On the eve of yet another Superman movie reboot—coming tomorrow with all the usual summer hit fanfare and noise—take a moment before gorging yourself on popcorn and extravagant CGI spectacles to reflect on the character’s enduringly simple origins. After all, this month marks the 75th anniversary of this most iconic of American superheroes, who first appeared in the June 1938 Action Comics #1. The brainchild of Cleveland high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (so memorably fictionalized in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Superman is what Neil Gaiman calls an archetypal “primal thing,” a character who can be reinvented every decade while still remaining unmistakably himself.
Witness, for example, the first appearance of Superman on the big screen in the 1941 Fleischer cartoon (top), Superman (or The Mad Scientist)—the first in a series of seventeen shorts. On the heels of the first non-print adaptation of the character—the Adventures of Superman radio drama (listen above)—the cartoon series shows us the original Siegel and Shuster hero, a rough-and-tumble space alien raised in an orphanage, not by the kindly Kents in rural America.
You’ll notice however, that Superman’s resume—more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings… etc.—hasn’t changed a bit. But some of the character’s attributes and origins were considerably softened after DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth instituted a code of superhero ethics (many years before the Comics Code Authority stepped in to censor the whole industry).
You can learn even more about Superman’s origins from his creators themselves, interviewed in the clip above for the 1981 BBC documentary Superman: The Comic Strip Hero. Siegel reveals how the idea for Superman came to him during one restless night in which he composed all of the basic script for the character, “an entirely new concept.” The very next day, Shuster sat down at his drawing board and Superman’s look emerged fully-formed. Both creators and their heirs have won and lost high-profile lawsuits over rights to their characters. But legal wrangling over compensation aside, there’s no denying that their mad eureka moment left an indelible cultural legacy no updated film, logo, or controversy can diminish.