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Simply super

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SUPERMAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN the most uncomplicated of superheroes. He's all-powerful, as long as there's no kryptonite around. He's not conflicted, except occasionally about his feelings for Lois Lane. He's good, and kind, and really does believe in "truth, justice and the American way." He's not prone to melancholia, or skirting the law, or wishing he were someone else.

Compared to other superheroes, the Man of Steel's practically Mother Teresa. Consider the brooding Batman, who these days is more vigilante than hero. Or Spider-Man, who's given to ruing the day that radioactive spider bit him. Or the X-Men, feared and persecuted by the very humans they try to protect.

Not Superman. His character has been fine-tuned over the years, but he's still essentially the same pure-at-heart superhero his creators envisioned back in 1938, when he made his debut. That may be the key to Superman's longevity, and the reason the filmmakers behind Superman Returns, which opens Tuesday night, have pretty much left the character alone.

"Superman's great strength is the absolute simplicity of concept," says writer Kurt Busiek, currently chronicling the character in both Superman and Action comics. "He fits into our communal sense of legend. You can think of him as a Christ figure, you can think of him as a Moses figure, and there's a wellspring of mythic structure that he taps into there. But he's also just really, really simple."

Even people who have never read a comic book, and who never will, know the story of Superman: Raised by kindly Ma and Pa Kent on their Midwestern farm; a reporter for Metropolis' Daily Planet in his secret identity as mild-mannered Clark Kent; beloved by ace reporter Lois Lane (who finds Clark something of a bore); faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

What's not to love?

"Superman represents the good we all want to have in us," says writer Marv Wolfman, who has been penning Superman stories since the late 1960s. "I think he represents the idea that the common person can do something special. Clark Kent is about as common a person as possible, and yet inside him is this other person who can do good, who can do things that all of us would like to be able to do, or would like to think we could do."

"There is no other character like Superman," insists artist Neal Adams, who illustrated (and sometimes wrote) many of the great Superman stories of the 1970s, and has written for just about every other major comic-book character as well, including Batman and the X-Men. "He is the best."

He was, inarguably, the first. But on the comics pages, at least, Superman has been re-thought constantly. He's lost his powers and gained new ones. He's become cynical and jaded, even tried to take over the world himself. He's been jeered and cheered, seemed helpless in the face of great social ills, fought the urge to use his powers for partisan purposes. His one-time best friend, Batman, has been known to refer to him derisively as a goodie-two-shoes.

Such tinkering shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, Superman's been around for nearly seven decades, and it undoubtedly is difficult to keep the character fresh. Nonetheless, outside the comics pages, Superman has stuck with the bedrock values and uncomplicated sense of morality that made him popular in the first place.

In its earliest stages, Superman Returns -- which has been in the works for more than a decade -- seemed to be headed in a new direction. Entertainment Weekly reports that a version to be directed by Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) and written by J.J. Abrams (TV's Alias) would have had the Kents teaching young Clark to fear his powers, which wouldn't have done much for their son's confidence level.

But in the end, the filmmakers stuck with what had worked before. Superman Returns continues the story line of 1978's Superman and 1980's Superman II, both of which starred Christopher Reeve as the embodiment of every virtue a mother would want for her son.

"I think people who want to make Superman flawed or brooding are kind of missing the point a little bit," says Busiek. "We're all Clark Kents on the outside, and we all know that, deep in our hearts, we're Superman."

Hero fantasy

That idea, of power and virility just below the surface, is central to Superman as originally envisioned by his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. As early as 1933, the two friends produced a story in comic-strip form, called "Reign of the Super-Man," in which the main character was an evil telepath. The two soon decided to concentrate on heroic characters. Siegel, who wrote most of the stories and came up with the idea of making Superman an alien sent to Earth by desperate parents, also dreamed up the idea of giving him a secret identity -- an idea that reflected the bespectacled Siegel's attempts to impress his own versions of Lois Lane.

"I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed," Siegel was reported as saying, in a New York Times obituary published at his death in January 1996. "It occurred to me: What if I had something going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?"

Of such fantasies are great heroes made, apparently. "It has always seemed to me that the most likely suspect (behind Superman's staying power) is the relationship between Lois and Superman," says Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics. "That is just some natural condition for the Clark Kent in all of us, to wish that the gal was seeing the Superman in us, or, even for those relatively rare gentlemen who are flashing their black AmEx cards and driving their Mercedes, to wish the gal could see past the coolness of the Superman and really like the Clark Kent."

Launched comics line

Siegel and Shuster tried to sell Superman as a comic strip, with no luck. They eventually went to work for the company that would later become DC Comics, writing and drawing stories centering on decidedly human heroes, but remained unable to generate any interest in Superman. Then their publisher, desperate for a character to feature in the debut issue of Action Comics, decided to give him a try.

Smart move. The title sold like gangbusters, and the following year, Superman was given his own title (he continues to be featured in Action, one of comicdom's longest-running titles). And the cult of the superhero, complete with secret identities that enable them to walk unaccosted among us mere humans, was born. Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, even such later arrivals as Spider-Man and Daredevil -- all trod the path that Superman laid out for them.

"You have to remember, we didn't have superheroes in comic books in those days," says Neal Adams, who became friends with Siegel and Shuster late in their lives and was instrumental in pressuring DC to reward Superman's near-destitute creators with annual pensions of $20,000 (they had sold away the rights to the character for $130 in 1938, and were fired when they tried to negotiate for more money). "We had cowboys and detectives and guys who would get in rockets and fly places. Nobody had tried (superheroes), except for these two little Jewish kids from Cleveland, Ohio, who had the same kind of aspirations as every kid in America. They wanted to be powerful, they wanted to be loved by girls, they wanted people to care about them, they wanted to be able to make changes in the world. So they created Superman.

