By Roy Schwartz
Today is Superman’s birthday! To celebrate the original superhero, here are Ten Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About Superman.
- Today isn’t actually Superman’s birthday
Wait, what? Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, which has a cover date of June, 1938 (making him 81, in case you were wondering). But it was actually published earlier. Comics and magazines often date issues a month or two ahead to give them a longer shelf life.
Most people believe the sale date is April 18, 1938, but that’s the day the copyright was registered, and it’s highly unlikely it was on the same day.
Superman hit shelves in either late April or, probably, on May 3, 1938. Still, April 18 became the date we celebrate Superman’s birthday the same way we celebrate Jesus’s birthday on December 25, even though no one really knows when he was born.
- Superman was created by two high schoolers
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two high school friends from Cleveland, Ohio. Both were the children of European Jewish immigrants living in the Midwest, both were unpopular kids who loved sci-fi (back when “sci-fi” was a new term), and Siegel wore glasses. They based mild-mannered Clark Kent on themselves and Superman on their fantasies.
- Superman was originally a super-villain
Way back in 1932, Siegel wrote a short story titled “The Reign of the Superman.” He self-published it in January 1933 in a fanzine he and Shuster created, bombastically titled Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization. Shuster provided the illustrations.
The first Superman was William “Bill” Dunn, a homeless man experimented on by the mad scientist (is there any other kind?) Ernest Smalley. Smalley, not really following the scientific method, gives him an unknown element extracted from a meteor to swallow and see what happens. He develops superpowers, obviously. But not super-strength or flight—Dunn gets super-hearing, telescopic vision, the ability to read and control minds, and to see the near future. He does what anyone would so in his place; start off by making a few bucks, then try to take over the world. His powers wear off at the last minute, however, and he returns to the breadline.
The bald megalomaniac Dunn and the mastermind lunatic Smalley would eventually amalgamate to create Lex Luthor, Superman’s archenemy. The meteorite giving powers became Kryptonite, which drains Superman’s powers. And the superpowers, just physical instead of mental, were given to Superman.
- Everyone thought Superman was a stupid idea
Siegel & Shuster kept tweaking their character until 1934. According to Siegel, one fateful, sleepless night, all the ideas—refugee from a doomed planet becoming the costumed hero Superman, his alter ego reporter Clark Kent, love interest Lois Lane—came flooding into his mind. The next morning he ran over to Shuster’s house and the two spent the day creating comic strips.
They pitched their idea to all the newspaper syndicates. Every single one rejected it. They all thought the idea was too strange, too fantastic for kids to relate to.
Crazy, right? But kids’ heroes then were cowboys, detectives, swashbucklers, urban crusaders, global adventurers. There were no superheroes. Superman was the first, the prototype. Here was an idea by two kids about a strongman from outer space dressed in bright tights. It sounded completely bonkers.
But Siegel & Shuster didn’t give up. They kept trying, until in 1938 a comic book company called National Allied Publications (which would become the even more boring-sounding DC Comics) needed to fill 13 pages in a new anthology series already scheduled for publication, called Action Comics. They bought Superman purely because of deadline pressure, and even they didn’t think much of him—when they saw Superman on the cover they thought he looked ridiculous, and forbade the editor from doing it again. Until sales figures started coming in….
- Superman’s creators sold the rights for $130
When Siegel & Shuster sold their comic for $130 (about $2,300 in today’s dollars), they also sold ownership of the character. There are different versions of events as to whether they knew what they were doing, but either way, they were young men with a high school education during the Great Depression, no one seemed to want their strip, and they were so broke they could barely afford paper to draw on, so they signed their brainchild away.
From that $130 investment sprung a giant superhero industry that’s made over $30 billion from movies alone, with comics, video games, toys, clothes and other merchandize doubling or even tripling that.
Siegel & Shuster came to regret their deal. Decades of litigation followed, ultimately resolved with Siegel’s heirs in 2013. That’s why any comic book, cartoon or movie Superman appears in now says “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. By special arrangement with the Jerry Siegel family.”
- Superman’s creators viciously trolled the Nazis, and it drove the Nazis crazy
Siegel & Shuster were Jewish, children of refugees who fled persecution in Europe. They acknowledged that they created Superman in part as a response to the rise of Anti-Semitism and Nazism. And it didn’t take them long to put him to use.
