Thursday, June 1, 2017

Teen Nerds Start Super Cultural Revolution

Superman makes his debut, June 1, 1988.  The editor just thought this image from an old comic strip submission would make an eye catching cover for the new magazine.  The character was never supposed to become a continuing feature.

Superman  and the every expanding galaxy of superheroes that he spawned seem to be everywhere these days.  But when the Man of Steel first debuted in Action Comics #1 on June 1, 1938 no one could have foreseen the cultural tsunami that was quietly unleashed.
Rare mint condition copies of that book have sold at auction for $2 million.  The most famous of those rare copies once belonged to Superman obsessed actor Nicholas Cage.  How obsessed? Well, he named his son Ka-El, his hero’s birth name on his planet of origin.  Cage paid $110,000 for the book in 1997 before collector comic books began to explode in value.  The book and other parts of Cage’s extensive collection were stolen a few years later, and then recovered.  But Cage, a notorious spend thrift got into big trouble with the IRS over back taxes and sold the treasured relic for $2.16 million a few ago to help settle that debt and stay out of prison.
Meanwhile over the last almost two decades or so DC Comics, publisher of Action Comics, Superman, and related books, has repeatedly tweaked and made over their signature hero who was losing popularity to the grittier, angst ridden characters in the rival Marvel Comics universe. His look was updated, story lines made grimmer, and if I remember right he was twice “killed.”  And in what has become a stand-by comic book trick, he was re-launched in an “alternative time line.”  Superman traditionalists like say, Jerry Seinfeld, were predictably aghast.  But all of the changed kept the character in the news and sagging sales evidently blipped up.
The biggest news of all, however, is the re-launch of the Superman movie franchise.  With trailers inescapable in every movie house, TV ads, gallons of ink spilled in newspaper and magazine layouts, and electrons going wild with orchestrated on-line buzz,  Superman:  Man of Steel open nationwide in 2013.  With a more subdued color palate than the celebrated Christopher Reeve films and a brooding, alienated hero in search of himself producers hoped to score the box office coup of the summer.  It wasn’t.  The Marvel movie factory continued to rule the roost.  But, as in all such tales, let us turn our attention to the origin of the hero and franchise.
Last year's Superman vs. Batman was a dud, notable mostly for setting up this year's Wonder Woman.
Since then another big hyped flick, Superman Vs. Batman, was almost laughed off the screen last summer.
Whatever Superman’s troubles, however, there is no denying the power of what he started.  Even all of the quirky heroes from Marvel owe everything to him.
Action Comics #1 was released by National Allied Publications, which would later become known as D.C. Comics.  The book is considered the Holy Grail of comic book collectors because its cover story features the first appearance of Superman. 
The character originated in a villain named The Superman in a short story by nerdy teen-age science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster which appeared in an early science fiction fanzine published by Siegel in 1933.  
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster early in the success of Superman.

Efforts to turn it into a daily comic strip were unsuccessful and the duo set the character aside to work on other projects.  Later, Siegel re-imagined the character as a hero, rather than a villain and the two began a six year quest to find a publisher. 
When National Allied decided to launch a new adventure anthology comic, editor Vin Sullivan was instructed to find material among unpublished submissions.  He picked several stories, including Zatra the Magician, Tex Thompson, and even The Adventures of Marco Polo.  He found art by Schuster with text by Siegel intended as a daily newspaper script.  Thinking one panel with the caped Superman lifting a car would make a good cover, Sullivan told the pair he would buy the story if they re-pasted if for a comic book. 
With a few panels re-drawn and other minor changes, the two did just that and were paid $130 between them.  The publisher never intended Superman to become a running character, but overwhelming public response made it a fixture. 
The first story had most of the features of the Superman legend—being sent by his family as an infant from a doomed planet to earth, whose “yellow sun” gives the baby amazing powers.  Turned over to an orphanage, the baby surprises everyone with feats of strength (the Ma and Pa Kent story line was added later.)  The baby grows up to be mild mannered Clark Kent, who discovers his vast powers and vows to use them for good by assuming the secret identity of Superman.  Kent becomes a newspaper reporter alongside beautiful Lois Lane, who will soon be in need of rescue. 
Soon Action Comics was selling 1 million copies a month and Siegel and Schuster had launched their long sought after daily strip as well.  In 1939 demand was high enough to launch Superman as a single character monthly book—unheard of at the time—while continuing to feature him as the lead story in Action Comics. 
For a couple of generations George Reeves of the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series was the iconic Man of Steel.
 By the mid ‘40’s there were animated cartoons then live action serials at the movie houses.  The Adventures of Superman became a long running TV hit in the ‘50’s.  And a series of high budget special effects laden films became blockbusters beginning in the ‘70’s, unleashing costumed comic book heroes as a main staple of American film.  And Superman and spin-off characters returned to TV in animated series, and programs like Lois and Clark, Superboy, and Supergirl.  And he has even become a character in a popular series of Lego movies.

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