Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where did Superman Come From?

There are two current theories about the origins of Superman. The newest one starts with the father of writer Jerry Siegel dying during a robbery. A year later he invented a bullet-proof hero who could stop any crime. Did the one lead to the other? Maybe but there was another strong influence.

Meanwhile, a character in Funky Winkerbean who writes comic books was assigned to write Superman. He is suffering from writer's block so one of the other characters took him to the house that Siegel lived in when he created Superman. The writer imagines Siegel lying in bed, bored. Beside him is a copy of Philip Wylie's book Gladiator.

Wikipedia says: The novel is widely assumed an inspiration for the character Superman,[1] though no confirmation exists that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was influenced by it.
For anyone who has read the novel and the early issues of Superman, there is no question about the novel's influence. In the novel, a scientist discovers a way to give superhuman strength and speed to any organism as long as his treatment is applied in early development. After a successful test on a kitten, he tries it on his unborn son.

The experiment is a total success. The scientist's son is superhuman. He can hurl boulders like pebbles. He can run at fantastic speeds and make incredible leaps. He is nearly indestructible as he discovers in World War I the first time he is shot with a machine gun. But he has limits. He is only one man and he eventually tires. He has to hide his strength or people fear him.

During the novel he tries several things. He is a football star and a soldier. He tries cleaning up Washington DC. None of these work out. Eventually he decides to create a city of people like himself. He challenges god to stop him and is killed by lightening.

In the first couple of issues of Superman, he goes undercover as a football player. He stops a war. The cover of the first issue where Superman smashes one car into an other happened while he was cleaning up Washington.

And of course, in the beginning Superman couldn't fly. He just leaped, just like Wylie's character. Superman didn't have X-ray vision or any of his other powers, either. He was strong, fast, and indestructible.

It is clear that Siegel and Shuster used Wylie's character but they made their own changes. They gave him a costume and a secret identity. They reasoned that someone in a flashy costume wouldn't scare people. They also changes the source of his powers. Instead of a scientist working in secret, they had Superman come from a different planet. By far the biggest divergence from Wylie was that Superman was successful at everything he tried and that he devoted himself to helping people. Wylie's character never had any luck helping people.

Even though they swiped the concept for Superman from another medium, Segiel and Shuster's own spin on the character was far more important than the source material. Costumes characters had existed for a while (the Phantom, for example, was created two years before Superman), but they created the model for superheroes to come - the idea of someone with superpowers adopting a costume and secret identity continues to today.

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