Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: My celebration of Superman's 80th anniversary continues with a look at how different mediums have interpreted him and his supporting cast. I'll be exploring each medium in more detail over the next several months.
Superman's comic book exploits quickly saw him adapted to the funny pages.
Superman has appeared in so many different mediums that it’s not uncommon for people to be a fan of the character without having read the comic books. With “The Man of Tomorrow” having appeared in comic strips, on radio, in movie serials, novels, films, theatre, and of course television (both live-action and animated), people have experienced different interpretations of both Superman, and his supporting cast. As we discussed last time around, most people know Superman is a comic book character, but their knowledge of the character may vary depending on what medium they’ve experienced him in.
Superman’s success in Action Comics quickly led to his appearance in a daily comic strip. Ironically, Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had wanted Superman to get picked up as a comic strip, but it would take the success of his comic book to see the newspapers invite Superman to the funny pages. The Superman comic strip debuted in 1939 and like many mediums, expanded on the Superman mythos. It would be in the comic strip that fans first got a glimpse into the details of Superman’s origin on Krypton as opposed to the scant outline of an origin in the comic book. The comic strip also featured the first appearance of the fifth-dimensional imp Mr. Mr. Mxyzptlk and Clark Kent using a phone booth to make his famous switcheroo.
Jimmy Olsen (left) and Perry White (right) debuted on The Adventures of Superman radio show before they appeared in the comic books.
The radio serial The Adventures of Superman introduced a number of characters and situations not seen in the original comic book. The radio show debuted in 1940 and introduced Daily Planet editor Perry White and the Planet’s resident cub reporter with a penchant for getting into trouble—Jimmy Olsen. Both White and Olsen would eventually appear in the Superman comics, with fans of the radio serial likely wanting to see the characters in the comic books. The radio serial also featured the first appearance of kryptonite and Superman’s first team-up with Batman and Robin. What makes details like these so interesting is that the comics often did not keep pace with adaptations, whether they were newspaper strips, radio shows, or something else. Someone who listened to the Superman radio serial would find no sign of kryptonite nor the team of Superman, Batman, and Robin in the comic books. While kryptonite almost debuted in the comic books early on in the Superman saga, it wouldn’t appear in the comic book until 1949 in Superman #61. Of course, as any Superman fan worth their Supermen of America fan club membership knows, the comics soon made up for last time, turning kryptonite and its many colors into a frequent plot device for writers stymied by Superman’s ever-growing powers. The comics lagged behind with Superman and Batman also, waiting until 1952’s Superman #76 to debut “The World’s Finest Team,” but like kryptonite, they soon took advantage of it, giving Superman, Batman (and Robin) their own feature in World’s Finest Comics (where before, they’d only appeared on the covers together).
Once again, the comic books catch up with their adaptations
These discrepancies have never seemed to bother the comic book creators much, with the various adaptations usually doing whatever they want to make their stories fit in with whatever medium they were set in. For example, while Superman flew in the comic books (although he started with building-jumping single bounds), the budget of the Superman film serials made this non-existent. The Adventures of Superman TV series showed Superman flying, but the budget required these scenes to be reused over and over. These adaptations have also taken liberties with the Superman mythos to conform to contemporary sensibilities. While Superman championed for the rights of others including ethnic and religious minorities, there presence was limited both in the comics and the adaptations. This changed over time, but it would often take the adaptations to spur change.
Smallville's cast included new character Chloe Sullivan (left) and a new take on Clark's friend Pete Ross (center).
Recent adaptations including Smallville and Supergirl have both updated Superman’s supporting cast to include more people from different backgrounds. For example, Smallville cast Sam Jones III as Clark’s childhood friend Pete Ross, a regular character on the show that chronicled Superman’s pre-costumed years. What was different about this adaptation was that Ross had always been portrayed as Caucasian, and while Ross wasn’t a central character in the mythos, this was an important step in making Superman’s supporting cast more diverse. Smallville also introduced Clark’s friend Chloe Sullivan, a strong female lead who added a new dimension to Clark’s early years. Although the Pete Ross adaptation on Smallville was an interesting step, it was nothing compared to Supergirl casting actor Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen, Superman’s close friend. What made this different was that this version of Jimmy Olsen wasn’t the wet behind the ears cub reporter of the comics or most adaptations. Instead James proved more mature and capable, showing how adaptations can be adjusted for contemporary sensibilities. Like Smallville’s Peter Ross, Supergirl’s James Olsen is a person of color, showing that the mythos can reflect the ever-changing society we live in. At the same time, these adaptations can raise eyebrows when fans who have seen Ross and Olsen in their TV adaptations only to find they are Caucasian in the comic books.
Supergirl's producers cast Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen, providing a contemporary interpretation of Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen.
Superman’s comic book exploits continue to differ from his adaptations, but successful adaptations thrive not due to diverse casts, but because of compelling characters and stories. The beauty of good adaptations is that they begin with the core character Superman and build around it, sometimes adding new characters or concepts so compelling they are added to the original source material, i.e., the comics. These additions can be added to the comic books or ignored, but they show the timelessness of Superman as well as the variety in his many adaptations.
Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel. Chronicle Books, 1998.
McMillain, Graeme. “When BATMAN Met SUPERMAN: Their 10 BEST First Meetings.” Newsarama. Comics 4 Dec. 2017. https://www.newsarama.com/18771-when-batman-met-superman-10-major-meetings-before-movie-magic.html#s2. Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.
Rossen, Jake. Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon. Chicago Review Press, 2008.
Wikipedia contributors. "The Adventures of Superman (radio)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Mar. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Superman_(radio). Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "Superman (comic strip)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Jan. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_(comic_strip). Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.