have a better chance at selling comics to a publisher if he could collaborate with a well-known artist. So he ended his collaboration with Shuster and wrote to a number of artists, including Hal Foster, who drew the Sunday Tarzan strip; legendary illustrator J. Allen St. John, who had illustrated a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books; and Leo O’Mealia, who drew the Fu Manchu comic strip. After learning of Siegel’s correspondence with O’Mealia, Shuster burned all of The Superman except for its cover in a fit of anger and frustration. (In later interviews, Siegel and Shuster left out any mention of Shuster’s feeling of having been betrayed, and framed the incident as a consequence of his frustration from The Superman going unpublished.) Siegel then wrote to Russell Keaton, who worked on Buck Rogers and his own Skyroads strip. Keaton provided some samples of artwork for a Superman strip, but later backed out, probably because of Siegel’s lack of experience or expertise.
In his correspondence with O’Mealia, Siegel had outlined an origin story that would have brought a new meaning to “Man of Tomorrow”: In a distant future populated by advanced superhumans, the Earth is about to be destroyed. Just before it explodes, a scientist hurriedly enters an experimental time machine and sends himself hurtling into the past. He lands in 1930s America. In Siegel’s later correspondence with Keaton, this story was tweaked somewhat. This time, the scientist placed his infant son, not himself, into the time machine. This story bears a striking similarity to that of Moses, who was likewise put into a small vessel by one of his parents and sent somewhere where he would have a better chance of surviving. Early material detailing this version can be seen at this link.
One night, Siegel had a hard time falling asleep. As he lay in bed, his active mind began formulating ideas for a new character. As each idea popped into his head, he would get out of bed and write it down. Bit by bit, the character took shape in his mind. Like he and Shuster, this character would appear meek and unimpressive. People would mostly ignore him, and sometimes even look upon him with contempt. Women would barely acknowledge his existence. But he had a secret: the unassuming guise was just an illusion. In reality, he was super-strong, super-fast, super-heroic, and to top it all off, just plain super. His meek, bespectacled appearance was just a way for him to go unnoticed and lead a normal life when he wasn’t doing heroic deeds. After all, who would ever suspect that this timid, apparently vision-impaired man could perform feats that would make Hercules stare in awe? Siegel later explained:
You see, Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe’s. As a high school student, I thought that some day I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me.
That night when all the thoughts were coming to me, the concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do. The heroine, who I figured would be a girl reporter, would think he was some sort of a worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character who could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow whom she loathed. By coincidence, Joe was a carbon copy (of me). 
By the next morning, he had written a great deal of material. In a state of excitement, he ran the nine blocks to Shuster’s house. The two of them, equally enthused, quickly set to work on visualizing and further developing this new version of Superman. Being the avid movie buffs that they were, they drew upon many of their favorite movies for inspiration, especially those of Douglas Fairbanks, the athletic star of many adventure movies. Shuster explained:
And of course, I was inspired by the movies. In the silent films, my hero was Douglas Fairbanks Senior, who was very agile and athletic. So I think he might have been an inspiration to us, even in his attitude. He had a stance which I often used in drawing Superman. You’ll see in many of his roles – including Robin Hood – that he always stood with his hands on his hips and his feet spread apart, laughing – taking nothing seriously. Clark Kent, I suppose, had a little bit of Harold Lloyd in him. 
To say that Superman’s alter ego had “a little bit of Harold Lloyd in him” may have been an understatement. Lloyd, one of the top comedians of the silent era (alongside Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin), was known for his “glasses” character, a gentle, meek underdog. By the end of most of his movies, Lloyd’s humble hero would find the courage to stand up to his oppressors, and would often wind up performing such spectacular stunts as dangling off of the face of a skyscraper clock. It may be that the entire idea of Superman’s persona changing from mild-mannered to courageous according to the situation owed more than a little to Lloyd. In Siegel’s words:
And also, the wearing of glasses gives the impression of meekness and mildness – which goes into Harold Lloyd – the influence of Harold Lloyd on this – and his movies. We were both great movie fans, and we especially loved some of those movies in which Harold Lloyd would start off as a sort of Mama’s boy, being pushed around, kicked around, thrown around, and then suddenly he would turn into a fighting whirlwind. 
Oddly enough, another inspiration was Popeye, who by then had been featured in a number of animated shorts. Siegel reasoned that the kind of superhuman feats that Popeye routinely pulled off for comedic effect could work for a serious character. It eventually all came full-circle in 1944, when Superman was spoofed in the Popeye cartoon She-Sick Sailors.
The mission that Siegel and Shuster chose to give their Superman was a tireless crusade against the real-life evils that they hated above all others: injustice and oppression. At its essence, their concept was all about power. There is Superman’s prodigious physical strength, the dominion criminals and tyrants have over the lives of their victims, and the power to live out one’s life in a free and happy manner. There are all too many who use whatever strengths they have to deny others of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It matters not whether it is a criminal gang whose shady reign casts a shadow of danger over a neighborhood, a dictator whose iron fist strikes deadly blows all too often, or an abusive spouse turning a marriage into a prison. It all amounts to the same thing: some asserting unjust power over others and taking away the humble but vital abilities to which every person is entitled. But what if there was someone who could take power away from those who use it to trod others down, and give the power to live life as it should be lived to those who have had that power stolen from them? Someone who goons and guns could not harm, or even deter? Someone immensely powerful, yet who used his power only to empower others to live life to the fullest? That is who Siegel and Shuster created their Superman to be: a champion of the the weak and oppressed, a crusader for justice.
