Last week I ruminated and illuminated the elements of Batman’s backstory that didn’t originate in the comics, proving once and for all that comics are STUPID. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the message.
Anyway, whilst doing the research, I stumbled upon the idea for this here article right here – it was practically unavoidable, like diarrhea after a Del Taco brand catmeat burrito. Both Batman and Superman are two of the longest running superhero comics – there have been a lot of pies, and a lot of fingers, and a lot of chefs in a lot of stews.
In Cleveland in 1933, two nice Jewish boys by the names of Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster created the world’s first superhero. The character went through multiple incarnations while he was being devised – one of which was even a bald evil supervillain named Superman. So, if you want to be cute, Lex Luthor was essentially devised before the Big Blue Scout. However, after multiple ideas and drafts, they came up with the Superman we all love to see super-punch evil in its throat.
You know the story. Doomed planet. Last son. Rocketship. Kansas. Cape. The first Superman comic was published in 1938, and the template for an entire medium was born. Were there world-saving heroes with strange powers before Superman? Of course. The pulp heroes that preceded him were fighting crime in masks and outlandish garb, and they had exotic names like The Shadow, and The Phantom,and even the world-famous Zorro. However, none of them had the moral barometer, the unselfish desire to help others, the bright primary colors, or the inspirational qualities that Superman did.
Superman set the bar for comic book superheroes, and he set it up in the stratosphere. The father of all superheroes deserves every ounce of respect he gets, and he single-handedly created an entire genre. His contributions to the comic book medium are legion, which is why it’s so surprising that some of the greatest pillars of the Superman mythos didn’t come from the comic books at all . . .
Superman and kryptonite go together like bullets and guns (simile courtesy of Sir Corey Feldman). That shiny green death rock is so world-famous that not only is it synonymous with Superman, it’s actually replaced the term “Achilles Heel” completely in the English vocabulary. I mean, maybe it’s done the same trick in the Portuguese language, but I’m fairly certain Portuguese isn’t real anyway.
You hear it everywhere: “Oh man, everytime that chick walks in the room I can’t remember how to talk. She’s my Kryptonite,” or “I can’t resist pies, they’re my kryptonite” or “Please don’t stab me in the heart, that’s my kryptonite!”
Kryptonite is, for the 2 people on Earth who are unfamiliar with it, made up of actual chunks of Superman’s home planet of Krypton. The radioactivity of his own doomed world not only robs Superman of his powers, but actively harms him and will, over time, kill him dead.
It has been used for over sixty years as a means to try to make Superman more interesting – after all, how do you write conflict for a man who can take a comet to the face without flinching? Kryptonite, though mostly harmless to everyone else (it does have a bit of cancer risk over long term exposure, which Lex finds out to his dismay), turns the Man of Steel into the Girl of Squeal. Yeah, I said it. Bask in the pun. Don’t look away.
Kryptonite is an obvious writer crutch, one I as a comics fan despise. The problem with Kryptonite is that it shows up in every hack Superman story. It’s practically a flag a writer waves over his head to say “I have no fucking clue how to write this character, and the challenge of giving Supes conflict is too difficult for me.” Maybe that’s a little harsh, but for such a “rare” element it seems that everyone’s belt buckle, ring, necklace, salad bowl and diaphragm is made of kryptonite. You can tell it’s a stupid crutch, because it was even INVENTED by writers in desperate need of a paddle while up shit’s creek.
Kryptonite debuted in the 1943 “Adventures of Superman” radio show, as a means for the Superman voice actor, Bud Collyer, to take a vacation. No joke. Buddy needed a week off from the fast-paced world of radio drama, and the writers had to gin up a believable reason that Superman was out of action. I say “gin up” not only because I love the term, but also because I am positive that the creation involved three writers, a bottle of gin, and the distinct scent of desperation. And so kryptonite was birthed as it lived – as a shortcut for lazy scribes to pound out a script and get back to drinking and couch-nappery. Which, I can tell you as a writer, is exactly what we do when we’re not typing.
The “S” Stands for “X”
Superman’s symbol is even more iconic than Superman itself. I mean, it is LITERALLY an icon, Webster’s Dictionary-style. One peep of that red-and-gold symbol and you know what you’re in for – soaring music, a curl of black hair, and the pounding potency of an indestructable hero. Superman’s symbol will probably outlive the character itself – in my nerd-writer version of the future, it becomes a flag that stands for Intergalactic Truth, Intergalactic Justice, and the Intergalactic Muh-Fucking Space-American Way.
And don’t get your space-panties in a bunch – yes, the Superman symbol came from the comics. It’s on the cover of the first issue, for Rao’s sake. However, the widely known MEANING of the symbol didn’t.
Lois Lane: “What does the ‘S’ stand for?”
Superman: “It’s not an ‘S.’ On my planet, it stands for ‘hope.'”
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but the idea that the big fat “S” on the chest of the Metropolis Marvel stands for anything but “Superman” comes from the 1978 Richard Donner “Superman: The Movie.” Widely considered to be the movie that made super-hero films viable for studios, “Superman: The Movie” introduced many elements to the Superman canon. The idea of Krypton using crystal technology, and that the planet itself looks like a big snowflake. The expansion of the “Jor-El” character to anything but just backstory. The perennial death of Jonathan Kent as a character-defining moment for Clark.
It was actually actor Marlon Brando’s idea to make the Superman “S” symbol into an “El” family crest. Naturally, director Richard Donnor loved the idea and ran with it, inspiring future generations of story tellers to put some kind of meaning into Kal-El’s chestpiece.
