What Is Superman's Origin Story And How Has It Changed Over 80 Years?

What Is Superman’s Origin Story And How Has It Changed Over 80 Years?

Almost 80 years ago, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster revealed Superman’s origins to the world. In its structure, it is both simple and multi-layered. Every generation DC has revisited it to tell a new version of the origin that reflects the storytelling methods of that time and reflect the expectations of readers of the time. As a testament to how timeless it is, the broad strokes of the origin have remained untouched throughout the years.

So, What Is Superman’s Origin?

While Superman’s origin has been told numerous times, but in its basic form the origin is:

It all starts on the planet Krypton, a planet with an advanced culture but is also doomed to be imminently destroyed. Before it can be destroyed scientist Jor-El and his wife Kara are able to send their son off into a rocket to escape the destruction. The rocket eventually makes its way to Earth where it crashes down in Kansas where it’s found by The Kents.

The Kents decide to keep the baby and raise it as their own. As the child, which they named Clark, grows up they notice that he exhibits some extraordinary gifts and realise that the child is something special. With their love and guidance, the Kents shape Clark’s moral code and teach him that he is to use his gifts to help humanity.

Once Clark reaches his adult years he moves to Metropolis where he lives a double life. In one life he’s the mild-mannered Clark Kent, who works as a reporter at the Daily Planet. In the other, he’s Superman, who uses his immense abilities to do good in the world.

Page from Action Comics #1 by Joe Shuster.
Page from Action Comics #1 by Joe Shuster.

How Has Superman’s Origin Evolved Over The Years?

While it was brief, Superman’s origin was first told in Action Comics #1 – the same comic he debuted in. In just one page it told the familiar tale albeit with many details missing. It mentioned that he came from a doomed planet, that he was found by passing motorists and that he developed fantastic strength.

In 1939’s Superman #1 the origin was told again, but this time fleshed out over two pages. Apart from one panel which mentioned Clark was initially turned over to an “orphan asylum,” this pair of pages sets up the core foundations of the origin of the character like a well-built house.

Superman #53 cover by Wayne Boring.
Superman #53 cover by Wayne Boring.

Like any well-built house, the origin has had work done to it to make it feel fresh and with the times. Throughout the Golden and Silver Ages, the origin was revisited from time to time. Those two pages of origins became full-length stories. Scenes that were originally a single panel were fleshed out. For instance, we discovered more about the how and why of Krypton’s destruction and about Clark Kent’s younger years.

The Golden and Silver Ages had created a significant amount of bloat to the Superman franchise. There was an array of superpowered pets, a half-dozen varieties of kryptonite, and it was established that Superman actually operated as a hero as a boy (aka Superboy) instead of starting as an adult. While these were all fine at one time, they began feeling dated once the more mature 1980’s rolled around.

Superman #146 cover by Kurt Swan.
Superman #146 cover by Kurt Swan.

Golden and Silver Age storytelling also presented DC with another issue too. Stories would contradict themselves and it became a mess trying to tie everything together. The solution at the time was to use the multiverse as a fallback for explaining these continuity errors. Editors simply explained a contradiction away by saying the story was either imaginary or happened in a parallel universe. The problem is, the more this trick was implemented the messier and confusing it became.

By the mid-80s this issue was getting way out of hand. The solution was the Multiverse shattering Crisis On Infinite Earths, which acted as a cosmic Spring clean for DC’s multiverse. Where there were infinite parallel universes stood only one. There was one of every hero – including Superman.

Superman: The Man of Steel #1 cover by John Bryne.
Superman: The Man of Steel #1 cover by John Bryne.

This clean-up was a clean slate for DC and with that many of their heroes receiving new origins. These new origins honoured the past but aligned with the times to feel fresh. As a result, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli crafted Batman: Year One, George Perez took on Wonder Woman, and John Bryne (who had jumped ship from Marvel) was tasked with Superman.

Page from Superman: The Man of Steel by John Bryne.
Page from Superman: The Man of Steel by John Bryne.

To kickstart his Superman run, Bryne would revisit the Superman origin with the six-part miniseries Superman: The Man Of Steel. It took away much of the baggage that previous eras had accrued and favoured contemporary ideas. As a result, we see more of moments with The Kents, who play a big part in grounding Superman in humanity. We also see more of Superman’s early days of being a hero too. This includes his early encounters with Lex Luthor and even his first team-up with Batman.

Bryne’s interpretation of the origin remained gospel for many years until DC decided that the origin need a 21st-century touch in 2003. Thus the twelve-part maxiseries called Superman: Birthright was born. Written by Mark Waid and art by up-and-comer Lenil Francis Yu, the comic took what Bryne had established and expanded on it. It didn’t retread on what Bryne had done before, but fill in gaps and treated Bryne’s interpretation as events that happened off the page as a way to not negate them.

Panel from Superman: Birthright #4 by Leinil Francis Yu.
Panel from Superman: Birthright #4 by Leinil Francis Yu.

Where The Man Of Steel had left gaps in time, Birthright fills these in with additional moments which add to the origin. The most notable of these were the years in which Clark travels the world being a journalist, while at the same time trying to find his place in the world. In his travels, Clark finds purpose and inspires him to become the hero we know and love.

Birthright’s most controversial change to the origin revolves around Clark Kent’s relationship with Lex Luthor. It takes a page out of the popular Smallville TV series, which at the time was roughly three seasons into its ten-year tenure, and establishes that Kent and Luthor were friends in their teenage years.

Page from Superman: Secret Origin #2 by Gary Frank.

Remember when I said DC jettisoned many of the cheesier elements of Superman’s mythos? Some of them would find a home again with Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The pair took Superman’s origin and injected it with elements that disappeared from the Post-Crisis era. Johns intentionally reintroduced these elements in a way which gave them some modern context to modern readers, but still felt classic. For example, Superman was Superboy in his younger years, he had adventures with the Legion of Superheroes, and brought Krypto, Superman’s Kryptonian dog, into the cannon.

So, Which Superman Origin Should I Read?

If you’re looking to read to read just one Superman origin then I can highly recommend Superman: Birthright.

Man of Steel is great but being over 30 years old means that has an old-fashioned quality to it. Readers that are not familiar with older comics might find it a bit jarring when compared to modern ones. The same goes for any of the origins that predate it. Secret Origin is also great, but it’s a more rewarding read if you have an expanded knowledge of Superman’s mythos.

Birthright is the Superman origin for a 21st-century, and as a result feels fresh but familiar. It succeeds in its mission and 15 years on is still doing so.

Final Words

It’s this strong foundation that Superman’s origin has not only last as long as it has, but it’s one that has become malleable with the ages. It truly is a testament to the imagination of Superman’s creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster who were able to get most of it right the very first time. As a result, Superman’s origin is one of the best origins in the DC Universe – perhaps even the best in comics.

Have Your Say!

Do you like the Superman origin? Do you have a favourite telling of it? Let me know in the comments below or via Facebook or Twitter.

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