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Superman, aka "Man of Steel", is a fictional character and superhero who first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and for several decades has been one of the most popular and well-known comic book icons of all-time.
The character, created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel for National Comics (today DC Comics), subsequently appeared in various radio serials, television programs, films, and video games. Superman was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton and, as an infant, was rocketed to Earth by Jor-El, his scientist father, moments before Krypton exploded. The rocket landed on Earth outside the town of Smallville, where young Kal-El was discovered and adopted by the amiable Jonathan and Martha Kent. As he grew, he discovered that he possessed powers far beyond those of mortal men. When not fighting the forces of evil as Superman, he lives amongst humanity as Clark Kent, a "mild-mannered reporter" for the Daily Planet. Clark works alongside reporter Lois Lane, with whom he is romantically involved. In current comics continuity, they are married, however, the character has had several other relationships throughout his years in comics. The character's adventures are today published in a number of comic books.
Superman's abilities and relationships have changed slightly over time. Editors and writers used the process of retroactive continuity, or retcon, to adjust to changes in popular culture, eliminate restrictive segments of the mythos, and permit contemporary storylines. These changes, while significant, permit the retention of the core elements that make Superman an iconic character.
The story of Superman's origin parallels that of other cultural heroes and religious figures who were spirited away as infants from places where they were in danger.
Golden Age version
In the original Golden Age comics (as shown in Action Comics #1 (1938), Superman (volume 1) #1 (1939), and Superman (volume 1) #61 (1949), as well as in later post-Golden Age stories such as Secret Origins (volume 2) #1 (1986)), noted scientist Jor-L had discovered his planet of Krypton was about to explode yet was unable to convince his fellow Kryptonians to save themselves. However, he did manage to construct a spaceship to save his and his wife Lora's infant son, Kal-L. The ship was launched just as the planet finally exploded, with Kal-L landing on Earth around the time of World War I; his landing was watched by passing motorists John and Mary Kent. The couple took the infant to an orphanage, and soon returned to adopt the child, naming him "Clark." (The names of Jor-L, Kal-L, Lora, John and Mary were eventually changed to the more modern "Jor-El", "Kal-El", "Lara", "Jonathan" and "Martha" in the 1940s).
Clark grew up in an ordinary childhood on the Kent family farm, slowly discovering that he possessed various superpowers, but unaware of his Kryptonian origins. After the deaths of his parents in 1938, Clark decided to use his powers for the benefit of humanity, constructing a stylized costume and moving to the nearby city of Metropolis. Obtaining employment at the newspaper the Daily Star, Clark soon made his debut as the world's first superhero, Superman. Eventually, Superman's powers increased over the 1940s from his earliest appearances, including vast increases in his superstrength and gaining the ability to fly (his earliest comics featured Superman able to only leap about an eighth of a mile at a time). In Superman (volume 1) #61 (1949), Superman finally learned of the existence of Krypton.
During the 1940s, Superman also became an honorary member of the Justice Society of America, though was shown only participating in two cases in the original Golden Age stories (All-Star Comics #8 and #36).
After the establishment of DC Comics' Multiverse in the 1960s, it was established retroactively that the Golden Age version of Superman lived on the parallel world of Earth-Two and was named Kal-L, while his Silver Age counterpart lived on Earth-One and was named Kal-El. While this allowed for DC comics to bring Golden Age stories back into continuiy, it raised problems, as Superman, having never gone away after the end of the Golden Age, had been published as one ongoing incarnation since his debut, with akward stories inevitably tied to past decades being ignored, and the name Kal-L had been dropped in favor of Kal-El still during the Golden Age. A series of stories in the 1970s established that the Earth-Two Superman, after losing his memory thanks to the Wizard, had married his version of Lois Lane in the 1950s (Action Comics #484, (1978)), followed by having him become the editor-in-chief of the Daily Star. In the late 1970s, Superman discovered a rocket of Kryptonian origin landing on Earth, which contained his cousin, Kara Zor-L; after acclimating to Earth, Kara became the superheroine Power Girl. Superman also continued in serving with the revived Justice Society as a member; he was revealed to have been a founding member of the group in the team's origin story in DC Special #29. In the early 1980s, Superman was also shown to have been a member of the All-Star Squadron during World War II.
During the 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, the various parallel Earths were collapsed into one, retroactively eliminating a few Earth-Two heroes from existance (with history re-writing itself and including other heroes in their place). Kal-L, the Earth-Two Superman, along with his wife (the Lois Lane of Earth-Two), the Earth-Prime Superboy and Alexander Luthor, Jr. of Earth-Three, now had no reality to call their own, and entered a "paradise" dimension at the end of the series. This Superman wasn't seen again until the miniseries The Kingdom, where it was revealed that he had found a means of exiting his dimension, but chose not to at that time.
