golden age superman

Over the past few days, many people (myself included) have taken Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to task for how it chooses to portray its title characters. The superheroes played by Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck don’t act like the characters we know and love. Take them out of those classic duds and they’d be unrecognizable.

But we only arrived at our common view of these characters because the decades have shaped them and molded them into that form. Sure, the version of Superman directed by Zack Snyder doesn’t act like the Superman most people know, but neither does the original Superman created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1938. So, in the interest of education, I dove into the oldest Superman tales and read the first year of stories from the original run of Action Comics.

I don’t want to write a defense of how Superman is portrayed in Batman v Superman, but I do want to explore how the “Golden Age” version of the character, the original incarnation, is often as different from the accepted version as Snyder’s. After all, Clark Kent has been around for 81 years – he’s been many different things to many different people.

golden age superman

The Origin Story

The story of how Kal-El left his home planet as an infant and arrived in Kansas is just part of our collective popular culture consciousness now. Everyone knows Superman’s origin story, even if they’ve never picked up a comic book in their life. Everyone knows about Krypton and Smallville, about Jor-El and the Kents. It’s just accepted. It’s just a fact.

So it’s amusing how quickly the first issue of Action Comics skims over Superman’s origins, dedicating only three brief panels to where he came from before diving into the action. Krypton isn’t named, Kansas isn’t specified, Martha and Jonathan Kent are just “a passing motorist,” and it is heavily implied that young Clark was raised in an orphanage rather than in a loving home with his adoptive parents. Action Comics #1 has no interest in Superman’s mythology because the mythology simply hasn’t been invented yet. This issue was published in June of 1938 – the actual details of Superman’s journey to Earth and his adoptive parents wouldn’t be established until July of 1939 in a quick two-page story.

Compare this to the Superman origin story as portrayed in Man of Steel, which is so familiar with what everyone on the planet knows about this character that it feels compelled to make a number of changes. Kal-El’s exodus from Earth now takes place in the midst of a bloody civil war between the Kryptonian government and General Zod. The Kents are no longer the simple, noble figures who name their new child Clark and raise him to want to do good in the world – they’re so afraid of what he can be and what the world will think of him that Jonathan Kent dies in a tornado rather than let his super-son save his life. Perhaps the biggest change of all is that Superman’s DNA has been infused with the genetic “codex” of his entire race, making him the reason for General Zod and his henchmen to come to Earth in the first place.

The difference between how this story began and where it ended up is remarkable. One is almost too simple, so lacking in details that it raises a hundred different questions. The other is almost too complicated, removing the admirable simplicity of the familiar Superman origin in favor of giving the audience something new and unexpected. Neither are what we’re used to and neither represent the story that even your mom and can recite beat-for-beat.

golden age superman

A Super-Powered Skill Set

In the earliest issues of Action Comics, Superman’s powers are stripped to the bone. He can “leap 1/8 of a mile” and “hurdle a twenty-story building.” He can also run at great speeds and utilize his tremendous strength to bend steel and lift heavy objects, and his skin is tough enough to deflect bullets. A number of his staple abilities are nowhere to be seen: there is no X-ray vision, no heat vision, no freeze breath. He can’t even fly (but when he’s depicted as leaping through the city or dashing across the countryside, he certainly looks like he’s in flight). There is no reference to his powers coming from Earth’s yellow sun. As far as the earliest Superman tales are concerned, his powers are simply the result of his alien DNA. Almost all of his abilities stem from the idea that he’s just really strong. Everything he does in the first year of Action Comics can be attributed to superhuman muscles and skin.

Interestingly, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman also feature a stripped-down Superman power-set. This character has collected so many abilities and skills over the years that it often feels ridiculous – he’s had wacky powers for any and all situations over the years, ranging from telekinesis to super ventriloquism. Henry Cavill’s Superman runs with the basics: super strength, indestructible skin, flight, heat vision, and X-ray vision. And, of course, his powers stem from direct exposure to Earth’s sunlight. This particular collection of powers is far more vast and varied than the Golden Age Superman, but it’s intentionally limited when compared to other versions…which makes it have more in common with the earliest version of the character than most other iterations that have cropped up over the decades.

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