But as serious as his tasks were, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was not a grim, serious character. Indeed, one of his defining attributes was his sense of humor, as Siegel later explained:
Jerry Siegel: No, no.
Q: Or, you know, as we had it, the robots could actually beat him down — they didn’t fall apart as soon as he walked into the room. You’d prefer a more human Superman.
Jerry: Well, yes, yes. From the very beginning, Superman himself had pretty much of a sense of humor about the whole thing. One of the reasons why I gave him that attitude was because the whole concept in itself was such a wild, wild, wild thing, I think, I felt the only thing that would breathe any real life and believability into it was if Superman himself didn’t take the whole thing that seriously.
Joanne Siegel: He had a sense of humor.
Jerry: Except that he was very serious about helping people in trouble and distress, because that’s the way I felt.
Joanne: He kidded himself, but he took crime and injustice seriously.
Jerry: Now, it has been said that Captain Marvel had a great deal of humor in it and that Superman was absolutely humorless, but that just is not true. If you look back at the early stuff, you’ll find that Superman was kidding around quite a bit when he was tearing tanks apart and kicking airplane squadrons here and there and everywhere, so there was a spirit of fun in the thing. And as a matter of fact, Joe and I, when we first started going into comics, we had intended to do a comedy strip, so we were very comedy-oriented and that’s why “Superman” did have this sort of comedy flair to it. 
But as important as characterization is, something else was also needed. A character as fantastic as Superman needed a costume. Unsurprisingly, Siegel and Shuster again turned to the movies for inspiration.
Shuster: It was inspired by the costume pictures that Fairbanks did: they greatly influenced us. He did The Mark of Zorro, and Robin Hood, and a marvelous one called The Black Pirate – those are three that I recall that we loved. Fairbanks would swing on ropes very much like Superman flying – or like Tarzan on a vine.
Before I ever put anything on paper, Jerry and I would talk back and forth. Jerry would say, “Well, how about this, or how about that, or how about doing him like this?” And I agreed the feeling of action as he was flying or jumping or leaping – a flowing cape would give it movement. It really helped, and it was very easy to draw.
I also had classical heroes and strongmen in mind, and this shows in the footwear. In the third version Superman wore sandals laced halfway up the calf. You can still see this on the cover of Action 01, though they were covered over in red to look like boots when the comic was printed.
Q: Who came up with the “S” insignia, and how many versions did it go through?
Shuster: Jerry and I discussed it in detail. We said, “Let’s put something on the front.” I think initially we wanted to use the first letter of the character’s name. We thought S was perfect. After we came up with it, we kiddingly said, “Well, it’s the first letter of Siegel and Shuster.” Progressively, as the strip evolved, the emblem became larger and larger; you’ll notice at the beginning it was quite small.
Q: It was almost a more simple triangle at the beginning, wasn’t it?
Shuster: Actually, it was made like a shield. I can’t describe it, but I was thinking of what they call a crest. Yes, I had a heraldic crest in the back of my mind when I made it. It was a little fancy triangle with curves at the top. 
Shuster modeled the city in which Superman was to make his home after his beloved hometown of Toronto. Many Toronto landmarks made their way into his artwork. Most notably, the building of the Toronto Daily Star (the paper that had first instilled in him his love of comics, science fiction, and the newspaper business) became The Daily Star, the paper at which Superman’s meek and mild alter ego made his living. (In 1940, two years after Superman’s eventual debut, the paper’s name was changed to the now iconic Daily Planet at the request of an editor.)
When it came to naming Superman’s alter ego and the city in which he lived, Siegel yet again turned to the movies for inspiration. Shuster later recalled:
Jerry created all the names. We were great movie fans, and were inspired a lot by the actors and actresses we saw. As for Clark Kent, he combined the names of Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. And Metropolis, the city in which Superman operated, came from the Fritz Lang movie, which we both loved. 
Siegel also scrapped his time travel origin story in favor of another. For the second version of Superman, he had drawn inspiration from Tarzan. For this third version, he turned to another Edgar Rice Burroughs character. Before penning the adventures of everyone’s favorite vine-swinging jungle hero, Burroughs had made his literary debut in 1912, with the serialized magazine story Under the Moons of Mars (later published slightly expanded and in novel form as A Princess of Mars). In this story, former Civil War soldier John Carter is transported to the planet Mars (or, as its inhabitants call it, Barsoom). Due to Mars’ lower gravity, Carter can leap huge distances and perform great feats of strength and agility. This, of course, comes in handy in the many larger-than-life adventures he has in A Princess of Mars and its numerous sequels. Siegel later said the following of the influence of the John Carter books on Superman:
I don’t think they had much of an influence on me when I wrote The Reign of the Superman. However, when I did the version in 1934, (which years later, in 1938, was published, in revised form, in Action Comics #1) the John Carter stories did influence me. Carter was able to leap great distances because the planet Mars was smaller than the planet Earth; and he had great strength. I visualized the planet Krypton as a huge planet, much larger than Earth; so whoever came to Earth from that planet would be able to leap great distances and lift great weights. 
