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March 29, 2024, Anaheim. Superman cosplayers at the WonderCon.

Picture by: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

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The creation and evolution of Superman

17 year-old Justin Sau explains how The Man of Steel created the superhero genre, 90 years ago

Perhaps the most iconic superhero ever created, spawning millions of comic books, films, television shows and merchandise, Superman has captured hearts and imaginations all over the world for decades.

With new adaptations always appearing – most recently the TV show Superman & Lois (2021) and the newest movie interpretation set to hit the silver screen in July 2025 – it’s hard to believe The Last Son of Krypton’s humble beginnings began almost 90 years ago in the minds of two young Jewish boys growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.

The origin of Superman

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster bonded over their admiration for fiction. Siegel wrote and self-published science fiction stories, with Shuster often providing illustrations for his work.

In January 1933, Siegel published a short story entitled The Reign of the Superman, about a telepathic and telekinetic villain who used his powers maliciously. However, Superman as a villain didn’t last long.

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  • First two pages of the 'The Reign of the Superman' | Picture by: Wikipedia

  • Drawing inspiration from the strong men of the age as well as pulp sci-fi characters such as Tarzan and John Carter of Mars (both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs), the duo began to develop Superman into the figure we know today: an alien from the planet Krypton sporting tights with an ‘S’ on the chest, over-shorts, and a cape.

    In 1938, a new comic anthology magazine called Action Comics took note, asking Siegel and Shuster to develop a 13-page comic strip story about Superman. They accepted, and were paid $130 (equivalent to about $2,800 in 2024) for their work. The first issue of Action Comics, published on April 18, 1938, is widely considered to be the beginning of the superhero genre.

    Superman’s success and message

    The early success of Superman can be attributed to Siegel’s tackling of real issues that affected everyday people. At first, these included events in Ohio’s history such as the mine accident in Athens County, on November 5, 1930.

    Against a background of Hitler’s rise in Europe and growing anti-Semitism, Siegel and Shuster created a hero that defended the weak. They worked hard to tell stories of hope that would cheer people on, as things looked hopeless. Some have even argued that Superman is an allegory for the Golem, a mythological creature created out of clay who protects the Jewish community from those who threaten it.

    As World War 2 erupted across the world, Superman was a symbol of American patriotism, in his blue-and-red uniform, shown apprehending tyrants and dictators. A famous example is the cover of Superman #17 (1942): Superman is holding both Hitler and the Japanese emperor by the scruff of their necks.

    Superman’s pursuit of (in his original catchphrase) ‘Truth, Justice, and the American way’ aligned with broader propaganda efforts, mirroring the ideals the US sought to promote. As an example of good prevailing over evil, Superman served as a tool to boost morale, foster national unity, and rally support for the war effort.


    Kirk Alyn (1948), the first actor to play Superman.

    Picture by: Wikipedia

    Yet while the comic book covers were often strong messages in support of American troops, the content inside rarely dealt with issues of war, preferring to stick with colourful villains like Lex Luthor, Toyman, or the Prankster. In a country bombarded with news of the war, these fantastical stories likely served as a method of escapism for soldiers and those at home.

    Superman’s massive popularity soon exceeded the limits of the comic book. Radio shows, animated and live-action TV series, and feature films soon dotted the landscape. Not only did this further solidify Superman’s status as a cultural icon, but it also opened up the way for the superhero genre.

    The superhero genre

    Once Superman had established the conventions of a costume, a codename, extraordinary abilities, and an altruistic mission, hundreds of imitations followed, among them Batman and Captain America.

    This flourishing of characters is now referred to as the Golden Age of Comic Books (late 1930s–late 1950s), beginning with the creation of Superman and ending when sales began to decline, leading to the cancellation of many characters. Superman was one of the few superhero franchises that survived this decline, and his sustained popularity into the late 1950s led to a revival in the Silver Age of Comic Books (late 1950s–1970s).

