CBC Digital Archives

1938: Superman makes his debut

Krypton's Man of Steel is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound -- and he's half-Canadian. Well, sort of. Canada-born artist Joe Shuster models Metropolis on Toronto, his early home, as he and writer Jerry Siegel tell their first tale of Superman. CBC Television looks back on Superman's debut in Action Comics #1, on June 1, 1938.
• Artist Joe Shuster was born in Toronto in 1914. He moved to Cleveland with his family when he was 10. He and pal Jerry Siegel came up with the idea of Superman in 1933. It took more than four years until they found a publisher who was interested. In 1938 Detective Comics bought the character, and all rights to it, for $130 US.
• In the earliest version of Superman, he was a bald villain. Siegel ultimately came up with the idea of an alien baby who is sent to Earth after his planet is destroyed.

• For the first two years after his 1938 debut, Superman couldn't fly and he didn't have X-ray or heat vision. He had tough skin but wasn't invulnerable and could jump to the tops of skyscrapers. He could also be rough and unforgiving with criminals and wasn't above killing them. In the 1940s he gained the ability to fly. Over the following years, he gained more powers depending on the stories, like super-hypnosis and the ability to travel through time.

• In the first issue, Superman's strength was caused by the high gravity of his home planet. As he became increasingly invulnerable, writers decided it didn't make sense that all other Kryptonians could be so powerful but had been killed when their planet exploded.
• Starting in the 1940s, Kryptonians were normal humans around their native red sun but gained powers when exposed to Earth's yellow sun.

• The term "Kryptonite" was invented during the Superman radio serials (1940-1951) because the voice actor needed to take time off. So for several episodes, someone else supplied anonymous groaning noises while Superman was trapped and weakened by a chunk of Kryptonite.
• Siegel and Shuster tried to gain a share of the enormous Superman profits and lost a number of lawsuits against DC in the 1940s. They were both left broke and their careers ended.

• In the mid 1970s, Warner Communications, which owned DC, agreed to pay them each $20,000 a year and medical expenses. It was increased to $30,000 in 1981.
• In 1991, Shuster told the Toronto Star's Henry Mietkiewicz, "I still remember drawing one of the earliest panels that showed the newspaper building. We needed a name, and I spontaneously thought of the Toronto Star," Shuster said, adding his father would sit him on his knee every night and read him the Star's comics.

• Clark Kent worked at the Daily Star until a New York editor made the pair change the name to the Daily Planet in the 1940s.
• His younger sister Jean, remembered a four-year-old Shuster drawing pictures on the walls of their Toronto home. Times were tight and paper was a luxury, Jean said. "There were times ... when my mother was able to get Joe some pieces of white paper from the butcher. But that didn't happen often."

• "Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was and it was not as big or as beautiful," Shuster said. "Whatever buildings I saw in Toronto remained in my mind and came out in the form of Metropolis."
• Joe and comedian Frank Shuster were double cousins. Their mothers were sisters and their fathers were brothers. Frank Shuster told the Star that Joe "was Clark Kent - the sort of nebbish in glasses that everyone wanted to kick around - but underneath he was the Man of Steel."

• "It came from him being this quiet, pensive kid, who sat there drawing and underneath it all, really wanting to have all that strength and power."
• The image of Lois Lane was modelled after Jerry Siegel's wife, Joanne.
• Shuster died on July 30, 1992 at age 78. He had been legally blind and in poor health for years. "Shuster never pretended to be anything more than a simple cartoonist with a soaring imagination," Mietkiewicz wrote in an obituary.

• "Though he and Siegel practically revolutionized comic books, at the height of success in the early 1940s, Shuster preferred to spend long hours at his drawing board, rather than engage in self-aggrandizing publicity."

Also on June 1:
1882: The first official meetings of The Salvation Army are conducted by Jack Addie and Joe Ludgate in London Ont.
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: May 28, 1987
Guest(s): Neal Adams, Kirk Alyn, John Byrne, Jack Larson, Noel Neill
Reporter: Paul Griffin
Duration: 9:02
"Theme from Superman (main title)" composed by John Williams (Warner Bros.), Superman drawings: Joe Shuster, Superman (1948): Columbia Pictures Corporation, The Adventures of Superman (1951): MPTV (Motion Pictures for Television, Inc.), Superman (1978) produced by: Alexander Alkind, Dovemead Films, Film Export A.G., and International Film Production.

Last updated: October 19, 2012

Page consulted on November 27, 2012

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