How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero

Larry Holzwarth - April 15, 2022

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Superman’s activities during World War Ii caused problems for writers and fans.

7. Superman went to war in 1942

Superman’s writers and artists faced a problem when the United States entered World War II. It was obvious to them and Superman’s fans that he could not directly intervene in the war. How could German and Japanese troops oppose Superman were he to engage them in direct combat? The Man of Steel could easily destroy enemy troops, planes, tanks, ships and all the weapons of war. Yet the writers could not ignore the war. The same newspapers which carried the Superman comic strips, the radio stations which broadcast The Adventures of Superman, the theaters which presented the shorts, all carried news about the events taking place around the world. And in early 1942, most of the news was bad. Superman had to be seen aiding the war effort, but not in a way which detracted from the troops or weakened his own powers.

Covers of Action Comics and Superman often carried images of Superman battling U-boats, or deep in the Pacific jungles, but the stories in the magazine had no relation to the cover. In the animated shorts, Superman was often seen engaged in sabotage. One short, titled Eleventh Hour, had Clark Kent and Lois Lane interned as journalists in Japan in the early days of the war. By night, Superman left the place where he was held, sabotaging ships, railroads, and factories. When spotted, the Japanese announced Lois would be shot if there were further acts of sabotage, though Clark Kent was not similarly threatened. Superman sank another Japanese ship, rescued Lois from a firing squad, and returned her to the United States. For the most part, Superman supported the war effort by urging compliance with the Bond Drives, Scrap Drives, and other efforts on the home front throughout the war.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Clark Kent’s failed eye exam kept him from the draft, and Superman at home during World War II. Wikimedia

8. The writer’s had Clark Kent declared 4F by his draft board during World War II

When America entered the war the creators of Superman faced another dilemma regarding their hero. How could Clark Kent, young, single, and in good health, avoid the draft which faced all American men of a similar background. They found the answer, once more, via Superman’s eyes. In the story, Clark Kent receives his draft notice and reports for his pre-induction examinations. He failed the eye exam, through the device of using his X-ray vision to read an eye chart in an adjoining room, rather than the chart indicated. As a result, Clark received a 4F draft classification, which allowed him to remain in Metropolis through the war, freeing Superman to act through his own devices. And, though stories of the Man of Steel’s direct intervention in the war were few, there were still some presented.

Superman participated in training exercises with troops, airmen, and sailors. Lois Lane also supported the war effort, particularly through magazine cover art. In one depiction, used twice with just slight modification, Lois posed with a soldier, sailor, and airman, arm in arm, telling them “You’re my Supermen”. By the end of the war, Clark Kent was close to active service, working as a war correspondent on a Navy destroyer. At least once in the war, the United States censored Superman, demanding a story which had Lex Luthor planning to use an atomic bomb on Superman be withheld. The Manhattan Project leaders protested, preventing publication until they either cleared the story or felt it was no longer a threat to the secrecy surrounding the development of the atomic bomb. A modified version of the story appeared in 1946.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Though comic covers depicted Superman in battle few of the stories in the magazines did. DC Comics

9. Superman and the other superheroes served as morale boosters during World War II

Superman’s war service, which occurred in newspaper strips, comic magazines, on radio, and in film was directed almost entirely at raising morale, both at home and with the men and women serving overseas. His engagement with enemy troops usually took place as a side-effect of his having to rescue Lois during one of her news-finding missions. Most of the DC Comics superheroes fulfilled similar missions during the war, with stories of them thwarting saboteurs and espionage agents, conducting espionage themselves, and meeting with the troops during training. All the superheroes, as well as other comic characters including Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and many more urged Americans to buy bonds, support war drives, and recycle paper. In 1941, Batman and Superman joined forces to raise money for war orphans.

