MAN OF STEEL right around the corner, speculation is running high as to just how different—aside from the lack of red shorts—Zack Snyder’s Superman is going to be from what’s come before. How many surprises can there be for a character that’s been in the pop culture spotlight for three quarters of a century?
But one of the reasons the character’s been around so long is that there’s always something new to pull out of that blue sleeve. And even his past contains some things you may not know. Here are ten such little known facts from Superman’s vast history that may well surprise you (unless, of course, you are a comics fan, in which case, Shh! Don’t spoil it for the laypeople!).
1. SUPERMAN WAS ORIGINALLY CONCEIVED AS A VILLAIN
In 1933, the third issue of the fanzine, SCIENCE FICTION: THE ADVANCE GUARD OF FUTURE CIVILIZATION featured a story by its publisher, a young writer named Jerry Siegel, entitled, “The Reign of the Superman,” with illustrations by Joe Shuster. The story tells of an evil scientist who chooses a homeless man to be the test subject for an experimental serum that grants telepathic powers. When the formula proves a success, the empowered vagrant kills the scientist before he can use the serum on himself. Inspired to take over the world, the Superman is shocked to discover that the effects of the serum are temporary, and he soon loses his powers, as well as his world-dominating aspirations.
But Siegel was more interested in writing about heroes who could battle against the world’s evils, and so (with Shuster again on art duties) he set about reworking the powers and concept of his Nietsche-inspired character. It would be another five years before they were finally able to sell their revamped Superman to National Comics for a whopping, copyright-forfeiting $130.00.
2. LEX LUTHOR USED TO HATE SUPERMAN FOR FOLLICULAR REASONS
Over the years, Superman’s arch-enemy has evolved from evil scientific genius to evil corporate overlord to evil scientific genius corporate overlord, but his abiding hatred of the hero has never wavered. These days, the general gist is that Luthor is envious of Superman’s powers and popularity, mistrustful of his motives, and aggravated by his altruism.
But in the simpler Silver Age, the reason was much more superficial, as explained in ADVENTURE COMICS #271 (1960): Friends as teens, Superboy built a fully stocked laboratory for the young Lex Luthor. When an awry experiment caused a fire in the lab, the Teen of Steel used his super breath to blow it out, but the resultant mixture of gaseous chemicals caused permanent hair loss for his now-ex pal, who swore he’d get even (he also accused Superboy of jealousy and was mad that a huge experiment was ruined, but it was mostly the hair thing). Turning your back on the coolest friend you could ever have because you think he made you bald? Vanity, thy name is Lex (a first name, by the way, that was finally given to the previously mononymous Luthor in this very tale).
3. IT’S NOT AN S
Actually, if you’ve seen the third trailer for MAN OF STEEL, then you do know this one, but the evolution of Superman’s trademark chest emblem is an interesting story. For decades, the symbol was indeed an S, and Clark himself chose the rather immodest name for which it stood. 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE decided to adorn Superman’s birth daddy, Jor-El with the symbol as well, altering its meaning to stand for the House of El, the resemblance to our letter S being a mere coincidence (and, in that film, as well as MoS, it’s Lois Lane who gives Kal-El his nom de guerre). DC Comics retroactively adopted this idea, and while the precise meaning of the Kryptonian glyph has shifted in the past three decades, one thing is for sure: It’s not an S.
4. IN COLLEGE, HE FELL IN LOVE WITH A MERMAID
Superman’s girlfriends over the years have almost all had one thing in common: Alliterative names beginning with the letter L: There was Lana Lang, his childhood crush, Lyla Lerrol, the Kryptonian actress he fell in love with during a time-travel trek to his home planet, and of course, the intrepid reporter, Lois Lane. And then there’s Clark Kent’s college sweetheart, a wheelchair-bound beauty named Lori Lemaris.
Introduced in a flashback story in SUPERMAN #129 in 1959, Lori cast such a spell on Metropolis University student Clark Kent that he proposed marriage to her, despite not knowing why she always had to cut their dates short to return home by 8pm. When Lori reveals she knows Clark is Superman due to her native people’s telepathy, Clark is stunned to learn—because he would never use his X-ray vision to peek under the blanket she always wore—that he has fallen in love with a mermaid from Atlantis, sent to study the progress of we “surface people” (the 8pm curfew was so she could soak in a tank of water, of course).
Despite their love, interspecies relationships were still frowned upon in Silver Age comics, so Lori returned to the sea, leaving behind a broken hearted Young Man of Steel. Wah.
5. SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL
Technically, neither does Batman, but you wouldn’t know that from all the guns and rocket launchers that are mounted on all his vehicles in every Batman movie (good and bad alike). But Superman’s moral code is so exacting that he refuses to take a life, no matter how vile. Additionally, he knows that the fragile sense of trust he’s worked to earn from his adopted home would be shattered if humans thought even for a second that he would use his vast powers to exact the ultimate vigilante justice. We shall see if MAN OF STEEL's “darker” Superman adheres to this character-defining tenet or not. Let’s hope so.
6. MANY OF THE ICONIC PARTS OF THE LEGEND DO NOT COME FROM THE COMICS
Superman was such an instant smash when introduced seventy-five years ago in ACTION COMICS #1 that he very quickly made the leap to other media: comic strips, radio, animated cartoons, and even a novel. And many indelible parts of the legend came from some of these non-comic book adaptations.
