Superman is 80 years old this year and he is a character that is still popular with mass audiences. There are many reasons behind the character’s longevity but chief among them is the myth of the messiah, the hero who sacrifices himself in order to return and bring new hope.
Visually, he is striking in a primary coloured costume bearing a red “S” insignia. As the model for many superheroes after him, Superman is the man-god come to earth to save humanity with super strength, speed, X-Ray vision and flight. The character is often mocked or deemed old-fashioned compared with darker heroes such as Batman, Deadpool and Wolverine. Yet Superman is a character who persists and it is not just because of his visual appeal.
Superman’s first appearance was on the cover of Action Comics #1, in June 1938, holding a car above his head. The four-colour printing press had just been developed and the primary colours of Superman’s costume, modelled on a circus strongman’s outfit, looked visually stunning on the newsstands.
As this was also the height of the Great Depression, the character addressed the cultural need for optimism. Even in his early appearances, he symbolised the immigrant in a land of opportunity. He fought for the weak and oppressed, such as battered wives and miners, and he upheld the social liberties of ordinary people against corruption.
A ‘nerdy’ secret identity
Superman was created by Cleveland high school students, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster who invented the character out of the wish fulfilment of every nerdish teenage boy – the desire to have great powers and attract girls. Shuster’s dynamic drawings gave the character instant identification on the comic’s page. Superman’s story and powers were similar to heroes in pulp fiction but Siegal and Shuster added their own twist – a secret identity.
The first Superman story in Action Comics contained the model for later superheroes including a special birth, an unrequited love interest and villains whose values and powers were often the opposite of the hero’s. Superman was born on Krypton, a planet that exploded – but not before his parents sent him to Earth in a rocket. He was raised in Smallville by Martha and Jonathan Kent. As quiet, meek and cowardly Clark Kent, he moved to Metropolis and became a reporter at the Daily Planet.
But Clark Kent was the key to the character’s success. Kent experienced life as an ordinary person, including unrequited love. Superman and Kent were part of an extraordinary love triangle. Kent was in love with fellow reporter – the sassy Lois Lane. But she yearned for the Man of Steel – a man who was not interested in her.
An adaptable hero
The secret of Superman’s consistent popularity also lies in his adaptability. He has been adapted in films, animations, television and radio. His image has been used in advertising, toys, collectables and, more recently, in cosplay and video games.
Superman has been read in many contexts, as a Jewish hero, an immigrant, a corporate man and the epitome of the American monomyth. The American monomyth is described by cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin as a hero who comes into civilisation and regenerates a morally corrupt society with violence.
The myth of the Messiah
But as the model for the man-god hero, Superman’s story is one that predates the American monomyth. The stories of Moses, Krishna, King Arthur and Christ follow a similar pattern: their birth is significant, they are raised in obscurity and then come to power in adulthood. The Messiah aspect of Superman has been recognised in the past 40 years. Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, and the 1980s comics of John Byrne mythologised his birth and upbringing.
The connection with classical messiahs was underlined with the comic book death of Superman in 1992, created to coordinate with the wedding of Superman and Lois Lane in comics and the Lois and Clark television series.
In this story, Superman was killed by Doomsday then resurrected. The story formed the basis for several adaptations in the television series Smallville, animated films, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It reflects myths of the dying and reviving god described by religion expert James George Frazer as the sacrifice of the god or king at harvest time so they can be reincarnated in spring.
As such, a messiah figure like Superman is an icon that inspires renewal, optimism and hope. In an age of fake news, violence and cynicism, this is surely a significant reason for his persistence as a symbol of heroism.