The Traditional Superhero: Superman

Superman is one of the most famous and popular comic book superheroes. The idea of a man with a dual identity stems from two men, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. They created the character in 1932 and were first pictured in a small comic called ‘science fiction’ (January 1933). This comic by Siegel and Shuster was not very successful, so in 1937 Superman was sold to DC Comics. A comic historian quotes “DC was the equivalent of the big Hollywood stuios”1.0

superman1He made his main appearance in ‘Action Comics’02 in June 1938. DC Comics decided that they needed to give Superman a more masculine image. The main theme and idea behind the character was to represent power, courage and a secret identity. DC didn’t want to change his history but just his physic, they wanted him to symbolise an indestructible male 03, masculine and irresistible to women. Superman had turned ‘Action Comics’ into a larger business. captain-americaThere were more and more comics arriving on the market and the genre demand fresh action all the time. The amazing appeal with Superman was that he could do anything, so it became more important that he kept up with the times. He was created with a social, critical and upbeat tempo, he was the largest superhero on the market. He was made taller and he had dark hair and eyes. He was also made a bit more muscular and bigger built. He became better known as ‘the man of steel’. This evolution was critical if he was going to stay within the comic phenomenon.

Superman’s toughest competitor in the comic world was a creation by DC Comics rival Marvel Comics. They had created a character that was a manifestation of patriotism. Captain America  was a strong, masculine man with a brightly coloured costume symbolising the American flag. He made his debut in 1941, this was also when America joined the World War II. This shows he was a man for the people and served his country fighting for the public spirit. He fought in battles almost explaining the point that even superheroes get called up to serve their country. For Superman the pressure to stay number one was hard but his constant development was his backbone. DC had given Superman an advantage, as he was the first superhero that could fly. This has great influence on the period of the war and the spitfire aeroplane. Their speed, agility and importance were a perfect inspiration. Not only was Superman fighting petty crime on the streets but he was defeating world threats such as the atom bomb. This was an idea by DC to use social concerns, which in 1947 was the concern of the developing atom bomb.

Superman was becoming more and more powerful, he depicted with a mix of fairness, comparison, restraint and idealism. His identities represent different aspects of his personalities. Clark Kent is clearly the real person with Superman as the secret identity. Clark is comfortable, quiet, and harmless and he doesn’t draw attention to himself. Superman is also quiet, relaxed and natural in what he does. But Superman is not harmless, he doesn’t agree with death or killing but he has an extraordinary force of super power. This side of the personality makes him a larger than life figure. Clark has no trouble hiding his identity. As it is seen that a man with the powers like Superman could never possibly live a normal life. As long as Clark doesn’t let on that he has another identity people do not expect. This confidence allows Superman to go into the public un-masked as people assume there is no other identity. It is critical to keep a secret as to protect Clark’s loved ones.

Clark Kent is not like humans he cannot give blood or organs as of his superhero skin is impenetrable. He was born on a fictional planet called ‘Krypton’ he was rocketed to earth as soon as he was born as his home planet was due to explode. He was adopted when he reached earth and had no idea of his superhero capabilities until he reached adolescents. When he discovered his fate he decided to use his powers for good, to help and protect. His adoptive parents had the influence on Clark that his powers were a gift and held great responsibility and they were not to be misused. But with every hero comes a weakness. With all of his powers and abilities he is most vulnerable to a chemical called ‘kryptonite’. This is a chemical from his birth planet that caused it to explode. Exposure to this chemical with immobilise Superman and eventually kill him. This is also a classical scenario with superheroes, they have a weakness and are vulnerable to something they hold deep compassion for. For example it is as if the kryptonite represents his parents or the love for his planet. He is deeply wounded by his meeting with it and this causes his vulnerability. Like when a man is in deep love with a woman and he says he will die for her, which he often ends up dying to save her. This is the same with superman it is as if the kryptonite has a hold over him always bringing his memories back to his home planet.