In at least one way they contributed to the value of their magazines as collector’s items in the post-war era. Paper drives continued throughout the war, with Americans urged to collect and recycle newspapers, magazines, and work papers. Many of the comic books from the first decade of Superman found their way into recycling plants, making the earliest editions of Action Comics, Detective Comics, Superman, and others scarce. In the late 20th century the scarcity made the value of such early editions soar to record heights. In 2021 a copy of Action Comics #1 sold for the record price of $3.25 million in a private sale. The seller had purchased the item just three years earlier, for which he paid $2 million. According to experts, only about 100 copies of Action Comics #1 exist today. How many were recycled during the war years is unknown.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Superman’s first encounter with the bizarre supervillain, Mr. Mxyztplk. DC Comics

10. Mr. Mxyztplk appeared as a means to lighten the stories during the war

In 1944 a new character appeared in Superman’s universe, first in the daily comic strips, and later in Action Comics. Depicted as an imp, bald, in a purple costume with a green bow tie, he is free from the restraints imposed by the laws of physics. Sometimes called Mxy, he can only be tricked into returning to his home world, said to be in the fifth dimension, by getting him to either spell or pronounce his mouthful of a name backward. Mxy learned of Superman’s world via a book, and traveled to it intent on using his proclivity for practical jokes and seemingly unrestrained powers to take over the world. After encountering Superman, his motives changed in the 1940s, and he appeared desirous of simply tormenting Superman by creating endless emergencies to which the Man of Steel must respond.

If tricked into saying his name he finds himself instantly transported home, for a minimum of 90 days, giving Superman a badly needed period of rest. Mxy was initially more of a lighthearted villain, pulling pranks which embarrassed, rather than endangered his victims. In later iterations of the character he became more dangerous and a formidable enemy. At one point, in a later iteration of Mxy, Superman travels to the fifth dimension to turn the tables on his pesky foe. Mxy caused another change in Superman regarding his powers. In the 1950s it is explained that Superman is susceptible to magic, and since Mxy’s acts seem as if they are created by magic (the kind of magic which would occur if the laws of physics are suspended) he can easily defeat Superman.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
A lobby poster for the first live-action film appearance of Superman. Pinterest

11. Superman appeared in a live-action 15 part serial film in 1948

Aimed squarely at children, Superman appeared as a live action film in 1948, though the flying sequences were animations superimposed on the film. Kirk Alyn played Clark Kent/Superman, though the film credits listed Superman in the lead role. Noel Neill played Lois Lane, a role to which she would return. The serial told the story of Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth, his adoption by the Kent’s, and his discovery of his superpowers. Having decided to use them for good, Superman travels to Metropolis, where he meets Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, unravels a plot by a villain known as the Spider Lady, and learns of his weakness from kryptonite. The serials nearly all ended in a cliffhanger, shown during Saturday matinees. The film was a huge success financially, the children all anxious to attend the following week to learn how Superman got out of a jam.

The film was successful enough to demand a sequel, which brought back Alyn as Superman, and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. It again featured 15 chapters, most of which ended in cliffhangers, with Superman fighting to save Metropolis from Lex Luther and his collection of diabolical machines. Lyle Talbot played Luther. Talbot had the dubious distinction of playing a major role in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, almost universally regarded as the worst film ever made in Hollywood. The second sequel, titled Atom Man v. Superman, did not do as well as the first. Superman’s flying was again animated, and whenever he landed from a flight he had to do so off-screen, due to the limitations of the process. Atom Man v. Superman was released in 1950. By then more ambitious projects were in the works.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane stands behind George Reeves as Superman in a lobby card for Superman and the Mole Men. Wikimedia

12. George Reeves contracted to portray Superman on the new medium of television

George Reeves film acting career began with a considerable bang. He appeared in the opening scene of 1939’s Gone with The Wind, alongside Vivian Leigh and Fred Crane. Reeves was one of the Tarleton twins begging Scarlett O’Hara to share barbecue with them. Despite his auspicious start, his acting career did not go well and when he was offered the part of Superman on the medium of television he only reluctantly accepted. Worried about becoming typecast, he nonetheless recognized the need for work. His first project as Superman was in a B picture, intended to introduce him as the superhero in the television series, set to begin broadcasting in 1952. The film was Superman and the Mole Men. In the story, Lois and Clark are sent to a small town where the deepest oil well in the world revealed some strange events.

