It was 1938, and the world was in crisis. War was brewing in Europe and Asia. In the U.S., millions of people had lost their jobs. For many, it seemed like only dark times lay ahead.
The Age of Superheroes
Superheroes are everywhere. This is the story of how they got their start—and why they still matter.
Learning Objective: to synthesize information from two articles about superheroes, then design an original superhero
The surprising story behind the world’s first big superhero
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
But two high school buddies from Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had created something that could help Americans cope. The solution they devised didn’t cost a lot of money. It didn’t require a lot of people or resources either. In fact, all it took was a pencil, paper, and their imaginations.
What did the two friends create?
Superman, one of the world’s first superheroes.
When Superman first appeared, the world was on the brink of World War II. The U.S. was in the midst of a long economic crisis called the Great Depression. Americans needed an escape from their problems. They needed a hero who fought for the poor and the powerless, who could bring joy and hope during a frightening time.
Superman would be that hero.
From Villain to Hero
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster met at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The pair clicked instantly. Both had been bullied, had grown up with little money, and were children of Jewish immigrants from Europe. But what bonded them most was their love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy.
Both boys worked for their school newspaper, Siegel as a writer and Shuster as a cartoonist. Eventually, Siegel created his own sci-fi magazine using his school’s printer and enlisted Shuster to be his art director. One of the first projects they worked on together was a story about a character named Superman.
But that first Superman was no hero. In fact, he was a villain. Only later would Siegel rewrite the character, turning him into one of the good guys.
According to Siegel’s unpublished memoir, one night, he stayed up all night writing the first pages for a new and improved Superman story. The next morning, he rushed over to Shuster’s house so Shuster could begin drawing. It was then that Superman’s iconic costume was born, including the bright-blue tights, the billowing red cape, and the large S. It was also when Siegel and Shuster gave their hero his famous alter ego: a reporter named Clark Kent. (Siegel himself had once dreamed of being a reporter.)
On the surface, Kent appeared to live an ordinary life. He was quiet and gentle “like Joe and I are,” Siegel said. But as Superman, he was just the opposite.
Superman came from an alien planet called Krypton and possessed unparalleled strength. He could outrun a speeding train, bend steel with his hands, and withstand bullets and explosions. And he used these powers to fight for anyone who felt powerless.
This was the kind of hero Siegel and Shuster believed Americans needed. This was also the kind of hero, they thought, who would sell comic books.
The Rise to Stardom
It would be years before the public got to meet Superman. Siegel and Shuster spent more than five years shopping their idea around to different publishers. No one was interested. One publisher called it “immature.” Then, in 1937, the directors of Detective Comics, which later became DC Comics, bought the Superman story to use in its new Action Comics.
The first issue of Action Comics hit newsstands in April 1938. On the cover was a muscular man in blue tights. He was holding a car effortlessly over his head.
The issue flew off shelves. By the end of 1939, some 60 newspapers across the country were running Superman comic strips, and the character was given his own comic book.
At the time, most comic books were selling about 200,000 copies. Superman comics were soon selling about five times that number. By 1942, the caped hero was starring in three different comic books with a combined circulation of 1.5 million and a readership of 4.5 million.
Most of those readers were kids and teens. They hid Superman comics in their textbooks at school, stayed up late to read Superman by flashlight under the covers, and saved up every penny to buy the latest 10-cent issue.
Superman did not stay confined to paper for long. Soon there was a Superman radio show, which quickly became the most popular children’s program on the air. After that came Superman television shows, movies, toys, clothing, and more.
In just a few years, Superman had become a star.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that Superman became so popular so quickly. He was a likable hero who fought for justice in a dark and dangerous world, and in the 1930s, the world was dark and dangerous.
During the Great Depression, one in four Americans lost their jobs. Millions left their homes looking for work. Hungry men, women, and children stood in long lines for free food at soup kitchens.
