With his iconic cape, courageous crimefighting and colourful pages, Superman has not only captured but held the attention of both children and adults for over nine decades. He is now arguably one of the most recognisable Superheroes in existence, having pioneered the rise of the Superhero trend after his debut appearance in 1938. He has since made countless triumphant appearances in comic books, cartoons, live-action shows and blockbuster movies, with hoards of Hollywood A-listers eager to put a face to his name.
Well-settled into the status of ‘household name’, Superman’s humble origins as the brainchild of Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster kickstarted the success of Action Comics, a monthly issued comic book that continues publication to this day and is now dedicated entirely to the escapades of Clark Kent.
Schuster and Siegal met in 1932 while attending Glenville Highschool in Cleveland, Ohio. Both sons of Jewish immigrants living in a time when antisemitism was becoming dangerously more fashionable, the two frequently retreated to the escapism of fictional fantasy and were quick to bond over their love of fantastical storytelling.
It was from these fantasies that Superman was born.
Quietly working together throughout their teens and early adulthood, 1938 gave rise to Detective Comics. Inc, from which came the monthly issued anthology, Action Comics, featuring the very first appearance of Clark Kent and his secret superhero identity.
At the dawn of The Third Riech and the Jewish crisis looming, Action Comics made for a perfect, subtle outlet for both Siegal and Schuster.
In an interview with PBS, the satirical cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, stated “the secret of Superman was not that he came from the planet Krypton but that he came from the planet Kiev. Like the Jews, he was an outsider […]. He had to learn to control his strength and hide his strength so that he wouldn’t get into trouble and be noticed and be detested.”
Superman was an instant hit and tackled several world peace-threatening enemies in the two years that followed. This included the first appearances of classic Supervillains such as Ultra-Humaite and Lex Luthor.
On February 27th 1940, however, Superman took on his most formidable enemy yet; Adolf Hitler. At the time, few people knew that Siegal and Schuster were the children of Jewish immigrants and the depiction of Hitler came as a surprise to many. Unapologetic in their views towards the threat of Nazi tyranny, Hilter’s appearance as a Superman villain came as a new form of cathartic reading to the American public.
This bold new comic strip made its first appearance in Look magazine and was titled How Superman Would End The War. It depicted Superman capturing both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and bringing the “power-mad scoundrels” to the League of Nations, where they were put on trial and convicted of “unprovoked aggression against defenceless countries.”
For Siegal and Schuster, two Jewish kids who Jueles Fieffer fondly referred to as “little Clark Kents”, this was, perhaps, the ultimate fantasy.
As Fieffer concludes in his interview with PBS: “If there truly was a Superman, why was Hilter in power for more than five minutes?”
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