Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Superman at 75

The most storied character in the history of comic books turns 75 this summer. Created by Clevelanders Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist), Superman made his official debut in Action Comics #1 (June, 1938), which had an original cover price of 10 cents and is now worth more than $2 million in near mint condition.

The untitled Superman story in Action Comics #1 tells the tale of a scientist on the doomed planet Krypton placing his infant son in an experimental rocket ship and launching it toward Earth. Shortly after the rocket lands, an elderly farming couple—the Kents, who died in the issue, but were later restored to continuity—finds the crash-landed vessel and are astonished to see a child inside. 
The Kents adopt the boy, name him Clark, and tell him to use his powers, which include super strength, super speed, and the ability to leap an 8th of a mile (Superman didn’t “learn” to fly until a few years later), to “assist humanity.” The story, though crudely drawn by today’s standards, is entertaining and fast paced as Clark Kent/Superman speedily grows to adulthood, earns a job as a reporter at the Daily Star (later the Daily Planet), fights crime, and goes on a date with Lois Lane.

Action Comics #1 was a smash success, creating a worldwide icon and single-handedly inventing a new type of character: the super-hero. Batman (1939), Captain Marvel (1940), Captain America (1941), Wonder Woman (1941), and other men and women in tights quickly followed in Superman’s wake, as did a number of Superman media tie-ins, including a radio show (1940-1951), a newspaper strip (1939-1966), a pair of serials (1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman), a feature film (1951’s Superman and the Mole Men), and a TV series (Adventures of Superman, 1952-1958).

Thanks to the campy, yet stylish Batman TV show, Superman took a backseat to Batman during the late 1960s, but his popularity saw a tremendous resurgence in 1978 with the release of Superman: The Movie, which starred the late, great Christopher Reeve in the title role. “The Death of Superman” comics storyline from 1992-1996 was also a big event in the Man of Steel’s life (so to speak), as was the character’s 50th anniversary, which found the Kryptonian on the cover of Time magazine and various other publications.

In the preface to the book, Superman at Fifty: the Persistence of a Legend (1987, Octavia Press), noted science fiction writer Harlan Ellison summed up the long-term appeal of the character nicely: “He is the 20th-century archetype of mankind at its finest. He is courage and humanity, steadfastness and decency, responsibility and ethic. He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in service of the human race…he is our highest aspirations in human form.”

Of course, Superman has been heavily merchandised over the years, probably more so than any other super-hero. Collector Jamie Reigle, a founding member of the Siegel and Shuster Society, owns more than 40,000 Superman collectibles, including statues, action figures, dishes, costumes, posters, puzzles, clocks, trading cards, and just about anything else you can emblazon with a red, stylized “S.”

“I have been collecting Superman for almost my entire life,” Reigle recently told the folks at World of Superheroes (worldofsuperheroes.com), a site featuring news, reviews, and interviews. “I had hundreds of comics by the time I was five years old…basically anything I have ever come across related to the character I have bought”

Reigle “blames” Superman: The Movie for his addiction, saying he was “hooked” the moment he saw the film. The super collector has turned his obsession into a business, selling Superman collectibles via supermansouvenirs.com. As of this writing, some of the site’s more prominent offerings include: a Brazilian comic book from 1939 ($7,499.95), an original Wayne Boring strip from 1958 ($249.95), a cookie jar from 1978 ($795.95), and a cardboard standee from 1988 ($99.95).

A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, will be released June 14, with Henry Cavill assuming the title role. If it’s any good, the new film will probably create a new generation of Superman collectors—maybe even one as devoted as Reigle.

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