One comic-book storyline (after “Superman: The Movie”) suggested that instead of it being a Kryptonian symbol, it was a Native American symbol for healing that Jonathan Kent had discovered. And yes, that storyline was as grasping and dumb as it sounds.
The most heartwarming interpretation, the “hope” version, was actually created in 2004 by writer Mark Waid for the “Superman: Birthright” graphic novel.
Full credit for “hey maybe that shit ain’t an ‘S'”, however, goes to actor Marlon Brando. Which might be his greatest contribution to cinema, other than, you know, an amazing acting career. He also had a pet deformed piano-playing midget in “Island of Doctor Moreau,” which is an image I know I’ll never be able to forget.
Perry White and the Daily Planet
In the words of Lana Kane: Yuuuuuuup. You better believe it. Without the “Adventures of Superman” radio serial that aired in the ’40s, you would just be totally screwed.
Clark Kent’s gruff but golden-hearted Editor-in-Chief didn’t come from the comics. Nay sir or madam, the Daily Planet’s head honcho was created for the radio, as a sounding board for Lois’s craziness. A bit of stalwart authority for Clark, and a semi-assholish dad figure for intrepid photographer Jimmy Olsen, Perry White fills a lot of important roles in the Superman stories.
Perry White first appeared in the second episode of the series, in February of 1940. Actor Julian Noa did such a great job with the portrayal of the bearish editor that the character was added to the comics before the year was even out. In the movies, Perry White would go on to snare top-notch actors like Jackie Cooper, Frank Langella, and Morpheus “Lawrence” Fishburne.
The Superman newspaper strip, appropriately enough, gave us the name of the building that Superman Clark-Kented around in when he wasn’t punching aircraft carriers and lifting kryptonite islands – the “Daily Planet.” In the original comics it was called the “Daily Star,” based off the “Toronto Star” where Superman creator Joe Schuster used to work as a newsboy.
So there you go. Without adaptations, Clark Kent doesn’t have a building or a boss. He’s essentially unemployed.
Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal, closest friend, confidante, and the only person he has to save as much as Lois Lane. Maybe even moreso – Lois has the decency to occasionally get herself out of trouble, or at least hinder the villain. And, on top of that, Lois doesn’t have the weird tendency that Jimmy does to (frequently) get transformed into strange shit. Jimmy’s been turned into a gorilla, a giant, a lizard man, a giant gorilla lizard man, a banana split, an airplane made of paperclips, six separate former Menudo members, a jar of clams, an angry sound effect, the twelfth Doctor, SuperJim, former Conan O’Brien co-host Andy Richter, current Conan O’Brien host Conan O’Brien, future Conan O’Brien host Claxis VII Humorbot, a miniature clenched fist, a cow’s (2nd) stomach, and an explosive barrel of Vermont cheddar cheese.
Jimmy, however, didn’t start in the comics. Oh no. The red-headed boy reporter actually began in the “Adventures of Superman” radio show, like half the damn things on this list. The Supes radio show seems to have added more to the Superman mythos than the last thirty years of comics. Jimmy was added to the radio show to basically give someone for Clark and his alter-ego, the Man of Steel, to talk to. Radio being primarily an audio affair (primarily?), it was either introduce a character at the Planet who wasn’t Lois, or turn Superman into a monologuing weirdo like Gollum.
“Yesss, preccciooous. Lex Luthor is doing something dicky again . . . . yessss.”
Leap. Tall Buildings. In a Single Bound.
In the comics, Superman was a jumper – he was leaping all over the place like a big gay ballerino. And by gay, I don’t mean homosexual. I mean gay like “garish, happy, and bright.” No hate mail, please. When Superman decided to bring Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler in for justice, he jumped into Berlin, grabbed the Fuhrer, leaped over to Moscow, collared the other “man of steel,” and brought them both into the League of Nations like the whipped puppies they were.
That’s right. Superman’s DEFINING super power didn’t come from the comics. And it didn’t come from the radio show, thank God. It didn’t originate in the old George Reeves show, or in the Richard Donner film. The ability of the Man of Tomorrow to soar above the clouds, to streak into space, to zip down from the ether and hand out ass-beatings like they’re on closeout?
That came from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoon from the 1940’s. Max Fleischer was one of the pioneer animators – his rotoscoping method created the most advanced, most realistic, most fluid animation of his era. If you go back and watch those Superman cartoons, they look crazy ahead of their time – when everyone was just puppeting 2D cutouts, Max Fleischer cartoons had fluid movements, dynamism, and realistic physics. Things had weight and heft, and Superman himself looked like he really could run faster than a locomotive.
When it came time to develop the Superman cartoon, Max Fleischer and his animators tried to have him jump around, but the realistic animation made the jumps look silly. It pretty much looked like a man in a cape bouncing around the city, and nobody wants Superman to look like a demented rubber ball with underpants on. So Fleischer suggested a change – what if Superman could fly?
Can you imagine being the first person that said “What if Superman could fly?” God that sentence alone makes the little boy inside of me bow his head with solemn weight. “What if Superman. Could Fly.” It sounds like a zen koan. It hits your mind-nails like a brain-hammer. It just feels good.
And now, Superman jets around the city, the wind never bothering his super-coif, snapping his cape like the world’s greatest flag behind him. When the citizens of Metropolis look up, they don’t see a bird. They don’t see a plane.
They see Superman.