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Superman Becomes a Superstar

The surprising story behind the world’s first superhero  

    It was 1938, and Americans were in trouble. Millions of people had lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. It had been like this for nearly 10 years, and there was no end in sight.

    But wait! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s—the world’s first superhero.

    That’s right. Superman first appeared in comic books in April 1938. The country was in the middle of a long economic crisis called the Great Depression. Americans needed an escape from their problems. They needed a hero who fought for the poor and the powerless. 

    Superman was their champion. And this is his real origin story.

    The year was 1938. Americans were in trouble. Millions had lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. It had been like this for nearly 10 years. Things seemed hopeless.

    But wait! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . the world’s first superhero.

    That’s right. The first Superman comic book came out in April 1938. The U.S. was in the middle of the Great Depression. That was an economic crisis. People needed something to make them feel better. They needed someone who fought for the poor and the powerless. 

    Superman was their hero. This is his real origin story.

    It was 1938, and Americans were dealing with many hardships. Millions of people had lost their jobs, and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Times had been tough for nearly a decade, and there was still no end in sight.

    But wait! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . the world’s first superhero!

    That’s right. Superman first appeared in comic books in April 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression. Americans needed an escape from the problems caused by the long economic crisis. They needed a hero who stood up for the poor and the powerless. 

    Their champion was Superman—and this is his real origin story.

In the Beginning

    Superman was invented by nerds. That’s how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would have described themselves. They went to high school together in Cleveland, Ohio. 

    Siegel wrote the first Superman pages. Shuster drew them. They gave their hero a disguise—as a newspaper reporter named Clark Kent. He would be quiet and gentle “like Joe and I are,” Siegel said. But as Superman, he would fight for anyone who felt powerless.

    Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. They went to high school together. 

    Siegel did the writing. Shuster did the drawing. They gave their hero a disguise. When he wasn’t Superman, he was a newspaper reporter named Clark Kent. As Kent, he was quiet and gentle. As Superman, he would fight for anyone who was powerless.

    Superman was invented by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They went to high school together in Cleveland, Ohio, and they would have described themselves as nerds. 

    Siegel wrote the first Superman pages, and Shuster drew them. They gave their hero a disguise—as newspaper reporter Clark Kent. He would be quiet and gentle “like Joe and I are,” Siegel explained. However, as Superman, he would fight for anyone who felt powerless.

The People’s Hero

    In the 1930s, that’s exactly how a lot of people felt. During the Great Depression, one in four Americans lost their jobs. Millions left their homes looking for work. They stood in long lines to get free food at soup kitchens.

    These hard times left many Americans feeling angry. They blamed the rich and powerful for ruining their lives. Bankers, factory owners, and dishonest politicians were their villains. They became Superman’s enemies too.

    In the early comics, Superman’s favorite targets were evil businessmen. He went after a mine owner who put his workers in danger. He battled a carmaker who made unsafe cars. 

    Years later, Superman would take on mad scientists who wanted to destroy Earth. But for now, his job was to protect ordinary people from real-world villains.

    In the 1930s, many people felt powerless. During the Great Depression, one in four Americans lost their jobs. Millions left their homes to find work. They stood in long lines to get free food.

    Many Americans felt angry about the problems they faced. They blamed the rich and powerful. They blamed bankers, factory owners, and dishonest politicians. These were Superman’s enemies too.

    In the early comic books, Superman fought evil businessmen. He went after a mine owner who had put his workers in danger. Superman also battled a carmaker who made unsafe cars. 

    Years later, Superman would fight mad scientists who wanted to destroy Earth. But at first, he saved people from real-world villains.

    That’s exactly how a lot of people felt in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, one in four Americans lost their jobs, and millions left their homes in search of work. People stood in seemingly endless lines, waiting to get free food from soup kitchens.

    Many Americans were left feeling angry. They blamed the rich and powerful for ruining their lives. Their villains—bankers, factory owners, and dishonest politicians—became Superman’s enemies too.

    In the early comics, Superman’s favorite targets were crooked businessmen, such as a mine owner who put his employees in danger and a carmaker who made unsafe vehicles. 

    Years later, Superman would defeat mad scientists who wanted to destroy Earth. But for now, his job was protecting ordinary people from real-world villains.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images (First Issue); Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images (Great Depression)

Tough Times
People wait in line for bread during the Great Depression (above). The first Superman comic book (left) was created during this difficult time in American history.

Rise of Comics

    In Superman, Americans got the hero they needed. So did the comic book business. Just five years before Superman appeared, comics were only printed in newspapers. After his arrival, the new 10-cent comic books flew off the shelves. Each Superman issue sold 1.3 million copies.

    The biggest comic book companies created superheroes by the dozen. DC’s Green Lantern beat up on evil bankers. Batman handled criminals in Gotham City. They were joined by Marvel’s Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and more.

    A few years after Superman arrived, 9 in 10 kids read comic books. More than a third of adults read them too.

    Superman helped Americans. He also helped comic book companies. Five years before Superman, comics were only printed in newspapers. After his arrival, 10-cent comic books flew off the shelves. Each Superman issue sold 1.3 million copies. 

    The biggest comic book companies created many superheroes. DC Comics was one company. It had Green Lantern. He beat up on evil bankers. Batman was another DC hero. He fought criminals in Gotham City. Marvel was another company. It had Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and more.

    After Superman arrived, 9 in 10 kids read comic books. A lot of adults did too.

