by Gene Turnbow, station manager
I happened to be in Agra, India in 2008, and, being the huge Superman fan that I am, I had one of my blue shirts with the famous chest shield symbol on it with me. Everywhere I wore it, I noticed something surprising: the locals usually spoke not a word of English, except one: “Superman.” And they always said it with a huge smile on their faces. Except for Mickey Mouse, no character is better known and more beloved the world over than the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Rocketed to Earth as an Infant …
To understand why, we need to look at his history. First appearing in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938, the original story of Superman was written by Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and illustrated by Joseph “Joe” Shuster. Superman was, and is, a seemingly effortless fusion of everything humans aspire to be. He was a symbol that spoke to generations for whom America did no wrong, life was black and white and easy to figure out, and whose heart was bigger than the S on his chest. The origin story involving the planet Krypton, by the way, first appeared in the Superman newspaper strip in 1939 but didn’t appear in the comic books until 1949.
As his popularity grew, a radio series was created in 1940 with Superman as the starring character, and many of the elements in the Superman mythos we take for granted today actually came from the radio show, not the comic books. Jimmy Olson, Kryptonite, Perry White, and the name of the newspaper he worked for, The Daily Planet, all came from the radio program. Many of the original 2068 episodes were lost, as they were performed live, with no available technology to record them. SCIFI.radio, however, does have an archive of over 1,150 of the episodes, which we play each day.
During the Second World War, Superman and the other superheroes who followed in his wake kept their noses out of the war itself. This makes sense if you think about it. You can’t have a fictional character turning the tide of war or taking it over, because these are things real men and women must do. He did, however, serve as a source of inspiration for our men and women in battle.
In the post-World War II era, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a huge resurgence. Its membership and political influence were skyrocketing, so a young writer and activist named Stetson Kennedy went undercover to get the goods on the group. He almost sounds like a superhero himself, doesn’t he? With a name like Stetson Kennedy, you’d expect some heroics – and he delivered. He worked his way into the confidences of the KKK, and learned the organization’s deepest secrets. The authorities, however, didn’t seem interested. The Klan had ties to police and the government, and had become so powerful and intimidating that police didn’t want to go anywhere near the situation. That’s when Kennedy went to the writers of the Adventures of Superman radio serial.
With the war over and the Nazis no longer a threat, the producers wanted a new villain for Superman to fight, and the KKK seemed perfect for the role. So, in a 16-episode series called Clan of the Fiery Cross, the writers of the radio serial pitted the Man of Steel against the men in white hoods. As the storyline unfolded, the shows exposed many of the KKK’s most guarded secrets. From code words to rituals, the mystique of the Klan has been completely stripped away. Within two weeks their recruitment had dropped to zero, and their membership started dwindling. The power of the KKK in North America was broken, and we have Superman to thank for it.
Republic Pictures had been making Superman serials for the movie theaters in 1948 starring Kirk Alyn in the title role. The radio series ended in 1951, and Superman would make the leap to television that same year with George Reeves, and the world saw Superman in a new light. More television would follow, including several animated series through the sixties, seventies and eighties, with additional roles various Warner Bros. Animation series from the early 2000’s through the present day, and a variety of live action shows such as Lois and Clark, The Adventures of Superboy and Smallville. Whole new generations had now grown up with Superman as a part of the popular culture, and he had become an iconic hero.
Superman returned to movie theaters in 1978 with director Richard Donner’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, which spawned three sequels. In 2006, Bryan Singer directed the feature Superman Returns, and in 2013, director Zack Snyder rebooted the film franchise with Man of Steel, with an expected sequel to feature Batman.
Which brings us to now. Today is the 76th anniversary of the appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1, with that famous cover of the Man of Steel lifting that green sedan, and he’s driving the DC brand forward in the New 52.
Man of Tomorrow
Superman still resonates, despite his long history and his birth in a simpler age. Detractors note that he’s hard to feel sympathy for, because he has the powers of a god, and no enemy can withstand him for very long. Writers respond to this valid criticism by giving him other weaknesses. Under the cape and the blue suit he’s a human being of humble origins, like the rest of us. He loves, he feels, he forms attachments, he forms ideas about the world around him and the way he thinks things should be. It is these that are his greatest weaknesses, but at the same time, his greatest strengths – and we share these with him as he struggles to find personal meaning in a world where black and white just isn’t what it used to be.
And yet, he remains what he was: a boy who called his adoptive parents “ma” and “pa,” a man who walks among us as an equal, not because he needs a secret identity – he doesn’t – but because he thinks of himself as one of us, and wants to take care of the people he cares about and being Clark Kent is the best way he knows of to do that. Because he is one of us, it’s very easy to identify with him. Kal-El of Krypton shows us how it’s done. No one can be super-powerful, but we are sometimes given advantage over others. It’s up to us how we use that advantage. If we were given powers far beyond those of mortal men, what would be in our hearts? Vengeance? Or compassion?
I wish Superman a happy 85th birthday today, and may he have many more. With him around, the path is a little more clear for the rest of us, and a little easier to follow.
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