In February 1940—almost two years before Pearl Harbor and America entering World War II—they published a two-page “imaginary” story in Look magazine titled “How Superman Would End the War.” In it, the Man of Steel defeats Nazi forces and drags a humiliated Hitler and Stalin by the scruff of their necks to stand trial before the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations).
When the Nazis heard of this they went ballistic. Hitler’s elite force, the SS, ran a two-page rant in their newspaper accusing them of poisoning the minds of American youth, and it made the news in the U.S. The German-American Bund, an American pro-Nazi organization with about 25,000 members, sent them hate mail and picketed DC’s offices.
Siegel & Shuster were clearly enjoying themselves, because they continued to troll Nazis throughout the war. In Superman #25, for example, they wrote a metatextual story about inept Nazis trying repeatedly to assassinate the creator of a famous comic book superhero because his comics made Hitler the laughing stock of the world.
- Superman’s cape used to be his baby blanket
The Man of Steel. The world’s greatest hero. A grown man who carries his baby blanket with him everywhere he goes. July 1961’s Superman #146 first explained that his famous costume was actually made from the blankets his mother Lara wrapped him in as she placed him in the rocket ship. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to realize this guy could use some therapy.
- Superman’s dad Jor-El wanted Albert Einstein to raise him
In the 1978 novel Superman: Last Son of Krypton, author Elliot S. Maggin revealed that Jor-El, being Krypton’s foremost scientist, wanted his son to be raised by Earth’s greatest genius. Makes sense. He sent a probe ahead of his son, choosing Albert Einstein. Einstein humbly declines, however, and helps find a good home for baby Kal-El by making sure the Kents find him.
- Superman almost became a Marvel character
Whaaaaaaa?! True story. 1984 was a rough year for DC. They had a measly market share of 18% while their competitor Marvel had 70% (things have balanced more since). Superman’s comics were barely selling 10% of what they did at their peak in the 1940s. At a loss as to what to do, DC planned to license the publishing rights to Marvel. The deal ended up falling through due to legal reasons, and probably for the best. But can you imagine Superman fighting Thanos in Avengers: Endgame?
- Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor is partly based on Donald Trump
When Superman was rebooted in 1986, writer Marv Wolfman and writer-artist John Byrne also reinvented Luthor. No longer a genius egomaniacal scientist, he was now a genius egomaniacal businessman.
They drew influence from several public figures, primarily controversial real estate mogul Donald Trump. The new Luthor lived in the penthouse of a midtown high-rise, dated a lot of models, and plastered his name in giant letters on every building and business he owned (LexCorp, for example). The 1989 graphic novel Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography even spoofed the cover of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal.
Luthor even became president in 2001, using his platform to stoke xenophobia against the alien Superman. He was ultimately exposed for illegal dealings with the villain Darkseid and allowing the world to be attacked for his own political gain, bringing his presidency to an end.
- Bonus item: Superman’s disguise of a pair of glasses actually works
Endless jokes have been made about the fact that Superman can hide his secret identity behind a pair of glasses (though, to be fair, every time the citizens of Metropolis see him up in the sky they think he’s a bird or a plane, so their eyesight obviously isn’t that great).
But it turns out a simple pair of glasses really can fool others into thinking you’re two different people. A 2016 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that participants largely failed to match faces when they were briefly shown pictures of the same person wearing glasses in one but not the other. These were strangers, though, so don’t expect to show up in class as the new kid who didn’t know about the homework.
Roy Schwartz is the author of the upcoming book, Is Superman Circumcised? How Jewish Culture Shaped the World’s Greatest Hero (working title). It’s due out next year.
He’s also the author of The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There, a dark fantasy novel for middle grade readers. You can read our interview with him here and get the book here. (Don’t forget—use code YEMDLC50 for 50% off the digital book and YEMALL35 for 35% off all other Aelurus books until the end of May!)
And don’t forget to check out Roy’s #YAauthorTakeover on our Twitter feed this Thursday, April 18, 2–4 pm EST/1–3 pm CST. Three lucky participants will win signed copies of The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There!