Updated: Apr 13
At POP Culture & Comics, we examine and celebrate our love of comic books and the pop culture that is inspired by them. But, sometimes that pop culture has inspired them in return.
Since the beginning of the comic book explosion in the summer of 1938 with the splashy debut and immediate success of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster's Superman in Action Comics, the also-immediate (almost-immediate) translation of comic books to pop culture mediums like newspaper comic strips, radio, and movie serials meant some things needed to change or be added to enhance audience enjoyment. Sometimes those changes or additions proved so popular, they made their way into the comic books and became canon. These are some of the stories…
By January 1939, the Superman daily comic strip, by Siegel and Shuster, was already appearing in newspapers across the country. The planet Krypton, Jor-L, Lora, and Kal-L made their named debuts in the very first few days of the strip, even though the spellings would evolve over time. The spelling Jor-El first appeared in a 1942 Superman novel by George Lowther.
Previously, no mention of Superman's parents or birth name had been made in Action Comics, and Krypton had been described only as "a distant planet." Krypton would not appear by name in the comic books until Superman #1 (Summer 1939), and Jor-El and Lara in More Fun Comics #101 in 1945.
Starting in February 1940, the immediately and massively popular Adventures of Superman radio program used ingenious Foley (sound effects) artists and talented voice artists to bring the comic book’s adventures to life. In radio episode number two, “Clark Kent, Mild-Mannered Reporter” (<<click link to hear the entire broadcast!), The Daily Star newspaper where Clark Kent worked for editor George Taylor in Action Comics, was instead announced as The Daily Planet, and Taylor was replaced with Perry White. In April 1940, both changes first appeared in Action Comics #23, without explanation. The radio show changed the name to avoid confusion with real-life newspapers with Star in their titles, like The Toronto Star, whose Art Deco building was Joe Shuster's model for Action's newspaper building.
Readers of the comics had imagery and the written word to know what Superman was thinking or doing. On the radio that wasn’t possible; Superman needed someone to talk to and make exposition easier and more entertaining, so enters young Daily Planet wannabe cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. The character soon made his way to the comics, first appearing (with blonde hair!) by name in Superman #13 (1941), and became so popular, he eventually received his own title, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which ran for 163 issues from 1954-1974.
Also in this same radio episode, Superman is described as “hovering” in the sky, which would make this the first confirmation of his ability to fly, and make more sense of the legendary opening declarations: “Up in the sky! Look!...It’s a bird!...It’s a plane!...It’s Superman!” Other radio program catchphrases that became iconic and later used in other mediums, including the comics, were: “This looks like a job for…Superman!” and “Great Caesar’s ghost!” and “Up, up, and away!” to help the listeners visualize Superman taking off into the sky.
By the end of 1940, the publishers of Action and Superman, along with Paramount Pictures, had approached the Fleischer Brothers animation studio, hoping that the team that made Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons so popular, would agree to do the same with their new hero. Seventeen animated shorts were created by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943 (click here to see the first animated short), making their own additions to the Superman mythos.
Most notably, it appeared that the Fleischers made Superman not just leap, but fly, which pre-dated his ability in the comic books. There is no consensus on when Superman gained the ability of sustained flight in the comic books, but he was still described as "leaping" at the time of the radio program's debut and during the production of the animated shorts.
The animated shorts' opening narration followed closely to the one featured on the radio, but added words written by Jerry Siegel: “a never-ending battle for Truth and Justice” which would continue to be used, most memorably to television viewers of The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s, a show which would add the words “…and the American Way.” Click here to see opening title sequence.
Even the S-symbol on Superman’s chest, uniquely black and red in the Fleischer shorts (but not in the comics), would influence DC Comics artist Alex Ross half a century later on the uniform symbol of his Kingdom Come Superman.
Kryptonite, known around the world as Superman’s infamous Achilles Heel, was actually created first by the radio program to give the lead voice actor a much-needed vacation. Bud Collyer voiced both Clark Kent and Superman, and was well-known for helping listeners differentiate between Clark and Superman by dropping his voice an octave in mid-sentence when he changed identities: “This looks like a job for…Superman!” By 1943 he had been working without a vacation for years, but the program was so popular, and Collyer was in nearly every scene, so there was no way he could take any time off. The writers had to come up with a creative way to give the guy a break, yet still keep the program on the air, and so Kryptonite was born to disable Superman. However, it wasn’t until 1949 and Superman #61 that (Red) Kryptonite made its first appearance in the comics, and 1951’s Action Comics #161 for the more familiar Green Kryptonite to debut.
Next in Part 2: Television and movie adaptations of heroes influence the comic book universe in When Pop Culture Inspired the Comics, Part 2: Batgirl, Icy Krypton, & Harley Quinn
Simonson, Louise. DC Comics Covergirls. New York: Universe, 2007
Maslon, Laurence. Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. New York: Crown Publishing, 2013 (companion volume to the PBS documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle)