A contemplation on the history and significance of the Man of Steel

by Emmet Matheson

Superman money

I have been a huge fan of Superman for as long as I can remember. I was a young child when the first Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out, and remained un-jaded enough to keep a place for Ol’ Blue in my heart even as the dimly gothic Batmania of 1989 played right into my preteen angst.

I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of simplicity (he’s a flying strongman from space) and convolution (how many different types of Kryptonite are there?) of Superman. Lately, I’ve been reading Superman stories — mostly reprints of 1950s Silver Age stories, what I consider the Platonic Ideal of Superman — with my four-year-old daughter, who, to my surprise, adores them. Especially “the ones where Jimmy Olsen BECOMES something.”

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, the launch of a new Superman comic (Superman Unchained), and the debut of Man of Steel, the first completely fresh take on Superman to arrive in theatres since 1978. (2006’s Superman Returns was sort of a half-sequel to the Christopher Reeve films.)

On the eve of his latest adventure, here’s four short essays that cover some of what this particular fan thinks of Superman.


It’s increasingly difficult to separate the idea of Superman as a great collaboratively generated folk hero of the 20th century and his status as the trademarked property of the world’s second largest multinational entertainment corporation. Warner Bros. (part of the Time-Warner conglomerate) lawyers have been arguing against claims to character by Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and their heirs since buying DC Comics in the ’60s. Siegel and Shuster first tried to assert their legal rights to the character in 1947 and the case has been full of bizarre wrinkles since, including a 2009 ruling that if Warner didn’t have a Superman movie in development by 2011, the Siegels could sue for “lost revenue.”

Hence, Man Of Steel, blockbuster by legal obligation.

It’s been hard to keep track of all the rulings, over-rulings and appeals over the years — including one, since overturned, that would have given the Siegel family the right to make a Superman film of their own but only using elements of the character that appeared in June, 1938’s Action Comics #1, his first appearance. A 2006 ruling gave the Siegels some rights to Superboy, who is legally viewed as a separate character from Superman.

It’s also been speculated that many of the recent revisions to the comic book history and look of Superman — including the unfortunate disappearance of his signature red trunks and S-curl forelock — have been in an effort to create a Superman legally distinct from Siegel and Shuster’s creation but still recognizable enough to sell lunchboxes and Underoos by the crate.

There’s been a growing movement to better recognize the creators of the characters that star in Marvel Comics’ hugely successful films — notably Jack Kirby, who had a part in creating nearly every Marvel character who matters (other than Wolverine). No such campaign has grown around Superman’s creators, who were paid $130 for the character 75 years ago.


One of the loudest and most repeated criticisms of Bryan Singer’s flawed but sweet 2006 film Superman Returns was that Superman didn’t punch anybody. By what we’ve seen in trailers for Man Of Steel, director Zack Snyder has rectified that negligence.

Did we run out of movies about men punching each other? Did we forget that Sylvester Stallone made six movies devoted solely to the subject?

Like most men do, Superman grew out of his punch-happy phase around his 19th birthday. As the Silver Age of the late ’50s came on, Superman’s adventures became more domestic and much more imaginative. His life revolved not so much around smashing fascists, saboteurs or Ultra-Humanites — as it had during World War II — and more around his “family” at the Daily Planet: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and his alter-ego, Clark Kent.

This era, from about 1957 to about 1971, when the Superman books fell under the supervision of psychoanalysis enthusiast and editor Mort Weisinger, alternated between absurdist science fiction and Jungian workplace sitcom. Punches, during this era of love triangles among alter egos and extra-dimensional imps, would have been beneath Superman.

His writers had far too much imagination and too much respect for their readers to allow Superman to solve his problems with his fists.


Man of Steel’s most disturbing break from traditional Superman lore isn’t his missing red trunks. It’s the missing Jimmy Olsen, who’s nowhere to be seen in trailers for the new film. In my house, Jimmy Olsen is the main attraction and Superman the supporting player.

Jimmy Olsen starred in his own book, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, from the late ’50s through the early ’70s, and during that time Jimmy not only had some wild adventures but he was constantly going through bizarre transformations. Like the time he switched minds with a gorilla or the time he grew a beard. Jimmy was ready for anything and never got bored, and offered a needed point of reader identification standing beside the near-omnipotent Superman.

There was some speculation that actress Rebecca Buller plays JENNY Olsen in Man Of Steel. It’s not the worst idea. If gender balance is the aim, though, I’d rather see a female General Zod.

Maybe they’re saving Jimmy for future instalments in the franchise. Perhaps we’ll see a Bromantic Comedy instalment, The Super-Hangover: Jimmy wakes up to discover he’s become a giant turtle-boy, Superman is depowered and — Great Caesar’s Ghost! — Perry White is missing! Sophomoric hilarity involving the Bottle City of Kandor and Red Kryptonite ensues.


With Lillian Matheson and her father, Emmet

Do you remember the first time you saw Superman?

I don’t.

What do you think of Superman?


What’s your favourite thing about Superman?

Because he’s a superhero.

What about Spider-Man or Batgirl? Are they as cool as Superman?

They’re both as cool as Superman. I like all superheroes.

Do you have a favourite superhero?

My favourite superhero is Aquaman!


Yes, really.

What do you like about Aquaman? What’s special about Aquaman?

Because he can breathe underwater. Now let’s do the Jimmy Olsen part.

Okay. Is Jimmy Olsen a superhero?

No. But, Daddy? Actually, we’re going to do a Jimmy Olsen one, because we like him in the story. So that’s why. Okay?

What do you like about Jimmy Olsen?

I don’t know.

What’s your favourite Jimmy Olsen story?

When he becomes a gorilla.

Do you think that Superman stories are better when they have Jimmy Olsen in them?

Yes. They are. Because, just because.

When you play, do you like to play as Superman or as Jimmy Olsen?

I like to play as Superman AND Jimmy Olsen, sometimes.

When you grow up, who would you rather be like?

I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I’m a grown-up.

Who is your dad more like — Jimmy Olsen or Superman?

Jimmy Olsen and Superman, sometimes.

When am I like Jimmy Olsen?

When I tell you to be Jimmy Olsen.

When am I like Superman?

When I tell you to be Superman.

Do you know that there’s a new Superman movie?

Yes I do, because you always told me that.

Is that a movie that you want to see or would you rather see a cartoon of Superman?

A cartoon.