When I went up to Joe Shuster’s place, my heart was pounding. I knocked on the door, and a boy my size opened the door, wearing glasses, opened it a crack, and I said, “I’m the model Mr. Shuster wrote to.” So he opened the door and he motioned me in – and, we started talking and we hit it off right away. We started talking about movies, we were talking about everything, and I was thawing out. And a woman stuck her head out of the kitchen and said, “Hello”—an older woman—and a little girl ran through the living room, chased by a little boy, and out again.
And we were talking for the longest time, and finally I said, “Does Mr. Shuster know I’m here?” And he said, “I’m Mr. Shuster.” He was in senior high and I was in junior high, but he was the same height as I was, and I thought he was just “Mr. Shuster’s” younger brother, because I didn’t know who “Mr. Shuster” was. So that was my first modeling job.
Of course, I told him the whole truth. He said, “Did you ever have any experience?” And I said, “In front of the bedroom mirror,” and he laughed because that’s the way they were starting, too. So I posed for him, and his mother would look in, and I was turning blue, and my sister’s bathing suit was too big, and I pinned it in the back. And he said, “Never mind”. He says, “I’ll put a little bit more here and a little bit more there.” But he used my face and my hairdo and my poses and just made me look more voluptuous—and older. I had to be older. 
Kovacs (who started going under the name Joanne Carter in hopes that the name change would help her modelling career) dated Joe Shuster for a while after that. But it was Jerry Siegel that she would eventually marry in 1948, after the two had a reunion at a cartoonist’s ball. As it was a costume party, she had come dressed as the comic strip character Dixie Dugan.
Now that it had been decided what this character was going to look like, it was time to decide what she would be like. Part of her personality had already been decided upon. She was going to swoon over Superman, but not be so impressed by Clark Kent. Other than that, however, she wasn’t a fully developed character – yet. Inspiration came in 1937, in the form of five feet and three inches of blond, wisecracking, headline-hunting dynamite by the name of Torchy Blane. Torchy was a crime-solving newspaperwoman in a series of fast-paced mystery/comedies, played in seven of the eventual nine entries by vivacious actress Glenda Farrell. Siegel liked Farrell’s portrayal of Torchy Blane so much that he modeled the personality of Superman’s love interest after her. He also liked the name of Lola Lane, who played Torchy in one movie, so he gave the character the very similar name of Lois Lane. In 1988, he wrote the following (emphasis mine):
Thank you for saying “Happy Birthday” to Superman [SHOW BUSINESS, March 14]. Joe Shuster and I, the co-creators of Superman appreciate it. My wife Joanne was Joe’s original art model for Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane back in the 1930s. Our heroine was, of course, a working girl whose priority was grabbing scoops. What inspired me in the creation was Glenda Farrell, the movie star who portrayed Torchy Blane, a gutsy, beautiful headline-hunting reporter, in a series of exciting motion pictures. Because the name of the actress Lola Lane (who also played Torchy) appealed to me, I called my character Lois Lane. Strangely, the characterization of Lois is amazingly like the real-life personality of my lovely wife.
Los Angeles 
When Joanne Siegel was asked in an interview if Lois Lane was based on Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, she responded, “He got the inspiration for Lois Lane from a movie star before Rosalind Russell. Her name was Glenda Farrell and she played a girl reporter, very fast-talking, and she always got the story.” 
Siegel and Shuster later created a short-lived series of comic books about a hero called Funnyman, in which there is a Lois Lane-like character named June Farrell – named, of course, after Glenda Farrell.
But could it be that if it were not for yet another person, there would be no ‘Lois Lane’? Siegel later admitted to having had a crush on a girl named Lois Amster. An anonymous person many suspect to be him wrote poems to her in The Torch. And a character surnamed Amster appeared in the Siegel and Shuster collaboration Dr. Occult. So while Siegel did name Lois Lane after Lola Lane, could it be that whether consciously or unconsciously, he may have given her the first name Lois (as opposed to, say, Lulu or Lana) because of Lois Amster? Of course, we’ll likely never know, but it is a possibility.
There are other things about Siegel’s inspirations for Superman that are shrouded in mystery. The most intriguing is the death of his father, Mitchell Siegel, who died during a robbery of his secondhand clothing store on the evening of June 2, 1932. Police reports mention the sound of a gunshot being heard, but the cause of his death was a heart attack. Jerry never mentioned the incident to anyone, but it’s hard to believe that the circumstances of his father’s death didn’t have some influence on his creation of a nigh-invulnerable hero who laughed in the face of danger and came leaping to the rescue whenever he heard cries for help.
