On January 16, 1939, the year after the first comic books featured The Man of Steel, Superman appeared to everyday Earthlings in newspaper daily comic strips. Superman #1 came out in April of 1938 so he already had a small fanbase of comic book nerds, except comic books weren’t really nerdy back then.
Those early strips laid the foundations of who Superman was, but the depictions of his behavior weren’t always aligned with what one thinks of with Superman today. In fact, when historians reach back far enough, the pre-eminent depictions of Superman are hardly like the one that hit the pages in the late ’30s.
From 1939 to 1936, dailies of Superman ran in most major news publications, then again from 1977 to 1983. The comic books were where the fans turned their cranks, but the dailies were where the public learned to love the man dressed in blue and red… even though he was mostly in black and white.
It all started in 1933 with two young men…
Origins of An Idea
Although the idea of humans with superpowers was nothing new in the 1930s, this Superman character took human strength to a much higher level.
The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster, first kicked around ideas for a man with superpowers in 1933. An amateur publication created by the pair, Science Fiction, featured a story about a man with superhuman powers: The Reign of Superman.
That first version of Superman was not a good guy, driven to use his powers for money-grubbing evil. It was not a success. Like the 1938 comic book version, the Superman that hit newspapers in ’39 was wholly different, based in part on the character of John Carter of Mars, created by Edgar Burroughs in 1912.
John Carter, reimagined in the 2012 movie John Carter, was a man from Earth who found he had superpowers on the reduced gravity of Mars. Similarly, Superman came from a distant planet to Earth where his normal strength became a super strength on Earth’s weaker gravity.
As with the modern depictions of Superman, the 1938 Superman had an alter ego, Clark Kent. The boys built their concept of Kent on the famous Hollywood comedian Harold Lloyd, with his nerdy demeanor. The characters created by Lloyd would often suffer abuses until the end of the story where he would rise up to vanquish them.
Metamorphosis of Superman
Superman today has a code of conduct that he didn’t always have. In the early daily renditions, Superman occasionally displayed a bitter indifference to death and a predilection for violence.
As one example, in one early strip, he spanked a grown woman as punishment. Often depicted comedically, this was a common portrayal of men and women’s relationships well beyond the 1930s. [For reference: Episodes of I Love Lucy.] Adding to the horror of that particular daily was the final frame where the woman said, “I should hate him — but I don’t. I love him!”
Other depictions of Superman in those early strips show him with a kind vindictiveness. He would, at times, allow people to die or kill them himself, wielding a sort of vigilante justice because those people “deserved to die.”
Shortly after the comic books came out, a newly-hired editor but the name Whitney Ellsworth gave Superman his code of ethics. Under Ellsworth’s 1940 decrees Superman would no longer kill or allow people to die if he could prevent it. Ellsworth also removed any sexual innuendo and darker-themed villains.
These rules would apply to both the comic books, the strips, and in the movies.
Fuel for the Superman Movies
Popularity for the man of steel declined in the ’60s, and by 1966 it was too low to warrant daily comic strips. The comic books still ran for the fanatics, but not in the newspaper.
When Hollywood decided to make a movie featuring the Superman in the ’70s, their marketing teams reintroduced Superman to the general public through the dailies. It was an easy way to inundate their target demographic with dreams of superpowers.
Prior to the release of the 1978 movie, they’d organized a reintroduction of the strips in 1977 with the primary purpose of creating a fanbase. For kids of 1977, Superman was an old concept, something their dads talked about, but by 1979 he was The Man of Steel again.
Today, Superman stands with classic American figures like Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny. They are playful characterizations of the life Americana, ideologic and timeless.
Superman might still need a little marketing to sell box office tickets, but his days of riding the dailies are microscopic in the rearview mirror.