Adds Stan Lee, a comic-book writer since the 1940s and creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, "Siegel and Shuster started a formula that has been used ever since. As far as I know, there had never been a character who had superpowers and a secret identity and lived in today's world."

Flying on the radio

As originally envisioned by two young men living in a country still deep in the Depression, Superman was more man than he was super. Yes, he could leap tall buildings, but he couldn't fly over them. He was strong, but far from invulnerable; one of the early stories had him running across electrical wires, careful not to touch any uncovered metal, lest he be electrocuted). He was a hero for the common man, not a paragon of virtue.

"He was a rough and tough character, a little raw around the edges," says Wolfman. "He was a character who took on crooked politicians and slumlords and wife-beaters and crooked businessmen -- stuff that was important during that time period, and is important again in many ways."

It wasn't until 1940, when The Adventures of Superman made its debut on the radio (with future Beat the Clock host Bud Collyer providing the voice), that the super started being more important than the man. It was on radio that he first began to fly, and it was on radio that he became the poster boy for "truth, justice and the American way."

Superman proved as big a hit on radio as he did on the comics page. And in 1941, he became a star of the big screen as well, thanks to a series of cartoons produced by the Max Fleischer Studios (the same people responsible for Popeye). The cartoons, like everything else associated with Superman, were a major success; one was even nominated for an Oscar.

The Man of Steel's success continued through the 1950s, although a widespread suspicion that comic books corrupted the young people who read them (a position espoused by psychologist Frederick Wertham in his book, Seduction of the Innocent) forced Superman's writers to depict him as more comical than previously portrayed. Still, Superman's reputation as a survivor solidified. Thanks largely to the Wertham-inspired furor, but abetted by a shift in focus from superhero to horror and fantasy comics, only three heroes managed to ride out the decade: Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman.

Television took Superman's popularity to even greater heights. In 1952, actor George Reeves began a six-season run as the star of The Adventures of Superman, a syndicated program that proved one of the fledgling medium's earliest hits.

"There was nothing like that on TV," says Wolfman, who was a 6-year-old growing up in Brooklyn when he first watched George Reeves fly through the skies of Metropolis. "I had been watching Howdy Doody, all the little kids' shows. There was no adventure show, nothing with any imagination at that point. How could you not watch that and go, 'Oh my God, this is incredible!' It was like nothing I'd ever seen before."

In fact, while Superman has been a comic-book mainstay, movies and television probably have been more instrumental in sustaining his popularity. Whether played by George Reeves or Christopher Reeve (or even, in a movie series dating to the 1940s, Kirk Alyn), Superman remained an incorruptible force for good. Batman may skirt the law, Spider-Man may wish he could rid himself of his powers, the X-Men's Wolverine may lose his temper and go on the occasional killing spree. But Superman has soldiered on, never straying far from the virtues that made him popular in the first place.

"It's at heart an adolescent fantasy, to be Superman, but I think that it works at any stage of life," says Busiek. "There's a relief in the idea that, 'If I was Superman, I'd go over and I'd use my X-ray vision and I'd find bin Laden and I'd [smack] him.' That sense of fantasy identification is just really pure with Superman. And I think that's the big secret behind his longevity."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Superman: His Life and Times

1933

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's illustrated story, "Reign of the Super-Man," appears in their self-published magazine, Science Fiction. The character, a prototype of what would become the Man of Steel, is an evil, bald-headed telepath. Over the next few years, the Cleveland teen-agers refine the character, eventually making him physically powerful, giving him hair and turning him into a force for good.

1938

Siegel and Shuster's Superman, complete with cape, secret identity and a deep desire to right the world's wrongs, makes his debut in the first issue of National Allied Publishing's Action Comics.

1939

Superman gets his own title, and begins appearing in a daily comic strip.

1940

The Adventures of Superman begins on radio, with Bud Collyer providing the voice of both Superman and his alter-ego, reporter Clark Kent.

1941

The first Superman cartoon, from Max Fleischer Studios, is shown in theaters.

1948

Superman makes his live-action debut in a 15-part serial, The Adventures of Superman. Kirk Alyn, 37, is the inaugural big-screen Man of Steel.

1949

The first issue of Superboy, chronicling Superman's adventures as a young boy in Smallville, is published by DC Comics.

1951

The theatrical film Superman and the Mole Men introduces George Reeves as Superman; the following year, Reeves begins a six-season run as the star of television's The Adventures of Superman.

1959

Supergirl, Superman's cousin from the planet Krypton, makes her comic-book debut.

1966

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman! opens on Broadway.

1971

Superman creators try to rejuvenate interest in the character: Clark Kent switches from a newspaper to a television reporter. And an explosion destroys all the world's Kryptonite, which had been the only substance on Earth that could hurt Superman.

1978

Superman, directed by Richard Donner and starring Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and newcomer Christopher Reeve, opens in theaters. Three sequels starring Reeve follow in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

1991

In the pages of Action Comics #662, Superman finally reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane.

1992

Superman dies in DC Comics' Superman #75, killed in battle against the seemingly unstoppable alien Doomsday; he soon is revived, thanks to an energy matrix and a being known as The Eradicator.

1993

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, begins its four-season run on ABC.

1996

In a special comic book featuring work by nearly every artist who ever drew the character, Superman marries Lois Lane, ending a courtship that lasted nearly six decades.

2001

WB's Smallville makes its debut, with Tom Welling as a young Clark Kent, Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang and Michael Rosenbaum as Clark's friend and later Superman's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor.

2006

Superman Returns, starring Kevin Spacey, Marlon Brando (in recycled 1978 footage) and newcomer Brandon Routh, opens.

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