Superman comic books began officially in June 1938 with the publication of Action Comics, no. 1. They were instantly popular and launched the superhero phenomenon, where people dress in unique, often flamboyant costumes and perform impossible feats of heroism. Superhero comics peaked at the end of World War II, then for some reason dwindled from hundreds of titles to just Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, then resurged in the 1960s.
What happened to comic books in the 1950s, and how did Superman, in particular, make it through the decade? The American comic book industry as a whole diversified in the 1950s. Funny animal, horror, jungle adventure, romance, science fiction, and teen humor comic books flourished. One could argue that Superman survived by following that trend while still retaining his essential cape, do-gooder personality, and secret identity. Romantic interest Lois Lane got her own book in 1957. Teenagers Superboy and Jimmy Olsen got their own books in 1949 and 1954, respectively. Krypto, the superdog, brought a funny animal dimension with his first appearance in 1955. Superman’s imaginary trips to his planet of origin, Krypton, appealed to science fiction fans, as did the discovery of Kandor, the Kryptonian city in a jar, in 1958.
The clincher was radiation. In this sample of fourteen books, there are two nuclear bomb tests, a stolen batch of radium, the threat of exposure to kryptonite rays, and a mysterious glowing secret weapon. These are Cold War stories and, consciously or not, their scariness perfectly balanced their silliness like no other genre of the 1950s.
Vintage Covers: The World of Superman is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Randall Scott, Comic Book Bibliographer, Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Alan and Rebecca Ross Endowed Exhibition Fund and the MSU Broad’s general exhibitions fund. All works courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.