Blessed with X-ray vision, herculean strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman has been a pop culture icon since April 1938, when he first appeared in Action Comics #1. A daily newspaper comic strip came next, debuting on January 16, 1939, with a retelling of the character’s origin on the doomed planet Krypton. Since then, Superman has appeared in innumerable comic books, TV shows, movies, radio serials, video games, novels and even a Broadway musical. Below, explore eight facts about the Man of Steel that only the most hard-core comic book fans would know.
1. Superman’s creators first envisioned him as a villain.
Recent high school graduate Jerry Siegel self-published a story in January 1933 called “The Reign of the Superman,” featuring a mad scientist who plucks a vagrant from a bread line and gives him telepathic capabilities. This so-called Superman, intoxicated by power, then kills the mad scientist and begins taking over the world until the enchantment wears off and he once again becomes a nobody. Soon after, Siegel and his friend Joe Shuster, who illustrated the piece, revamped Superman as a good guy with an alien backstory, a secret identity and a cape, among other features that would come to define him. For several years, Siegel and Shuster unsuccessfully pitched their comic strip idea to newspaper syndicates. Finally, a predecessor to DC Comics asked them to rework it into a 13-page story for Action Comics #1, which would go on to become the most valuable comic book of all time, with one copy selling for $2.16 million at auction in 2011.
2. Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman for $130.
Siegel and Shuster earned fairly high salaries writing and illustrating Superman comics. But they received no royalties, having signed away all rights to their character for $130. “Our company has very little to gain in a monetary sense from the syndication of this material,” DC Comics’ publisher disingenuously told Siegel in 1938 in response to one of his many requests for more cash. “Also bear in mind … that we can at any time replace you.” Siegel and Shuster were then fired in 1947 after filing a lawsuit against DC. A financially struggling Siegel returned to the company in 1959, accepting standard pay and no byline. He left again in 1965 and lodged a second, equally unsuccessful suit that dragged on for years. When a Superman movie began production in the 1970s, Siegel put a curse on it as part of a public relations campaign. The shaming strategy worked, as DC’s parent company agreed to give him and Shuster pensions of $20,000 a year, a sum that later went up. Furthermore, DC once more began crediting them as Superman’s creators. Following their deaths in the 1990s, Siegel’s and Shuster’s heirs brought additional copyright litigation that remains ongoing.
3. Superman preceded Batman by a few months.
In the spring of 1939 Superman #1 hit the stands, the first comic book ever devoted to a single character. Soon after, DC’s other ubiquitous superhero, Batman, made his debut in Detective Comics #27. Their earliest joint appearance came during a 1945 episode of “The Adventures of Superman,” a radio serial. In the comic book universe, meanwhile, they didn’t meet until 1952, when, in Superman #76, they coincidentally find themselves rooming together on the same cruise. Since then, the two have often teamed up—and occasionally clashed—across a number of different mediums. More meetings are planned for the future, including a 2015 film starring Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman.
4. The U.S. government censored Superman during World War II.
During World War II, with the top-secret Manhattan Project in full swing, any mention of nuclear weapons in the popular press drew the government’s ire. DC found this out when it developed a comic book in which Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor, launches an attack with what he calls an “atomic bomb.” Though Luthor’s “atomic bomb” in no way resembled an actual atomic bomb, the U.S. War Department demanded that publication be delayed. The War Department likewise censored another comic book, written after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which Superman films an atom bomb test for the Army, along with a Superman newspaper strip featuring a cyclotron particle accelerator, also known as an “atom smasher.”
5. Most Superman love interests are initialed L.L.
In the comic book universe, Superman rarely falls for anyone not initialed L.L. Lois Lane, a reporter who tends to pine after Superman while rejecting his meek alter ego, Clark Kent, has been around since Action Comics #1. Competing with her for Superman’s attentions are Lana Lang, his high school sweetheart from Smallville, Kansas; Lori Lemaris, a mermaid he dates while attending Metropolis University; and Lyla Lerrol, an actress from Krypton who meets him when he travels back in time before the planet’s destruction. Numerous other supporting characters also have the initials L.L., including Lex Luthor, Lucy Lane (Lois Lane’s sister) and Linda Lee (Supergirl’s secret identity).
6. The actors playing Superman often suffer grave misfortunes.
The so-called Superman curse got its start with George Reeves, an actor who played Superman on a 1950s TV show. Reeves never quite took to the role, reportedly once telling a co-star: “Well, babe, this is it; the bottom of the barrel.” Typecast as Superman, he had trouble finding other work. Then, in June 1959, he was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Tragedy also struck Christopher Reeve, the star of four Superman movies, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a May 1995 horse-riding accident. In the first of those films, Lee Quigley depicted Superman as a baby. He died in 1991 at age 14 after huffing solvents from a can. Other Superman actors, despite remaining in good health, have seen their careers slide downward upon taking off the blue tights and red cape.
7. Comic book Superman briefly sported a mullet.
In a January 1993 issue of Superman, the Man of Steel dies in a battle with the monstrous villain Doomsday. Unsurprisingly, he comes back to life a few months later—with his hair long in the back and short in the front. This much-ridiculed mullet did not disappear until his 1996 marriage to Lois Lane.
8. An Illinois town embraced Superman to bring in tourists.
Superman lives and works in the fictional city of Metropolis, which, by chance, is the name of a small town in southern Illinois. In 1972, with the support of both DC Comics and the state House of Representatives, Metropolis, Illinois, began calling itself the hometown of Superman. In honor of Clark Kent’s employer, the Daily Planet, the newspaper there even changed its name to the Metropolis Planet. Though a planned Superman theme park fell through, Metropolis continues to embrace the Man of Steel. Its police officers wear Superman emblems on their sleeves, a 15-foot bronze Superman statue stands outside the courthouse, a museum displays Superman memorabilia and a Superman festival takes places every June.