Small, humanoid figures emerged from the well, and explored the town, raising fears among the townspeople. When one of the so-called Mole Men was shot, Superman intervenes. In the course of the film, he protects both the Mole Men and the townspeople when the creatures attempt to defend themselves. The first theatrical film to feature a DC Comics character, Superman and the Mole Men gave a prequel of how George Reeves would portray Superman in the upcoming television series. The film, though only moderately successful, was later adapted as a two-part episode on Adventures of Superman, the vehicle which made George Reeves a major star, though a regrettably typecast actor.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
George Reeves as Superman during a promotional appearance at Hess Brothers Department Store, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1958. Wikimedia

13. Adventures of Superman took to the airwaves in 1952

Originally created as a syndicated program, Adventures of Superman starred George Reeves, Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane (replaced by Noel Neill for the second season), Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, and John Hamilton as Perry White. Hollywood backlots stood in for Metropolis. The first two seasons were filmed in black and white, after which the series was filmed in color. The first season’s programs were almost film noir in appearance, and Superman fought criminals and organized crime leaders, with several deaths occurring in the scripts. The dark quality of the scripts lightened over time. By the time of the color episodes, the scripts were considerably more humorous. Deaths became infrequent, and then gone completely, criminals less fearsome and more inept, and Superman generally rescued Jimmy or Lois, or both, from whatever ridiculously farcical situation they found themselves in.

George Reeves became a huge star, especially to children. The program was so popular with children that the US Treasury asked for a special episode, in which Superman and his fellow cast members exhorted children to buy stamps, saving them to purchase a US Savings Bond. The episode was filmed and distributed to schools for viewing. There was another important change in Superman presented by the program. Until then, in the opening announcement for the radio program, Superman had always fought for “truth and justice”. Adventures of Superman changed the line to read “the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”. The change was a reflection of the Red Scare anti-communism beliefs prevalent in American society during the 1950s.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Reeves became typecast as Superman and the series filming schedule prevented him from seeking other work. IMDb

14. Adventures of Superman ignored the supervillains of other media

Lex Luthor and other, somewhat otherworldly villains of the comics and animated shorts did not appear in the live-action television series. Nor did other superheroes, such as Batman and Green Lantern, though they frequently appeared with Superman in the magazines. Two areas prevalent in the comics did appear, Superman’s susceptibility to green kryptonite, and Lois Lane’s frequent suspicions that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. At least two more seasons of Adventures of Superman were planned, with filming scheduled to begin in 1959 when George Reeves died under mysterious circumstances in his Hollywood home. Originally labeled as a suicide, it has long been regarded as a homicide by many who knew him well, and by others investigating the event. He died in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. There were no fingerprints on the gun, not even his own.

Reeves’ death shocked fans of the show, especially the thousands of children to whom he was Superman. He made many appearances in character for children’s events during the run of the show and even quit smoking as he felt Superman should set a good example for children. In 1957 he even appeared on I Love Lucy, as Superman, to entertain some children at Ricardo’s home. In 2006 the sad tale of the death of George Reeves was the subject of the film Hollywoodland, which featured Ben Affleck as the first portrayer of Superman on television. By the way, Reeve’s Clark Kent preferred storerooms or closets as the location in which to change into Superman, rather than the more legendary telephone booth.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
The creation of Superboy and subsequent changes to his story changed Superman’s story as well. DC Comics

15. The Adventures of Superman when he was a boy

As early as November, 1938, Jerry Siegel pitched the idea of a character depicting the adventures of Superman when he was a boy in the Midwest. It was rejected then, and again in 1940. The accepted premise was that Superman arrived at Metropolis have decided to use his up to then secret powers for good. In 1944, with Siegel than serving in the Army, Detective Comics decided to go forward with stories featuring Superboy, based in part on the success of the character of Robin, The Boy Wonder, Batman’s protégé. Joe Shuster provided the art, an act which contributed to the deepening chasm between the creators of Superman, as well as with their mutual publisher. After a few issues featuring Superboy in Just Fun Comics, Superboy moved to Adventure Comics in 1946, and his own magazine was introduced in 1949.

The existence of Superboy changed much of the backstory for his adult counterpart. His adoptive parents were given names, Jonathan and Martha Kent. The town where he was raised was named Smallville, though no state was indicated. He aged from adolescence, developed a relationship with a girl named Lana Lang, His dog, Krypto, was presented as another survivor of Krypton. Krypto was rocketed to earth in a prototype of the vessel which later carried Kal-El to the same destination, though a course deviation extended his voyage by several years. Krypto had a secret identity too, a patch of brown dye served to identify him as Kent’s dog, Skip, when he was not in costume in company with Superboy/Superman.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
A cover for Lois Lane imagining Superboy’s girlfriend Lana Lang as the wife of Superman. DC Comics