In Infinite Crisis #1, the Earth-Two Superman was shown as having observed events in the Post-Crisis DC Universe from his dimension, and finally deciding to intervene directly along with his companions in reality's current events rather than just watch it deteriorate. What role he plans to play in the DC Universe remains to be seen fully, but it seems to be limited to the return of Earth-Two, while his companions Superboy-Prime and Alexander Luthor seem to have darker motivations.
Silver Age version
During the 1940s and 1950s, various familiar elements of the Superman mythos were gradually added, and became firmly established by the late 1950s. This included a greater emphasis on the science fiction elements of Superman's world, including his Kryptonian origins, as well as an updated version of his origin story.
In the version that had become extant by the early 1960s (and memorably summarized at the start of each episode of the 1950s Adventures of Superman television series), Superman was born on Krypton as Kal-El, the son of Jor-El, a scientist and leader, and Lara, a former astronaut. When Kal-El was two or three years old, Jor-El learned that Krypton was doomed to explode, and he brought this to the attention of Krypton's ruling leaders, the Science Council. Disbelieving Jor-El's prediction, they refused to warn their fellow Kryptonians, and forbade Jor-El to do so. Jor-El and Lara promised that they wouldn't leave Krypton (Lara vowed to stay by her husband's side rather than accompany Kal-El to Earth, so that his ship would have a better chance of surviving the trip), and decided to use the little time remaining to save their son. Moments before Krypton exploded, Jor-El launched Kal-El in a rocket ship towards Earth, knowing that Earth's lower gravity and yellow sun would give the boy extraordinary powers.
Kal-El's ship landed in a field near the town of Smallville, and was discovered by the elderly Kent couple. They named him Clark, after Martha's maiden name. After formally adopting him, the Kents raised him on their farm through his preschool years. By the time Clark started school, the Kents had sold their farm and moved into Smallville, where they purchased a general store. During this time, both Clark and the Kents had discovered Clark's amazing powers, and, with the Kents realizing the good he could do with his powers, began training their adopted son to use his powers wisely. At the age of eight, Clark adopted the superhero identity Superboy, and began to fight crime, both in the present and in a far future time as a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. After he graduated from high school and the Kents died, Clark moved to Metropolis to attend Metropolis University. During his junior year, Clark changed his superhero name to Superman. After graduating with a degree in journalism, Clark was hired by the Daily Planet.
In 1971, the Galaxy Broadcasting System and its president, Morgan Edge, purchased the Daily Planet, with Edge subsequently naming Clark Kent as the lead anchorman for its Metropolis television station, WGBS-TV. Later in the 1970s, Clark would be joined in his newscasts by childhood friend Lana Lang as a co-anchor.
This version of Superman was retired in 1986 after the continuity-altering miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths. Just before the reboot of the character, he was given a sendoff in the two-part non-canonical story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, written by Alan Moore with art by Curt Swan. Although the later Modern Age version of Superman was said to have been active during the Silver Age, most classic elements as the ones explored Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? were rendered out of continuity by Man of Steel. Later, Birthright and stories which followed would bring much of the Silver Age mythos back into continuity.
Man of Steel version
In 1986, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries (usually referred to as simply "Crisis"), DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to recreate the Superman character and retell the Superman mythos, reshaping the previous forty-eight years of stories by putting several new twists on the established mythos.
In this post-Crisis version, as seen in Byrne's miniseries The Man of Steel, Superman—like all post-Crisis Kryptonians— was created through in-vitro fertilization on Krypton. While a fetus, he escaped Krypton's destruction in a spacecraft (his "birthing matrix" with a rocket engine attached), and landed some fifty years later on Earth, just outside of Smallville, Kansas. Effectively this Superman was born on Earth, and was a son of Earth as much as of Krypton. As in the original version, he was found and adopted by the Kents, and raised like a normal human. In the retelling, Clark's powers developed gradually, beginning with his invulnerability, and he didn't fly until he was a teenager. After leaving Smallville, he traveled the world before settling in Metropolis, completing his education, and going to work at the Daily Planet. Clark did not become a superhero until just before starting work at the Daily Planet, when he prevented an experimental spacecraft from crashing in Metropolis. The Kents were kept alive during Clark's transition to Superman.