Yet another unanswered question is whether or not Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator was an influence. Gladiator is about Hugo Danner, a man whose scientist father had given him superpowers while he was still an unborn infant. Just like Superman, Danner has bulletproof skin and incredible strength and agility. He was described as having the proportional strength of an ant and the leaping ability of a grasshopper – as was Superman in his eventual first published appearance. At one point of the story, he even lifts a car above his head – as Superman was destined to do. However, there is a major difference between the two. Gladiator is a pessimistic tale. Danner is met with hostility whenever he reveals his powers. Instead of becoming a great hero, he wanders about, persecuted wherever he goes. The story ends with him asking God what to do, and being struck dead by a lightning-bolt as a response. Still, there are enough similarities to raise the question of whether or not Siegel was influenced by Gladiator. There is no doubt that he was acquainted with the book, as he had reviewed it in an issue of Science Fiction. Philip Wylie eventually noticed the similarities and threatened a lawsuit for plagiarism. Siegel signed an affidavit stating that he was not influenced by Gladiator in the creation of Superman. No lawsuit followed.
But now for less about what isn’t known and more about what is. Siegel and Shuster attempted to sell their new, improved version of Superman to publishers, but were rejected time and time again. Various reasons were given. One editor said, “The trouble with this, kid, is that it’s too sensational. Nobody would believe it.”  An ironic thing for him to say, as he had previously advised Siegel, “What you’ve got to do, kid, is come up with a comic strip that is absolutely sensational!”  Other publishers said that the work was too immature, and yet others that it simply didn’t have any mass appeal.
Then, in 1935, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson hired them to produce some desperately-needed filler for his new comic magazine New Fun. In New Fun‘s October 1935 issue, “Henri Duval of France, Famed Soldier of Fortune” and “Dr. Occult, the Ghost Detective” became the first two of a number of comic strips Siegel and Shuster would write for various comic magazines published by Major Wheeler-Nicholson. “Slam Bradley”, “Federal Men”, “Spy”, and “Calling All Cars: Sandy Kean and the Radio Squad” soon followed. While the ideas behind these strips were dreamed up by the Major rather than Siegel and Shuster, they provided valuable work for the struggling artists. Then, something happened that would seemingly be a dream come true: the Major expressed an interest in publishing “Superman”. But ironically, Siegel and Shuster turned him down. You see, the Major had been experiencing such serious financial difficulties that there were times when he wasn’t even able to pay his artists. It was pretty clear that putting Superman in the Major’s sinking boat would be unwise. This was not an isolated incident; Siegel and Shuster similarly turned down several other interested but unpromising publishers over the years.
In 1936, Maxwell Charles Gaines of McClure Syndicate received the Superman strips. He was unimpressed, but his assistant Sheldon Mayer took a liking to the Man of Steel. Mayor tried to bring Superman to the page in Popular Comics, but his attempt was squelched by Gaines. But in November of 1937, Gaines needed some new material. He wrote to Siegel, asking to be sent any fast-moving action comics that he had ready. Siegel sent him several strips, including “Superman”. While McClure Syndicate decided against using the strips themselves, this would prove instrumental in bringing Superman to the page. Gaines had bought two color printing presses, but didn’t have enough material to keep them running. He offered Harry Donenfeld (who, along with Jack Liebowitz, had just acquired Detective Comics, Inc. from Major Wheeler-Nicholson) the affordable use of his presses. Donenfeld initially declined his offer, as he didn’t yet have enough material to print, but agreed that he would use the presses if Gaines could find enough material. Detective Comics created a new comic book called Action Comics, and asked Gaines to find some material for it. Sheldon Mayer seized his chance, and offered up Superman. Gaines sent a letter to Siegel, asking him for permission to send the Superman strips over to Detective Comics, Inc. Siegel consented.
On January 10, 1938, Siegel received a letter from Detective Comics, Inc. editor Vin Sullivan, expressing interest in publishing Superman. More correspondence followed, and on February 4, Sullivan wrote, “I’m not sure that I told you, in my last letter, to go ahead with the SUPERMAN or just to lay the thing out, In any event, shoot the works… PRONTO!” 
This was finally it! Siegel and Shuster’s dream had come true! Shuster cut and pasted the four weeks of Superman daily strips he had drawn to fit into the required 8-panel, 13-page comic book format and sent the artwork to the publisher. On March 1, they received a check for $412. $282 of it was for work they had completed for Major Wheeler-Nicholson but had never been paid for. The other $130 was for Superman. Had it been just for the work on those 13 pages, it would have been great pay – it was double what they were usually paid. The problem is that it was for Superman. Period. You see, when they accepted that check, they gave up the rights to Superman. They were under the impression that they were being paid only for the 13 pages of work they had completed. But Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz had taken advantage of their inexperience in legal matters to trick them into giving over the rights to Superman along with the 13 pages. By the time they realized what had happened, it was too late. They didn’t get any royalties, or even full creative control. Instead, all they had besides the $130 was a five-year contract to work as hirelings, turning out however many Superman comics were needed to make Donenfeld and Liebowitz as much money as possible. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising. The exact same thing happened to many other comics creators at the time. But that didn’t make it any easier for Siegel and Shuster to go through. They suffered greatly, going through many financial troubles and legal battles for decades to come. Instead of sharing in the riches their brainchild had earned, they were at times literally starving.