16. Superboy served to update and backdate the stories of Superman and other Superheroes

In the 1950s the editors of DC Comics decided to set the stories featuring Superboy in the early to mid-1930s. This allowed them to jibe with the emergence of Superman in 1938. In the 1970s the decision was made to keep Superboy about 15 years chronologically behind Superman. Thus, 1970s Superboy stories appeared to take place in the 1950s. In the 1980s Superboy appeared to live in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 Superboy first encountered the cosmic imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, sixteen years after Superman had first met the villainous imp. Superboy also appeared in a group of juvenile superheroes, the Legion of Superheroes, which appeared in Adventure Comics, Superboy, and The Legion of Superheroes. The membership of the legion expanded and contracted over time, though Superboy was nearly always included.

The changes, backdating, updating, and characters introduced in Superboy and his associated magazines meant the original story of Superman appearing in Metropolis in 1938, an unknown until then, was completely wrong. Superman was already acquainted with Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and others of his world, having met them during his many adventures as a boy. He was also already aware of the dangers of kryptonite, the full use of his superpowers, and his need to retain the dual personalities of Clark Kent and Superman. The many different lives of Superman and Superboy were resolved, partially, through the creation of alternate universes and Earths beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century, which brought other changes to Superman as well.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Superman’s Fortress of Solitude has changed locations and appearances many times over the years.

17. Little has ever been known about Clark Kent’s home life

Although Clark Kent lives in Metropolis, having grown up in Smallville, little is known of his actual residence after leaving the bucolic community and farm. He had an apartment at 344 Clinton Street in Metropolis, where he lived for years. Superman kept a room for Clark’s use (in order to protect his secret identity and fool his friends) within his Fortress of Solitude. The Fortress of Solitude serves as Superman’s retreat and private refuge, and like all things Superman there have been several. His first such refuge was called his Secret Citadel, cut out of a mountainside not far from Metropolis. Later versions have appeared in the Arctic, the Antarctic, the mountains of Peru, the Amazon, under the Sargasso Sea, and orbiting in space. Despite its formidable location and defenses, it has been breached many times by Superman’s enemies, including Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and others.

While in Metropolis Superman lived as Clark Kent, in the apartment mentioned above. In the 1980s another reboot of the Superman story created a more assertive Clark than his predecessor, and that version of the character proposed marriage to Lois Lane, as well as revealing his long-held secret of being Superman. They were finally married in 1996, as the Kents rather than as Mr. and Mrs. Superman. The engagement was a long one, complicated in part by Superman’s death in combat. Another complicating factor was the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which did not want the couple married prematurely. Lois and Clark had not yet married when Superman died in January, 1993, beaten to death by the supervillain Doomsday. It took another three years to resurrect the Man of Steel and get him to the altar, disguised as Clark.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Promo card for the 40th anniversary of Christopher Reeve’s appearance as Superman. imdb

18. Christopher Reeve helped bring Superman back to the fore after a decade of waning interest

When little-known actor Christopher Reeve auditioned for the role of Superman in 1978 he was not a fan of the character and had little knowledge of the comics. He had watched the 1950s Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, and had some idea of how he wanted to play the role. He was told to play only Superman, and when portraying Clark Kent to perceive of it as a role within the lead role. The filming was difficult, all of the flying sequences were done with wires and harnesses. CGI was not yet a major factor in making action movies. Reeve won mostly rave reviews for his performance as Superman, and the initial film of the series grossed over $300 million worldwide, making him a major box office draw. Unfortunately for both Reeve and the character, the three sequels which followed did not perform as well.

Reeve’s tragic horseback riding accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Coupled with the tragic loss of George Reeves after his association with Superman, gossip surfaced the role was cursed. Reeve and his costar as Lois Lane Margot Kidder dismissed the idea of a curse affecting performers in Superman productions, and Reeve recognized his role as the making of his sadly shortened career. Reeve’s performances as Superman and Clark Kent changed the way the dual part was perceived by actors in live action films and television productions, and remained true to the Superman of the original comics. Christopher Reeve died from complications as a result of his accident on October 10, 2004.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Marlon Brando portrayed Jor-El, Superman’s father, in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. ThoughtCo

19. Superman continues to evolve and his story changes to the current day

Despite the now several different versions of Superman, depending on the timeline, section of the metaverse, and characters involved, continue to adjust to changes in the current day. Yet his basic premise, first appearing in 1938, remains the same. A powerful and nearly omniscient father sends him to Earth, along with instructions regarding his great powers and his obligations to use them for the benefit of others. On Earth he becomes a savior figure, doing battle with evil in all forms, while overcoming his own weaknesses and limitations. He restricts his own enjoyment of life in order to be available to render needed assistance at all times. In one story arc, he died following a brutal beating at the hands of Doomsday, only to be later resurrected and emerged triumphant.

