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American COMIC BOOK SUPER-HERO, created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. As a child from another planet who came to Earth in a rocketship, Superman would seem an entirely sf figure (although all "scientific" explanations of his amazing powers—differences in gravity, yellow sun radiation, etc.—are ludicrous). However, from the start, his adventures often veered into fantasy, sometimes in unusual fashion: in one celebrated early adventure, he battled against COMIC STRIP characters who had come to life, and in another strangely RECURSIVE story, Superman as Clark Kent rushes Lois Lane out of a theatre because the Superman CARTOON they are watching is about to reveal his secret identity. Soon, one of his recurring foes was the other-dimensional IMP, Mr. Mxyzptlk, who bedeviled Superman with his unlimited magical powers until he was tricked into saying his name backwards, which forced him to go home (in one story, Superman visited Mxyzptlk's world, so the imp had to trick Superman into saying his name backwards).

            By the 1950s, chroniclers of Superman had established, like a litany, that the Man of Steel was vulnerable to only two forces—kryptonite and MAGIC; and, since chunks of Superman's destroyed planet could only show up so often, Superman was regularly confronted with almost every conceivable magical menace: CIRCE turned him into a lion; HERCULES sought magical help from the Greek GODS to help him win Lois Lane from Superman; a MAGIC MIRROR revealed his secret identity; his friend Jimmy Olsen was turned into a GENIE; and so on. Other aspects of the emerging Superman mythos, despite a scientific patina, had mythological or supernatural resonances. The planet Krypton, its history detailed in many stories not involving Superman, was an ATLANTIS writ large, an advanced and admirable civilization destroyed by HUBRIS—its failure to heed warnings of an impending cataclysm. The Kryptonian criminals exiled to the Phantom Zone looked and acted like GHOSTS, grim reminders of the less admirable aspects of Krypton's heritage. The Kryptonian city of Kandor, preserved by being shrunk into a bottle ( => GREAT AND SMALL), was a living DOLL HOUSE, where a temporarily shrunken Superman could visit and briefly re-experience life on Krypton. And the many bizarre transformations effected by the red variety of kryptonite—turning Superman into a baby, a dragon, two separate people, and so on—resemble various mythical METAMORPHOSES.

            More significantly, the character of Superman himself seems a mixture and culmination of many HEROES of myth and legend. His origin story—sent to drift through space in a rocket before being found by kindly strangers—recalls the birth of Moses (appropriately enough, given the Hebraic cast of his Kryptonian name Kal-El and the Jewish background of his creators Siegel and Shuster). His great strength and altruistic deeds are typical traits of great heroes, especially Hercules (who co-starred with Superman in several adventures). Looking like an ordinary man, but ready to take off his suit and become a mighty warrior, Superman might be cast as a HIDDEN MONARCH or UGLY DUCKLING. More recently, with his spectacular death and resurrection, Superman has become a kind of DYING GOD, perhaps even a CHRIST dying for others' sins.

            However, while Superman might be linked to any number of previous heroes, there remains something strikingly original about the character. He is a man with three legal names and three corresponding identities: Kal-El, lonely heir to a vanished civilization; Clark Kent, respected journalist and American citizen; and Superman, world-renowned hero who holds a United Nations passport in that name granting him entry to all nations. And despite some commentaries to the contrary, all of his identities are real to Superman: he is really Kal-El, he is really Clark Kent, and he is really Superman. Moreover, having these differing identities does not seem to bother him: when visiting Kandor or talking to his cousin Supergirl, he enjoys being Kal-El; when working at the Daily Planet, he enjoys being Clark Kent; and when fighting criminals or rescuing people, he enjoys being Superman. While it was easy to impose feelings of confused loyalites and inner torment on a divided character like BATMAN, fifty-five years of efforts to complicate and darken his personality have failed to engender any real sense of conflict in his personality. And it is his ability to placidly assume different roles in different situations, perhaps, that makes Superman quintessentially American, not his espousals of truth, justice, and the American way.

            While the character of Kal-El has been neglected in film and television portrayals (except perhaps for Jeff East as a confused young Clark Kent discovering his Kryptonian heritage in the film Superman [1977]), the problem of being both Superman and Clark Kent has made the role impossible to portray in a fully satisfying manner. In films, Kirk Alyn (serials Superman [1948] and Atom Man vs. Superman [1950]) and Christopher Reeve (Superman, Superman II [1980], Superman III [1983] and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace [1987]) focus their energies on the character of Superman and make Clark Kent a collection of nervous mannerisms; while on television, George Reeves (The Adventures of Superman [1953-57]) and Dean Cain (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman [1993-1997]) make Clark Kent a robust and involving character but sometimes seem ill at ease playing Superman. Perhaps, as in the television series THE INCREDIBLE HULK, two different actors are needed for the two roles.

            The character of Superman has experienced sagging popularity and numerous revisions in recent years—his powers have been reduced, MAD SCIENTIST Lex Luthor has been recast as a corporate criminal, Supergirl was killed, and so on—but Superman remains the most popular and successful comic book hero ever created; at one time, he regularly appeared in eight different comics. In addition to solo adventures, a long series teamed him up with Batman, thought he later fought against Batman in Frank Miller's GRAPHIC NOVEL The Dark Knight Returns (1986); one comic, DC Comics Presents, paired him with almost every hero in the DC universe; other special comics have featured Superman with Spider-Man, CAPTAIN MARVEL, WONDER WOMAN, Muhammad Ali, and other luminaries; and he appeared in most adventures of the Justice League of America. Two comics described his adventures as a teenager, when he was called Superboy, and "pal" Jimmy Olsen, "girl friend" Lois Lane, and Supergirl all starred in their own comics. The Legion of Super-Heroes originated in a Superboy adventure and at times included both Superboy and Supergirl as members. Shorter series of adventures focused on Superman as a baby (Superbaby), Superman as Clark Kent, Krypto the Super-DOG, the planet Krypton, an alternate world where an older Clark Kent is married to Lois Lane, a version of Supergirl named Power Girl, and the world inhabited by the imperfect duplicates of Superman and Lois Lane called Bizarros. In other media, in addition to the Alyn serials, Reeve films, and two television series, there have been a syndicated television series about Superboy (1988-1991), first starring John Haymes Newton, then Gerard Christopher; the Broadway musical (1966) and television movie (1975) It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!; the film Supergirl (1984); a RADIO series and 17 Max Fleischer theatrical CARTOONS in the 1940s; several novels; a VIDEO GAME; and numerous television cartoons with Superman on his own or as one of the Super Friends.

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