Action Comics #1, featuring the very first Superman story and proudly bearing an iconic image of Superman lifting a car above his head on its cover, hit newsstands on April 18, 1938 (despite bearing a June, 1938 cover date). Action Comics was an immediate hit, selling out almost immediately. However, the publishers didn’t have an inkling that the reason for said success might be Superman. After all, it also contained other stories. Why pin the entire magazine’s success on just one of the strips contained in it? Thus, while Superman was featured within the pages of each issue of Action Comics, issues 2-6 featured other characters on the cover. Then, Superman made the cover again in issues 7-10, 13, 15, and 17. It readily became apparent that those issues which featured Superman on the cover sold better than those without, as the main reason that people bought Action Comics was for Superman. So, from issue 19 onward, Superman was featured on the cover. Action Comics’ sales grew and grew. Superman became so popular that in January 1939, a newspaper strip featuring him began to run in a steadily increasing number of newspapers. Later that year, he got a comic book all his own, starting with June, 1939’s Superman #1.
At first, most Superman stories featured gangsters, corrupt politicians, warmongering arms dealers, wife-beaters, and other such true-to-life malefactors as villains. A strong emphasis was put on Superman’s crusade against these unsavory characters and the cruelty and oppression they bring about. However, over the years, largely at the behest of editors, Superman’s role as a champion of the downtrodden and the underdog was toned down more and more, and he increasingly faced more fantastical villains such as the Ultra-Humanite and Lex Luthor. He also became less rough and violent as time went on, going from someone who bullied the bullies to a more restrained and kindly figure.
Superman rapidly became too big a phenomenon to be contained solely by the medium of comics. The radio series The Adventures of Superman, starring Bud Collyer as Superman and Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, debuted on February 12, 1940. This series, which aired in 15-minute serial format (until it switched to a 30-minute format in 1949), introduced many iconic parts of the Superman legend. Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Inspector Henderson all originated on The Adventures of Superman, as did Superman’s greatest weakness: kryptonite. Siegel and Shuster had written a Superman story in 1940, in which a similar substance from Krypton called “K-Metal” had the ability to turn Superman as weak as an ordinary person and give Earthlings powers similar to his. But this story had gone unpublished, so audiences’ first introduction to kryptonite was in a June, 1943 episode of The Adventures of Superman. Kryptonite was created for the show (likely by Whitney Ellsworth, DC’s Editorial Director and an editor/producer/director/ghost-writer on the show, who had read the unpublished K-Metal story) both as a plot device and to allow Bud Collyer some vacation time – if Superman was out of commission for a while, anyone could voice his occasional groans. The deadly substance didn’t make its first appearance in comics until Superman #61 (November 1949).
Yet other contributions of the radio show were Superman’s motto, and the “up in the sky” introduction. Throughout the show’s 11-year run, each episode would begin with excited bystanders shouting, “Up in the sky, look! It’s a giant bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!”. Then the announcer (usually Jackson Beck) would give a introduction to Superman and his powers, at the end of which he would inform the audience that Superman was a “valiant fighter for truth and justice”, or fought “a never-ending battle against crime and injustice” or “a never-ending battle for truth and justice”, and other variations. For a while, “a never-ending battle for truth and justice” was the version that stuck. But starting in the fall of 1942, when overseas threats to the American way of life loomed large, Superman fought “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”. In 1944, the “American way” portion was dropped, and Superman again fought for “truth and justice”.
Starting in 1941, Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures brought Superman into yet another medium: the Big Screen. Their lavish, big-budget color animated shorts were a sensation when they hit theaters across the country, helping to launch Superman into even higher altitudes of popularity. As in the radio show, Superman was voiced by Bud Collyer and Lois Lane by Joan Alexander. Also like the radio show, each cartoon would begin with bystanders spotting Superman in the sky. One small change was made, however. The bird was no longer “giant”. The bystanders now shouted, “Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!”
Rumor has it that Superman’s power of flight (which he initially did not have) originated from the cartoons. The story goes that the animators were tired of animating Superman leaping from building to building, and began to instead portray him as flying. The editors of the comics then decreed that Superman would fly in the comics as well. However, Siegel and Shuster had no memory of this happening.
Shuster: He was mostly leaping tall buildings in the beginning. There were cases where he would leap off a tall building or swoop down, and at that point he would look like he was flying, I suppose. It was just natural to draw him like that.
Q: Some critics claim that Superman first flew in the animated cartoons, and that this influenced you to make the comic-book character fly.
Shuster: Not that I recall. 
In 1942, Superman hit bookstores in The Adventures of Superman, a novel written by George Lowther (a writer and sometime announcer on the radio show) and illustrated by Joe Shuster. This novel introduced many elements of the Superman mythos. It was the first time that Superman and his Kryptonian parents were named, respectively, Kal-El, Jor-El, and Lara (their names up to that time had been Kal-L, Jor-L, and Lora); and the first published story in which the Kents were given first names (Eben and Sarah). It also was the first story in which Clark Kent’s early life was dealt with in detail, and introduced such details as Eben Kent’s death by heart attack, coincidentally the same ailment that had killed Jerry Siegel’s father.