    In Superman, Americans got the hero they needed—and so did the comic book business. Just five years before Superman, comics were only printed in newspapers. After his arrival, however, the new 10-cent comic books flew off the shelves, with each Superman issue selling  1.3 million copies. 

    The biggest comic book companies created superheroes by the dozen. DC’s Green Lantern beat up on evil bankers, and Batman triumphed over criminals in Gotham City. Marvel’s Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and others joined the superhero world.

    Just a few years after Superman arrived, 90 percent of kids read comic books. They were popular with more than a third of adults too.

Unhappy Ending

    That should have made Siegel and Shuster happy. The two men had made themselves famous. They had invented the superhero and changed the way people read. They also made a fortune for DC Comics. 

    But Siegel and Shuster never got rich. They had sold their famous character to DC. So no matter how many comic books were sold, all they made was $5 a page. 

    A big, powerful company took advantage of two ordinary guys. 

    Now that sounds like a job for Superman.

    Siegel and Shuster invented the superhero. They also made a fortune for DC Comics. 

    But Siegel and Shuster never got rich. They had sold Superman to DC. They got paid just $5 a page. 

    A big company took advantage of two ordinary guys. 

    Now that sounds like a job for Superman.

    Superman’s creators should have been thrilled. Siegel and Shuster had made themselves famous, invented the superhero, and changed the way people read. They also made a fortune for DC Comics. 

    But Siegel and Shuster never got rich. They had sold their famous character to DC, so no matter how many comic books were sold, all they made was $5 a page. 

    A big, powerful company took advantage of two ordinary guys. 

    Now that sounds like a job for Superman. 

Superheroes Take Over the World

They’re everywhere these days. But . . . why? 

Shutterstock (Background); Courtesy Film Frame/©Marvel (Gamora, Iron Man); Courtesy Jay Maidment/©Marvel (Thor, Captain America, Black Widow,); Courtesy Zade Rosenthal/©Marvel 2014 (Nick Fury, Ant Man); COLUMBIA PICTURES/MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT/Album/Alamy Stock Photo (Spider-Man); © 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection (Storm, Wolverine)

    Turn on the news. It’s full of frightening reports. Our world has big problems: war, disease, climate change. It’s easy to feel powerless. 

    But in the imaginary world of movies, one superhero can rescue the entire planet. Wonder Woman can end a war by killing a god. The Avengers can travel through time to save half the universe.

    That’s probably why the world loves superheroes. Last year, fans spent more than $6 billion to watch their favorite superheroes at the theater. And it makes sense, right? As you eat your popcorn, you get an escape from reality. You enter a fantasy world where good always defeats evil. 

    But that’s not the only reason we love superhero stories. Our favorite heroes reflect who we want to be. When we watch Clark Kent become Superman, it reminds us that ordinary people can do great things. When we see T’Challa fight for his throne in Black Panther, it makes us feel brave. We believe we can actually make a difference in our school, or stand up for that friend who is being bullied. 

    In other words, these characters help us to be our best selves. They make us want to do what’s right—even if we get nothing in return. 

    So with that in mind, let’s pretend that the head of DC Comics just called. He wants you to create a new superhero. Who will that superhero be? What will he or she fight against? 

    Answer those questions and it might tell you as much about yourself as it does about your superhero. 

    Our world has big problems. There’s war. There’s disease. There’s climate change. It’s easy to feel powerless. 

    But in the movies, one superhero can save the planet. Wonder Woman can end a war by killing a god. The Avengers can travel through time to save half the universe. 

    The world loves superheroes. Last year, fans spent more than $6 billion going to superhero movies. And why not? As you eat your popcorn, you leave reality. You enter a fantasy world. And good always wins against evil. 

    But there’s another reason we love superheroes. They are who we want to be. We watch Clark Kent become Superman. It reminds us that ordinary people can do great things. We watch T’Challa fight for his throne in Black Panther. It makes us feel brave. We believe we can make a difference in our school or stand up to bullying.

    These characters help us to be our best selves. They make us want to do what’s right. 

    Now let’s pretend that the head of DC Comics just called. He wants you to create a new superhero. Who will that superhero be? What will he or she fight against? 

    Answer those questions. Your answers might tell you just as much about yourself as they do about your superhero. 

    Turn on the news, and you’ll find frightening reports of big problems in our world: war, disease, climate change. It’s likely you’ll feel powerless. 

    But in the imaginary world of movies, the entire planet can be rescued by just one superhero. Wonder Woman can bring a war to an end by killing a god. And the Avengers can travel through time to save half the universe. 

    That’s probably one of the reasons the world loves superheroes. Last year, fans spent more than $6 billion to watch their favorite superheroes at the movie theater. And it’s understandable, right? As you eat your popcorn, you escape from reality and enter a fantasy world—where good always triumphs over evil. 

    But that’s not the only reason superheroes are so popular. Our favorites reflect who we want to be. When we watch Clark Kent transform into Superman, we are reminded that ordinary people can achieve great things. When we see T’Challa fight for his throne in Black Panther, we feel brave. We believe it’s possible to make a difference in our school or stand up for someone who is being bullied. 

    In other words, these characters inspire us to be our best selves and make us want to do what’s right—even if we get nothing in return. 

    So with that in mind, let’s pretend that the president of DC Comics just contacted you. He asks you to create a new superhero. Who will that superhero be? What will he or she fight against? 

    Your answers to those questions might tell you as much about yourself as they do about your superhero. 

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