    While the Golden Age reflected the pulp era of the time, with darker and moodier stories, the Silver Age, more camp and light-hearted, took a vastly different approach. Superman was transformed into the ultimate Boy Scout with a strict moral code and an even wider array of powers. Some blame the Silver Age for ruining the character, making him little more than an ‘overpowered goody-two-shoes’.

    The Bronze Age of Comic Books (1970s–mid-1980s) breathed new life into the character, with a deeper exploration of Clark Kent — Superman’s human alter-ego — and a modernisation of supporting characters such as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. The Bronze Age also saw a return of darker plot elements and storylines more related to relevant social issues.

    Learn more:

    How ‘Superman’ gave rise to superhero movies 40 years ago

    The movie Superman (1978) appeared during this time. Its success marked the viability of the big-budget, live-action superhero genre, setting a new standard for superhero films to come.

    The film’s popularity and critical reception helped revitalise the character of Superman. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal, often regarded as one of the most definitive and iconic interpretations of the character, showcased the Silver Age morality and goodness of the Kryptonian, while also humanising and adding dimension to what some perceived as an overly corny persona.

    In the mid-1980s, the Modern Age of Comic Books (also known as the Dark Age) emerged, where we began to see a re-emergence of titles with serious content. Stories often explored social and political issues, incorporating themes of identity, power, and the consequences of heroism.

    In this era, writers began to focus on Superman’s vulnerabilities and internal struggles.

    A notable example of this is The Death of Superman, a comic-book storyline that unfolded in 1992. Up until that point, Superman had been perceived as nearly invincible, but now he met his physical match in a seemingly unstoppable antagonist named Doomsday. The story ends with Superman sacrificing himself to take down Doomsday, an event that sparked intense attention and debate.

    The storyline explored Superman’s vulnerability and mortality, raising the stakes higher than they had ever been raised before, to emphasise Superman’s determination, self-sacrifice, and unwavering commitment to protecting the people of Earth.

    The storyline challenged the notion of superheroes as invincible and immortal, paving the way for more nuanced and complex characterizations.

    Another side of Superman

    Recent movie and television adaptations have taken a similar approach to humanising the Man of Steel. The recent TV show Superman & Lois, for example, explores his role as a family man, depicting his struggles with parenthood and balancing his personal relationships with his superhero duties.

    The 2013 movie Man of Steel garnered much controversy. Henry Cavill portrayed Superman as a more grounded and conflicted figure, who ends up killing the main villain, General Zod. This plot point was extremely polarising, with some angry that Superman broke his strict no-kill policy


    However, this can easily be seen as a return to the character’s origins. In fact, Golden Age Superman storylines were typically moodier and darker than those of Batman, with his exploits often seeing powerless human goons killed.

    Along with gloomier and grittier takes on the character, there’s also been an uptick in the ‘evil Superman’ archetype. From Brightburn to Homelander in The Boys to Omni-Man in Invincible, every show seems to have an equally overpowered villain counterpart. These portrayals challenge the notion of the infallible hero, exploring the potential dark side that can come with extraordinary abilities.

    “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” observed Lord Acton, a British historian, and in a world where we are increasingly concerned with power, nepotism, and corruption, these interpretations are more interesting to modern audiences than the incorruptible Boy Scout portrayals.

    With James Gunn, American filmmaker and studio executive, set to spearhead the next Superman movie, it’s a mystery as to what he’ll bring to the table.

    Will it continue the trend of darker reflections of modern society? Or will it be a return to the Silver Age, as a more optimistic, shining example of hope and morality? Either way, you’ll find me first in line at the cinema.

    Written by:


    Justin Sau

    Culture editor

    Hong Kong, SAR

    Born in 2007, Justin studies in Hong Kong at the HKIS. Fluent in English and Mandarin, he is interested in journalism, English literature, history, and sports.

    Justin joined Harbinger’s Magazine in 2023 as a contributor, writing predominantly about culture. In 2024, he took over the Culture section of the magazine.

    Edited by:


    Maria Mitko

    Women’s Desk editor

    Warsaw, Poland


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