In 1944, Superboy, a portrayal of Clark Kent as a costumed superhero in the years before he was an adult, first appeared in More Fun Comics #101 (with a January–February 1945 cover date). He was initially drawn by Joe Shuster, but Jerry Siegel (despite having pitched the idea for the character in 1938) had no influence, as he was away fighting in WWII (Shuster had been turned down by the Army due to his poor eyesight). Superboy later moved to Adventure Comics in 1946, then his own title in 1949.
1948 marked Superman’s first live-action screen appearance, in the 15-chapter theatrical serial Superman. He was played by Kirk Alyn, who was listed in the credits as Clark Kent, but not as Superman. It was hoped that children would be fooled into thinking that Superman actually existed and played himself in the serial. Lois Lane was played by Noel Neill, who was destined to have a long history with the character. Perry White was played by Pierre Watkin, and Jimmy Olsen by Tommy Bond (“Butch” from the Our Gang shorts). Like in the radio show and cartoons, Superman had a motto of sorts. In the first chapter of the serial, Pa Kent tells Clark that he must use his powers “always in the interest of truth, tolerance, and justice.” In 1950, a second serial, titled Superman vs. Atom Man, was released. It marked the first screen appearance of Lex Luthor, played by Lyle Talbot. Both serials used animation to portray Superman in flight, as convincing flying effects were too expensive for their super-low budgets.
In 1951, Superman and the Mole Men debuted in theaters, marking Superman’s first feature film appearance. Clocking in at a mere 58 minutes, it had been made and released to test the waters for a new Superman television series. This time, Lois Lane was played by Phyllis Coates, and Superman was played by veteran actor George Reeves, who had appeared in a number of movies, sometimes in bits parts (such as in Gone With the Wind) and sometimes in starring roles (such as in So Proudly We Hail!). While Reeves wasn’t exactly tickled to death about playing Superman (a low-paying and low-status role at the time) audiences were delighted with his portrayal. As a result, the television series The Adventures of Superman (the first episode of which was heavily based on George Lowther’s 1942 novel) was greenlighted. It debuted on September 19, 1952. George Reeves and Phyllis Coates reprised their roles as Superman and Lois Lane. However, as there was a one-year delay between the production of the first and second seasons, Phyllis Coates was already busy with other roles by the time that production started on the second season. As a result, Noel Neill reprised her serial role of Lois Lane from then until the end of the series. Perry White was played by John Hamilton, Jimmy Olsen by Jack Larson, and Inspector Henderson by Robert Shayne for the entirety of the show’s run.
This series led to a revival in enthusiasm for Superman, who had become somewhat eclipsed in popularity by Captain Marvel during the 1940s. Like the radio show and cartoons before it, the television show opened with bystanders spotting Superman in the sky. But this time, yet another tweak was made. Now “look” came before “up in the sky”, instead of the other way around. It has stayed that way in people’s minds ever since.
The Adventures of Superman also brought back something that had not been heard since 1944. With the Cold War rearing its ugly head, the American way was again in danger. So at the beginning of each episode, the announcer would inform the audience that Superman fought “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”. Superman’s wartime motto had come back – with a vengeance. Ever since, this version is the one that has stuck in audiences’ minds. Among those fond of this most enduring version of Superman’s motto was Jerry Siegel himself. When asked what he felt Superman stands for, he replied, “Well, exactly the motto that they used on the television show: truth, justice, and the American way. A very clean-cut guy who could rule the world and is all-powerful, but instead, he uses his powers to aid the helpless and the deserving, rather than to exploit them.” 
Strangely enough, long before he ever got to be Superman in television, I met him in Los Angeles, and we became very good friends, and he never knew I had posed for Lois Lane. We never talked about that. He was a bit player and a stand-in man, and he was doing movie work, and I was working in a club as a cigarette girl. I was much too young to do it, but I got away with it because when they said, “Well, are you really that age?” I’d say, “You want to see my birth certificate?” And they’d say, “Well, all right. Never mind.” (laughs) And I don’t know if they’d asked me to show it what I would have done, but you know, when you need a job and…you have to be gutsy, I guess.
And we became very good friends. He was like a brother to me, and he used to stop in every night, and we talked and we became very good friends. And then, years later, he became Superman on television, and it was strange because I had posed and he never knew that.
Jerry: And then there was a strange experience where my wife and I were walking down the streets of New York one day, and walking right towards us was George Reeves, the fella who portrayed Superman on television.
Joanne: He was wearing a brown leather jacket, very deep in thought, and walking by, and he didn’t see us. I said, “There’s George.”
Jerry: And my wife said to me, “Jerry, why don’t you say hello?” I had never met him in person. Well, here I was, walking along with practically nothing in my pocket, with Superman gone forever as far as I was concerned, and I just couldn’t bring myself to say hello.
Joanne: He was so depressed.
Jerry: And it was odd, because my wife knew him.
Joanne: I knew him, and I said, “Let’s at least say hello.” I said, “That was George,” and he said, “I’m too depressed, I don’t feel like talking to anyone”. And that was the last time we ever saw him personally. 