The radio show introduced the Daily Planet’s Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, as well as the deadly element known as kryptonite. The newspaper itself got its name in the comic strip (replacing the comic book’s’ “Daily Star” in 1940). George Lowther’s 1942 novel, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN renamed our hero’s birth parents as Jor-El and Lara (supplanting the original Jor-L and Lora). And it was in the Fleischer Studios animated cartoons that Superman first changed clothes in a phone booth, and—more importantly—evolved from making great leaps to actually being able to fly, simply because a jumping superhero looked kinda silly in the first few episodes (The cry of, “Up, up, and away!” also came from radio, a necessity when you could only describe action as opposed to showing it).
7. THERE WAS ONCE A GOOD REASON NOBODY REALIZED CLARK AND SUPERMAN WERE ONE AND THE SAME
Since Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent were introduced in 1938, the hardest part of the story to buy wasn’t his alien heritage or his many amazing super powers. It was that nobody would recognize Clark as Superman just because he put on a pair of glasses (and changed his voice, hair and posture).
In 1978, writer Martin Pasko (using an idea by Al Schroeder III) solved the mystery in SUPERMAN #330, “The Master Mesmerizer of Metropolis!” It turns out that among the hero’s many powers is a form of super-hypnosis, which, magnified through the lenses of heat-vision-resistant Kryptonian-plexiglass eyeglasses, causes people to see Clark Kent as he wants them to: A frail, slightly balding, extremely mild mannered reporter, quite the opposite of the beefy Man of Steel. The effect is so strong that it even works when people look at photos of Clark!
Yeah, there are some holes in the theory, and, like so many stories, this idea was quickly abandoned, and to this day, the only reason nobody recognizes Clark as Superman is because of a great power we all possess: Suspension of disbelief.
8. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A NOVELIZATION OR COMIC BOOK ADAPTATION OF THE FIRST TWO SUPERMAN MOVIES
In this age of corporate synergy and ubiquitous merchandising tie-ins, it’s practically unfathomable to imagine that not one Superman movie was adapted to either comic book or novel form prior to 1983’s SUPERMAN III (in case you were dying to read the prose version of that tale).
True, neither the two 1940s serials starring Kirk Alyn, nor George Reeves’ theatrical film, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN begged for print translations. But why was there no comic / book version of 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE or its first sequel in 1981? Blame Mario Puzo. The Godfather author wrote the first draft of the screenplay to SUPERMAN (which included much of SUPERMAN II), and had a specific clause in his contract that no adaptation of the story could be published without his involvement. Despite numerous rewrites by subsequent script doctors, Puzo’s name remains the primary screenwriter, and as he had no interest in working on either a novel or a funnybook version of his radically altered original story, to this day, the only way to experience those first two films is to watch ‘em… which really is not a bad thing.
9. A REAL LIFE GUEST STAR APPEARED IN AN ISSUE OF ACTION COMICS ONE WEEK AFTER HIS MURDER SHOOK THE NATION.
In the olden days, Superman had to jump through an awful lot of hoops to protect his secret identity, often enlisting his pal Batman to masquerade as one of his identities whenever Superman and Clark Kent were required to be in the same place at the same time (he even had an army of robots in part for this reason, but also because they did a great job cleaning the Fortress of Solitude).
But in ACTION COMICS #309, Batman has to appear at the same live television spectacular honoring Superman as all of the Man of Steel’s friends… including Clark! And so, Superman calls in a favor from another trusted confidant… President John F. Kennedy, who slaps on some makeup, wig and glasses to pass himself off as the reporter (foiling Lois’ 548th attempt at proving Superman and Clark are one and the same).
The sad irony of this story is that the issue (cover dated Feb. 1964) hit the newsstands one week after Kennedy’s assassination (too late for DC Comics to pull the comic book from distribution), adding a heavy poignancy to a rather silly tale.
10. SUPERMAN IS MUCH COOLER THAN YOU THINK
Despite being a cultural icon for 75 years, the character that launched the entire superhero genre (perfectly synthesizing elements that existed in numerous heroes before) and solidified the nascent medium of comic books as a viable form of entertainment, Superman doesn’t get his due respect. People tend to dismiss him as being dull or too goody-goody. Common wisdom says the dark and brooding Batman or raging bad boys like Wolverine are much cooler heroes than the morally righteous Midwest farm boy in the primary-colored costume.
But here’s what most people don’t get about Superman: When he’s done right, he’s actually the coolest hero there is. It’s not that he has this long list of incredible super powers, it’s that how he treats them. First of all, he’s Steve McQueen-nonchalant about this “most powerful being on the planet thing.” It’s no big deal. Remember, he didn’t name himself Superman, and he doesn’t even think that he’s better than us. All he wants to do is help, which is the other cool thing about the guy. There’s no angsty motivation for revenge or simmering need to prove anything. He uses his powers for good because, Duh, that’s what you do.
How many of us could honestly say that, given powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, we wouldn’t become insufferably arrogant and use those abilities for our own benefit over that of others? Sadly, not many, which is what makes Superman so eternally cool… and also necessary.
Originally posted on Starpulse.com, June 2013