These hard times left many Americans feeling angry and powerless. Corrupt bankers and dishonest politicians became the villains in America’s story—and Siegel and Shuster made them the villains in Superman’s story too. In the early comics, Superman’s targets were those in positions of power who treated people unjustly. Superman went after a mine owner who put his workers in danger. He battled a carmaker who made unsafe cars. He stopped a group of gangsters from putting taxicab drivers out of business. These stories gave Americans hope that the good guys could still prevail.
Adding to the anxiety of this period was the fact that World War II was brewing. Newspapers were filled with frightening stories of diabolical leaders, like Adolf Hitler in Germany.
In 1940, a year into the war, Look magazine published a story by Siegel and Shuster titled “How Superman Would End the War.” The story included images of Superman defeating Hitler and bringing him to justice. What a relief it must have been to read about someone who fought the forces of evil—and always won.
But Superman wasn’t just a hero for Americans. He was also a hero for the comic book industry.
Before Superman, comics existed as short daily or weekly comic strips in newspapers. After Superman, comic books exploded in popularity.
Following Superman’s success, new superheroes appeared by the dozen. Green Lantern triumphed over aliens. Batman took on criminals in Gotham City. Soon they were joined by Captain America, Spider-Man, the Human Torch, and more.
Many characters created during this golden age of comic books are some of the most popular superheroes today, including Superman. Indeed, since his creation nearly 90 years ago, Superman has become a household name in America. Even if you have never read a comic book, chances are you know who he is.
Why? Sure—the shows and movies about him are action-packed and fun to watch. Yet Superman has endured in America for another reason as well: He reminds us of how we want to see ourselves, bringing justice to a not-so-just world.
So Siegel and Shuster didn’t just help Americans back in the 1930s. It turns out, they’re still helping us today.
And why they still matter
Since Superman made his debut in 1938, the popularity of superheroes has ebbed and flowed. In recent years, though, superheroes have shown up in pop culture on a scale never seen before. Shows like Loki, Stargirl, and Superman and Lois have millions of devoted fans. At press time, the highest-earning movie of 2021 was Marvel’s Black Widow. Not far behind, in fourth place? Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Some of the most anticipated movies of 2022 feature Batman, Thor, the Black Panther, and Aquaman.
Many of these characters have been around for decades. But unlike in the 1930s and ’40s, when most fans were kids, superheroes and stories of their adventures are now enjoyed by audiences of all ages. That is to say, superheroes have gone mainstream.
What is it about these characters that has us so hooked?
Fighting for Good
Consider the nature of superheroes. They possess extraordinary powers, which they use to help others. And they risk their own lives to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.
Then consider that today, the news is often dominated by frightening reports. Our world has big problems: disease, injustice, war, natural disasters. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. And so we look to the fantastic world of superheroes, where one mighty individual can save the planet from any threat. How comforting it is to watch a superhero prevent a war or save a city from monsters.
But even more than that, superheroes show us the world as we want it to be—a world where good triumphs over evil and where doing the right thing is what matters most.
Superheroes also reflect who we want to be in the world. Much like ancient myths, superhero stories celebrate the qualities valued most in our society: selflessness, courage, grit.
When we watch Clark Kent become Superman, we’re reminded that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. When we see T’Challa fight for his throne in Black Panther, we feel empowered to stand up for what is right. When we watch Captain America take on a corrupt leader, we too feel brave.
What’s more, superheroes have flaws, and that makes them relatable. Take Spider-Man. He can be reckless and selfish. Or what about Black Widow? She used to be a villain! Characters like these remind us that no one is perfect and inspire us to be our better selves, to stand up for what is right even if it’s hard and even if we get nothing in return.
So let’s pretend that the editor-in-chief of DC Comics just called. She wants you to create a new superhero. Who will that superhero be? What will they fight against? Answer those questions and it might tell you as much about yourself as it does about your superhero.
Design an original superhero. In a format of your choosing, present your character, their superpowers, what they use their superpowers for, and why you think the character would be popular today. Be sure to give your superhero a name.
This article was originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue.
Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building
1. PREPARING TO READ (10 MINUTES)
2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 MINUTES)
3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 MINUTES)