Sadly, Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959. While the official police report ruled his death a suicide, many believe that he was murdered. Whatever happened, and despite the devastating shock of Reeves’ death, the show had already left a lasting impact, and this was not undone. Superman had reclaimed his status as the #1 superhero. “Truth, justice, and the American way” had become forever imprinted into the psyches of millions of people. And The Adventures of Superman remains a classic and beloved piece of Americana to this day.
Over the years that followed, Superman continued to be in constant publication, and to be a financial success. Whether it was comic books or lunchboxes, money was being made from Superman. Siegel and Shuster, enjoying little of the fruits of that success, struggled ever onwards. Then, in 1975, it became public knowledge that a Superman movie was in the works. Siegel used the opportunity to make the public aware of his and Shuster’s plight. He even went so far as to pen an article wishing failure upon the upcoming movie. The press quickly seized upon the human-interest story, and the scales of public opinion were tipped in Siegel and Shuster’s favor. DC and Warner brothers had no choice but to help them, as refusal to do so would have been a public relations disaster. Siegel and Shuster were given $20,000 a year for the rest of their lives (the amount eventually rose higher), and several bonuses over the years. Also, the creator credit they had not been given for many years was put on comic books and nearly everywhere else Superman appeared. It was too little for one to truthfully say that they had gotten all they deserved, and too late to prevent decades of suffering. But at least it was enough for them to live out the rest of their lives in comfort.
Director Richard Donner (a lifelong Superman fan) was chosen to helm Superman: The Movie. His approach for the project was to eschew camp and parody in favor of making the audience believe in what they were seeing. “Verisimilitude” (a word meaning “the appearance of truth”) was his motto – and he made good and sure that everyone involved in the project knew it.
The list of actors who were either considered for or pursued the role of Superman is long and often comical: Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Sylvester Stallone, James Caan, Jon Voight, Robert Wagner, Nick Nolte, and dozens of others. Even producer Ilya Salkind’s wife’s dentist was considered. But in the end, it was a skinny but talented newcomer named Christopher Reeve who was given the part when he proved that he could portray the “Big Blue Boy Scout” with earnestness and gravitas. Bodybuilder David Prowse (who played Darth Vader, sans voice, in Star Wars) helped Reeve bulk up so that he would embody Superman’s physical appearance just as well as he epitomized his personality.
Unlike George Reeves, who had portrayed Superman and Clark Kent as very similar in personality, Christopher Reeve decided to differentiate the two through acting as well as costume. His Superman was bold and dashing, but his Clark Kent was timid and nerdy. This decision hearkened back to the similarly differentiated performances of Bud Collyer and Kirk Alyn, the former of which had changed the pitch of his voice from high to low when transitioning from Clark Kent to Superman, often in the middle of the sentence “This looks like a job – FOR SUPERMAN.”
Interestingly, Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent was, in a roundabout way, influenced by one of Siegel and Shuster’s original inspirations for the character. Reeve said the following:
I based the character of Clark Kent on the young Cary Grant. There’s a wonderful scene in Bringing Up Baby in which he plays a paleontologist working on a dinosaur, and he’s up on a ladder that is rocking back and forth. He looks terribly awkward and afraid, while Katharine Hepburn looks brash and fearless as she comes to his rescue. He has a shyness, vulnerability, and a certain charming goofiness that I thought would be perfect for Clark Kent. He even wears the same kind of glasses. Of course I knew I could never be Cary Grant, but there was nothing to prevent me from stealing from him. 
And where did Cary Grant get the inspiration for his performance in Bringing Up Baby? From none other than Harold Lloyd. Director Howard Hawks had told Grant, “You’ve seen Harold Lloyd in pictures, haven’t you? …Take his attitude–How he walks and how he moves, what he’s doing, how he plays the scene.” 
Superman: The Movie premiered in December of 1978, and audiences were treated to something unlike any superhero movie they had previously seen. The story was presented with the scale and sincerity of a Cecille B. DeMille epic, yet included touches of lively humor. The characters came to life via a terrific cast, that (besides Christopher Reeve) included Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, and Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. John Williams’ rousing musical score heralded Superman’s heroics in the most exhilarating way imaginable. And thanks to a combination of Zoran Perisic’s groundbreaking “Zoptic” special effects technique and the convincing playacted aerial maneuvers of Christopher Reeve (an experienced aviator), the movie delivered on its much-hyped promise that “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Both the movie and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman were instantly beloved by audiences around the world.
Even Superman’s creators were impressed. Richard Donner reminisced, “Siegel and Shuster were invited to the premier. And at the end of the premiere, they both came over and just thanked me profusely, and crying, and I got caught up in it.”  Siegel said, “I thought that Christopher Reeve was great as Superman. He really captured the sense of humor that Joe and I intended the early character to have.”  Shuster remarked, “I got chills. Chris Reeve has just the right touch of humor. He really is Superman.” 
The years went on, as they are wont to do, and more properties featuring Superman were created. There were sequels to Superman: The Movie, several television shows, and of course comics. Later yet, there were cinematic re-adaptations of Superman. But to go into more detail about those or other developments that have since transpired regarding Superman and his creators would be to stray from the purpose of this story: to set down an account of how Superman was inspired and created, and of those instances of page, radio, and screen which most developed and cemented the Superman mythos.
