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An Oxford Companion to Superman

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it another Superman-related blogpost to tie in with today’s release of Man of Steel? Hold on to the bulging blue bicep of Oxford University Press and prepare to gaze below in wonder as we take you on a ride over the past 80 years of Superman.


To understand Superman’s beginnings we must, with the help of the American National Biography, fly all the way back to 1930. This was when cartoonist Joe Shuster first met writer Jerry Siegel, while they were both working on the Glenville High School newspaper. Their first collaboration was a parody of superhuman fictional heroes called “Goober the Mighty”, and their first formulation of a character called Superman was for a mimeographed fan magazine they produced starting in 1932 called Science Fiction. At this point Superman was an evil figure bent on world domination.

The pair re-envisioned the character as an alien from another planet who was devoted to truth and justice on earth, who disguised himself as the shy, bespectacled reporter for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent, but who, when trouble threatened, was able to transform himself into Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap buildings in a single bound!” After several efforts Shuster was able to realise Siegel’s concept, and Superman gained the physical form that we recognise today: handsome chiselled features, blue skin tight outfit, big red pants, swishy cape, and the large “S” shield across the chest.


While the concept was original, behind it was a wealth of cultural influences: the mythic figures Samson, Hercules, and Beowulf; romantic fictional characters such as the Three Musketeers and the costumed Scarlet Pimpernel; science fiction texts by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells — and especially Philip Wylie’s novel Gladiator, which featured a superhuman protagonist; adventure characters from the comic strips, such as Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and the sailor with superstrength, Popeye; and the swashbuckling costume films of Douglas Fairbanks.

Supersuccess and superstruggles

After moving to New York and meeting hard times, Shuster and Siegel sold the character in March 1938 to the firm that would become DC Comics for $130. In June, the first Superman comic book appeared, and it was immediately obvious that the young men had made a disastrous mistake. A Superman comic strip began newspaper syndication in January 1939; a separate Superman comic book appeared that summer; a radio show debuted in February 1940; a series of animated films from Fleischer Studios began release in 1941 (see the first episode below); and in the decades to follow he would rarely be off television and cinema screens. Legal battles have ensued ever since over the copyright, but Shuster and Siegel were never able to gain a share of Superman’s earnings in their lifetimes. Siegel worked most of his life as a clerk-typist, Shuster as a messenger.


The phrase “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” was never actually used in Superman. The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations reveals that the passage which became famous (before it was misremembered) as the lead-in to the Superman radio show is:

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”

Superman’s costume would not have been made from lycra, which wasn’t invented until the 1950s. The word kryptonite does not currently appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, though it does appear in Oxford Dictionaries Online. Without Superman the word brainiac would not exist as we know it. It was first used in a Superman comic strip from Action Comics in July 1958:

“Did the earthlings dare to send a ship to stop me, Brainiac, Master of Super-Scientific Forces? We’ll show them, Koko!”

It was the name of a super-intelligent alien character, apparently coming from a blend of brain and maniac. The OED records that Action Comics discovered that a real Brainiac existed “in the form of an ingenious ‘Brainiac Computer Kit’ invented in 1955 by Edmund C. Berkeley [to build small electronic computing devices]. In deference to his ‘Brainiac’ which pre-dates ours … we are changing the characterization of our ‘Brainiac’ so that the master-villain will henceforth possess a ‘computer personality’.”

Superstage and superscreen

There has been a version of Superman on stage or screen in every decade since his first appearance in print.

1940s: Kirk Alyn was the first man to portray Superman on screen, in two widely distributed Superman serials, the first appearing in 1945.

1950s: A popular television series, The Adventures of Superman, with George Reeves ran for 104 episodes between 1952 and 1958.

1960s: A musical called It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman was produced on Broadway in 1966 with Bob Holiday as Superman, but closed in the same year.

1970s and 1980s: Superman returned to the big screen in 1978, starring Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman, which was followed by sequels in 1980, 1983, and 1987.

1990s: Another television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, began in 1993, which this time placed the main focus on the relationship between Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane, and Dean Cain’s Clark Kent.

2000s: Smallville, which began in 2001, featured a teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) before he donned the blue tights. Then in 2006 came Bryan Singer’s attempted cinema reboot, Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. It received generally positive reviews, but the planned sequel was cancelled.

2010s: Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill, is released on June 14th 2013.

So, as we have returned to the present it seems the time has come to set you back down on your balcony and let you brush your hair, you’re looking a bit windswept. OUP of course haven’t got a hair out of place — we applied brylcreem before the flight. You should now be prepared for a trip to see Man of Steel this weekend. Do be gentle with him, he’s been through a lot.

NOTE: Superman is a registered trademark of DC Comics.
Image credit: Man of Steel Movie poster via manofsteel.warnerbros.com used for the purposes of illustration. TM & © 2013 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. TM & © DC COMICS (From DC Entertainment)

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