Although far from the image of the overgrown, overly powerful Boy Scout he presented in the 1950s and 1960s, he still refrains from excessive violence whenever possible. He is focused on the protection of humans and the planet on which they live, but not to the detriment of other species, or life forms. Since his first appearance, Superman has fought against common criminals and crime lords, supervillains and aliens, Nazis, Fascists, Communists, domestic and foreign terrorists, and every imaginable, for some unimaginable, enemies of peace and tranquility for the human race. And there are even some clues regarding how Superman and his world will continue to evolve in the future.

How Superman Became the Most Recognizable Superhero
Clark Kent turns to a Daily Planet storeroom as a refuge to turn into Superman in one of the animated shorts of the 1940s. Wikimedia

20. A future for Superman is all but ensured

In the 2010s several reboots of DC Comics’ entire lineup of Superheroes addressed the relationship of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as well as Superman. In 2016 a reboot, called DC Rebirth confirmed the continuing relationship between Clark/Superman and Lois as married, and the biological parents of Jonathan Kent. Jonathan Kent became the new Superboy in 2017 and frequently appears with both of his parents in both Superman and Action Comics magazines. The many reboots and metaverse of the Superman saga are difficult for casual fans to comprehend. As a result, Superman currently does not rule the superhero realm as he did in his storied past. But, he has long been called the Man of Tomorrow.

Superman and his friends and enemies continue to appear in films, television productions, video games, computer animations, collecting cards, graphic novels, full novels, merchandise, collectibles, commercials, school supplies, posters, and of course, in comic books. Comic books from the classic Golden and Silver ages of Superman in good condition command huge sums from collectors. Children still wear Superman costumes at Halloween, as do many adults to judge from their availability on websites. As of this writing, Superman is nearly 84 years of age, but all indications are that he will continue to enjoy a fruitful life in the realms of entertainment and imagination.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster: The Men Behind Superman”. Dylan Moure, The Log. May 22, 2017. Online

“What Is Superman’s Origin Story And How Has It Changed Over 80 Years?”. Trevor Van As, How to Love Comics. March 4, 2018

“The Architecture of Superman: A Brief History of The Daily Planet”. Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian Magazine. June 12, 2013

“When Did We Learn That Superman’s Powers Came From Earth’s Yellow Sun?” Brian Cronin, May 14, 2019

“Lex Luthor”. Article, Britannica Online.

“The First Onscreen Superman Was a Gorgeous Series of Animated Shorts”. Charley Parker, May 14, 2013

“What did Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman do in the war?” Michael Sangiacomo, Cleveland Plain Dealer. November 24, 2015

“8 Things You May Not Know About Superman”. Jesse Greenspan, History Stories. January 12, 2021

“Superman Tried To Fight in WW2, But America Didn’t Want Him”. Bug Norman, Screen Rant. November 19, 2020

“American Recycling Born During World War II”. Sam Donadio, Think Power Recycling. February 1, 2017. Online

“Mr. Mxyzptlk”. Article, Superman Supersite. Online

“The Goody Charm of 1950’s Atom Man Vs. Superman”. Dan Greenfield, 13th Dimension. October 8, 2021. Online

“Superman and the Mole-Men”. Entry, IMDb. Online

“George Reeves”. Biography, Turner Classic Movies. Online

“Adventures of Superman: Stamp Day for School Children”. Film, US Department of the Treasury. Internet Archive.

“Was Superman murdered? The mysterious death of George Reeves”. Bec Heim, Film Daily. August 10, 2021

“10 Most Important Alternate Earths In DC Comics, Ranked”. J. Richland Anderson, July 23, 2019

“Superman & Lois: How Comics’ Most Contentious Couple Ended Up Happily Married”. Russ Burlingame, February 14, 2021

“We Believed a Man Could Fly”. Roger Ebert, November 4, 2010

“How Superman Actually Died (and Returned) in DC Comics”. Olivia Luchini, Screen Rant. November 24, 2019