From his inception by two mild-mannered young men to his enduring legacy on the page and screen, Superman has gained and reinforced his popularity and his place in the hearts of millions. Thanks to Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bud Collyer, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, and Christopher Reeve, among others, Superman became and remains more than just an ordinary character. He’s a part of our collective consciousness, a symbol of all that is good in the world – a legend. What is it about Superman that caused him to become such an enduring and celebrated character, and to remain deeply rooted in the public consciousness for over seven decades? There are likely many factors, but perhaps a large part of it is because his creators molded him out of the things they deeply cared about. Jerry Siegel said it best:
Superman grew out of our personal feelings about life. That’s why quite often, when we saw so many other similar strips coming out, we felt that they, perhaps, were imitating the form and format of “Superman.” But there was something that wasn’t there, and that was this tremendous feeling of compassion that Joe and I have for the downtrodden and the people in trouble. And that is something that’s in your heart and not in your pocketbook. 
Related Pages on this site:
Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye.
Superman: The Complete History – The Life and Times of the Man of Steel by Les Daniels.
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones
“Of Superman and Kids with Dreams” – Nemo: The Classic Comics Library #2.
“The Comic Strip Hero” – Arena
1975 Comic-Con interview of Jerry, Joanne, and Laura Siegel
“The Story Behind Superman #1” by Jerry Siegel
Other assorted sources.
A link to a page featuring the entirety of Siegel and Shuster’s informative 1983 interview, first published in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library #2 under the title “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”.
A video of Siegel and Shuster’s 1981 interview from “The Comic Strip Hero”, a 1981 episode of the British television program Arena.
An audio recording of a 1940 Fred Allen interview of Jerry Siegel.
Links to mp3 audio files of the fascinating 1975 Comic-Con interview of Jerry, Joanne, and Laura Siegel. The interview is in three parts.
(A slightly abridged transcript of this interview can be found in Alter Ego #56, available for purchase here.)
Joe Shuster’s final interview.
An excellent article detailing Harold Lloyd’s influence on Clark Kent, and the interesting roundabout way that Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Kent was semi-inspired by Lloyd.
The 1933 story Reign of the Superman, featuring the original bald, telepathic version of Superman, in two forms: a PDF file made from scans of the original pages, and a more easily readable transcript.
PDF of the original pages:
An article written by Jerry Siegel for the 45 Anniversary of Superman.
Some interesting articles about how the 1940s Superman radio show helped fight the Ku Klux Klan in real life.
A page devoted to the unpublished Jerry Siegel Superman story “The K-Metal From Krypton”. It features an explanation of why the story went unpublished, how it would have altered Superman forever, and an approximation of what the story would have probably looked like had it been published.
A page featuring rare information about the Golden Age Superman.
An odd but fascinating curiosity: a Nazi propagandist’s 1940 review of a short Siegel and Shuster story in which Superman ended WWII that had been commissioned by Look magazine.
Two pages showing the timeline of Superman’s creation and publishing.
An interesting article featuring videos of several home movies of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
An article about Jerry Fine, Jerry Siegel’s cousin who was instrumental in bring him and Joe Shuster together.
A video interview of Kirk Alyn, the first live-action screen Superman.
A history of Clark Kent’s affinity for changing in phone booths:
Some articles about Superman Day at the World’s Fair.
1. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 11
2. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 14
3. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Shuster, Joe. “The Comic Strip Hero.” Arena. BBC. (1981)
4. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Siegel, Joanne; Siegel, Laura. Interview by Murray Bishoff and Alan Light at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
5. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 14
6. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p.15
7. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 15
8. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Siegel, Joanne; Siegel, Laura. Interview by Murray Bishoff and Alan Light at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
9. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Siegel, Joanne; Siegel, Laura. Interview by Murray Bishoff and Alan Light at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
10. ^ TIME, May 30, 1988, Letters to the Editor, pp. 6-7
11. ^ Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History – The Life and Times of the Man of Steel, p. 20
12. ^ Siegel, Jerry. “Happy 45th Anniversary, Superman!”, Action Comics #544. (June, 1983)
13. ^ Siegel, Jerry. “Happy 45th Anniversary, Superman!”, Action Comics #544 .(June, 1983)
14. ^ Siegel, Jerry. “The Story Behind Superman #1”.
15. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 15
16. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Shuster, Joe. “The Comic Strip Hero.” Arena. BBC. (1981)
17. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Siegel, Joanne; Siegel, Laura. Interview by Murray Bishoff and Alan Light at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
18. ^ Reeve, Christopher. Still Me, p. 193
19. ^ Mast, Gerald. Bringing Up Baby, p. 294
20. ^ Donner, Richard. You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman, 2006, Warner Home Video
21. ^ Andrae, Thomas. “Of Superman and Kids with Dreams”, Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2. (August 1983) p. 19
22. ^ Kroll, Jack. “Superman to the Rescue”. Newsweek. pp. 34–41. (1979-01-01).
23. ^ Siegel, Jerry; Siegel, Joanne; Siegel, Laura. Interview by Murray Bishoff and Alan Light at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.