In the post-Crisis comics, Clark Kent is presented more as the "real" person, with Superman the secret identity that he presents to the world to prevent his enemies from harming his family or friends. Also post-Crisis, people do not suspect that Superman is hiding his real identity because he wears no mask. The concept that Clark is the real man, and the greater emphasis on his earthly upbringing, is a deliberate reversal of the earlier, pre-Crisis version. Another significant aspect of the post-Crisis Superman's reinvention was a reduced level of powers compared to his previous incarnation, with abilities such as travelling through time under his own power removed outright and other powers, notably his invulnerability and super-strength, vastly reduced.
Another change made in Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries was the reduced emphasis on Superman's Kryptonian heritage. In past exploits, it was often shown that Superman was not only fully aware of his heritage, but had become completely versed in its language, culture, and other elements. In John Byrne's revamp, Superman only first learned of his Kryptonian heritage as an adult, upon being exposed to a memory implant generated by his birthing matrix in Man of Steel #6. While such Kryptonian technology (demonstrated by such beings as the Eradicator) was able to help bolster his knowledge, Superman was no longer a completely-Kryptonian-educated man.
As in the original continuity, Lois Lane is Clark Kent/Superman's love interest. In the early 1990s, Lois and Clark fell in love. Clark soon told her he was Superman, which caused a brief strain in their relationship, but they eventually married, in the mid-1990s special Superman: The Wedding Album.
In 2004 DC published an updated version of Superman's origin in the 12-issue limited series Birthright. Written by Mark Waid, the limited series brings back some of the pre-Crisis elements eliminated by John Byrne, including an emphasis on alien heritage over human upbringing, and introducing elements of the Smallville television series.
Among the changes made, the "birthing matrix" explanation was replaced by the more well-known rocket ship explanation, with Kal-El sent from Krypton as an infant, not a fetus. Clark Kent now possesses the ability to see a living being's "aura," which in turn led him to become a vegetarian. Clark Kent is portrayed as representing different sides of his personality in this version, offering perhaps one of the more complex yet realistic portrayals of the character's struggle for identity. "Smallville Clark" is the "true" Clark Kent, the one most comfortable with who he is and who he is with his parents. "Metropolis Clark" is quiet, somewhat secluded, and fairly shy, better to blend into the background and not draw attention to himself. As such, he finds himself often being the odd man out; i.e. childishly being left alone at a restaurant by his fellow reporters due to his seeming lack of social graces. "Superman" is also quiet, but rather than the seemingly harmless Clark, he is quite obviously a force to be reckoned with, whether tearing robot assault helicopters from the sky or dropping a drug lord's private yacht into the drug lord's pool. However, there is not one "true" Clark Kent; rather, they are all different sides of his personality which he expresses differently.
Unlike the previous Man of Steel origin story, this origin doesn't eliminate most of the previous post-Crisis Superman stories told (as evidenced on a few scattered refernces to Man of Steel) , though the full impact that it will have on future stories (and some previous post-Crisis stories' status) remains to be seen.
Clark Kent is the secret identity of Superman. Kent, as opposed to Superman, is traditionally presented as behaving in a more introverted or "mild-mannered" manner compared to his superheroic self.
As Clark Kent, Superman has always worn his costume underneath his Clark Kent clothes, which lends itself to easy transferrence between the two personalities. In the wake of John Byrne's The Man of Steel revamp of Superman's continuity, many traditional aspects of Clark Kent were dropped in favor of giving him a more aggressive and extroverted personality, including such aspects as making Kent a top football player in high school, along with being a successful author. Recently, some aspects of this change have been dropped, in favor of bringing back elements of the earlier "mild-mannered" version of Kent.
In Metropolis, Clark Kent works as a reporter at the Daily Planet, "a great metropolitan newspaper" which allows him to keep track of ongoing events where he might be of help. Largely working on his own, his identity is easily kept secret. Fellow reporter Lois Lane became the object of Clark's/Superman's romantic affection. Lois's affection for Superman and her rejection of Clark's clumsy advances have been a recurring theme in Superman comics, television, and movies.
Some fans have noted that in order for the disguise to be credible, Clark has to be at least as skilled an actor as Christopher Reeve himself; in the Birthright miniseries, young Clark Kent studied the Meisner technique so that he could seamlessly move between his Clark and Superman personas.
Originally, Superman's personality could be rough and destructive. Although nowhere near as cold-blooded as the early Batman, the early Superman did not have a "no-kill" policy and evildoers would occasionally meet fatal ends when dealing with the hero.