clark-kentClark lives among society as a mild-mannered news reporter 04. He is a smartly dressed man with a big build. He wears glasses and doesn’t mix or socialize much, he is a quiet gentleman who is a bit clumsy and shy. This I a strong part of his clever strategy to keep his identity a secret. Superman is seen as the champion of the helpless and the oppressed. He relies on the trust and strength to achieve his goals gaining social acceptance for his efforts. Superman seems to be a member of society that tries to prevent crime in his community by taking it in to his own hands. A reason for this maybe that he does not trust the law. He may see it unsuccessful therefore takes on the responsibility to sort it out himself. He only emerges when there is a threat or a distress call. Helping the law but with deep feelings of disappointment that the law enforcements cannot handle the situation. The man inside the suit becomes demanded, needed and seen as the heroic image. Where as out of the suit he is ordinary Clark Kent, just an ordinary member of society with no powers or difference.

This leads to the conclusion that the costume gives the hero his power. This divides the two men, the costume is Superman’s branding. People see the costume and instantly know who it belongs to. Meaning Clarks conscience is Superman. Popularity has helped to change him through time. His costume remains the same but his physic, stamina and masculinity are visual important and have changed dramatically from when he was first published. The modern superman is a great example of this change 05. superman2If we look closely at this image, it suggests the need to express masculinity. There is a strong expression of confidence, stamina, power and physic. There is a sign of a need to look good and catch the eye of the genre. His costume hasn’t changed but has just become even smaller, this skin tight costume shows how he wants to show off his muscular form, showing his power and masculinity. The suit almost looks as though it has been sprayed on to the body which makes me ask if he ever removes it. Or is it like second skin for superman that he cannot remove. This image becomes the desires of the genre, almost envying him for his effortless body.

The compassion and desperation for men to make there bodies look like this image results in the influence of body building. They feel a need to look physically appealing and that if they look muscular and strong they will impress the woman. A woman likes a man with a muscular form as they see them as a protector, their stamina and power makes the woman feel secure. So could this be the case with superman? I think the image does have certain issues expressing these points and that superman is designed to look the part as a protector of the innocent. There is a continual pressure on men to look complex and fit, which results in the use and determination of body building. Men do this to develop their body into a ‘superman’ giving them an advantage and forcefulness. An extreme amount of patience goes into having a body like these superheroes. Almost giving the genre false hope, in that they can look good and be like their favourite hero but at what cost. Resulting in the genre despising superman for his advantage.

Superman’s face is square and strict. A face of compassion for his ability to do good, giving him a sense of authority. His dark hair and eyes give him his hansom and sexual appeal. An emotionless and vacant look on his face, as if he is deep in thought but thinking of nothing, almost like daydreaming. His hands are large, the clenching of his fists suggests frustration and tension. This could be reflecting his inner conscience, feelings or his emotions tied within his other personality, Clark Kent.

I fell that this image of what I see as the modern man, is in fact influence by bodybuilding and its fashion status within society. There also is a hidden agenda. There is an old expression, a saying ‘my shoulders are wide’. This is said to people when you wish to offer them a hand or somebody to talk to. Maybe Superman’s broad shoulders as well as representing strength and power could hold this hidden message. That he is strong enough to protect other people and listen to them. His posture is tall, courageous and almost ridged. It seems as if he I standing there observing and waiting.

– Post Written By Sarah-Leigh Wills 2014 – Taken from my Dissertation: ‘Is the ‘Marvel Misfit’ a better role model than the traditional superhero?’ Written February 2007.



1.0 Quote by comic historian Peter Sanderson 1962. Sourced from Wikipedia online encyclopaedia. 27/09/2006.

Image References:

02 Image of Early 1940’s Superman, image sourced from DC Comics, A celebration of the world’s favourite comic book heroes. By Les Daniels. Published by Virgin Books LTD 2004

03 ‘Captain America’ image sourced from Five Fabulous decades of the world’s greatest comics, MARVEL. By Les Daniels. Published by Marvel Entertainment group, Inc 1991. Page 43.

04 ‘Clark Kent’ image sourced from DC Comics, A celebration of the worlds favourite comic book heroes. By Les Daniels. Published by Virgin Books LTD 2004.

05 ‘The adventures of Superman’ images sourced from Comics, comix and graphic novels, a history of comic art. By Roger Sabin. Published by Phaidon press LTD 1996. Page 59

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