By the end of the 1940s, the writers had moved toward Superman's better known "Boy Scout" persona. Even so, Superman's capacity for anger is a key element to many of the most dramatic moments in his appearances. That allows readers to see that Superman's goodness is inherent to his being, as he was imbued from a young age with a strong sense of purpose, morality, selflessness, incorruptability, modesty, fairness, compassion, and hope by his adopted parents the Kents. Superman was raised to believe that his abilities are gifts, and are not to be abused. In many ways, he is the perfect American hero, as he embodies all the best traits that people would believe to see in themselves.
Recent writers have attempted to deepen Superman's persona and provide a rationale for his goodness. Far from a perfect individual, Superman is often pictured with a sense of unbounded idealism mixed with restraint provided by his sense of fairness and compassion for others - this selfless compassion that he feels for all life was further explained in the Birthright series thanks to the fact that he can see/sense a sort of aura around all living things, once something dies its aura disappears, leaving Superman feeling "empty". He is also a man with an incredible depth of feeling, often struggling with the differences between the right answer and the practical one. In many ways, Superman is truly one of the most "human" heroes conceived, since he responds to emotional grief in stark contrast to the way he shrugs off bullets, bombs, and death-rays. On several recent occasions, Batman has faced Superman, serving as a foil to Superman's goodness; Batman, in his more recent incarnations, won't hesitate to use guile or underhanded tactics to gain an advantage, while Superman will be hesitant to use his natural gifts as an unfair edge. The tension between the modern Batman (morally hazy, paranoid loner, always pushing the limits) and the modern Superman (sometimes naively optimisitic, respectful of the law and wary of abusing his power) has become one of the defining relationships of the current DC Universe.
Superman possesses extraordinary powers which render him faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Superman's famous arsenal of powers include flight, vast super strength and invulnerability, super speed, vision powers (including x-ray, heat, telescopic, infra-red, and microscopic vision), super photographic memory, super hearing and super breath, which enables him to freeze objects by blowing on them. There are no known limits to Superman's strength, though his sense of modesty and fairness may serve as a mental block to ever knowing the true limits of his abilities. His powers were relatively limited in the early stories, but grew to become godlike by the 1980s. After Byrne's 1986 rewrite, Superman's powers were diminished, though his abilities have grown again since then, with Superman possessing enough strength to hurl mountains and stop entire planets in their orbits. One thing that has remained largely unchanged, however, is that Superman's powers come from exposure to the earth's yellow sun. In some early stories, it was stated that Superman's powers are things that all Kryptonians can do.
The first Superman character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was not a hero, but a villain. Their short story "The Reign of the Superman" concerned a bald-headed villain bent on dominating the world. The story did not sell, forcing the two to reposition their character on the right side of the law. In 1935, their Superman story was again rejected by newspaper syndicates wanting to avoid lawsuits, who recognized the character as being similar to a lead character from Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator. DC decided to take a chance with Superman, figuring if any lawsuits were filed, they would just drop the feature.
The revised Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, June 1938. Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to the company for $130 and a contract to supply the publisher with material. The Saturday Evening Post reported in 1941 that the pair was being paid still a fraction of DC's Superman profits. In 1946, when Siegel and Shuster sued for more money, DC fired them, prompting a legal battle that ended in 1948, when they signed away any further claim to Superman or any character created from him. DC soon took their names off the byline. Following the huge financial success of Superman: The Movie in 1978 and news reports of their pauper-like existences, Warner Communications gave Siegel and Shuster lifetime pensions of $35,000 per year and health care benefits. In addition, any media production which includes the Superman character must include the credit, "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster".
During a multimedia career spanning over sixty years, Superman has starred in nearly every imaginable situation, and his powers have increased to the point that he is nearly omnipotent. This poses a challenge for writers: "How does one write about a character who is nearly as powerful as God?" (Superman's Kryptonian name, "Kal-El," resembles the Hebrew words for "voice of God") This problem contributed to a decline in Superman's popularity during the latter half of the 1960s and the 1970s, a period during which Marvel Comics brought a new level of character development to mainstream comic books. By the early 1980s, DC Comics had decided that a major change was needed to make Superman more appealing to current audiences. Writer-artist John Byrne was asked to revamp and revise Superman's continuity with his The Man of Steel retelling of his origin. This 1986 reboot brought substantial changes to the character and met huge success at the time, becoming one of the top-selling books. The relaunch of Superman comic books returned the character to the mainstream, again in the forefront of DC's titles, though Superman's sales soon declined again after Byrne left the Superman titles after almost two years, with only sporadic sales spikes since then (such as during the "Death of Superman" storyline).
All Star Superman, launched in 2005, is an ongoing series under DC's All Star imprint, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. DC claims that this series will "strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements". The All Star imprint attempts to retell some of the history of DC's iconic characters, but outside of the strict DC universe continuity.