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While there’s a lot to be said for getting there first, is the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was the first superhero, the character that created a unique and endlessly tweakable template and founded an increasingly pervasive genre, the only reason the Man of Steel occupies the unique place he does in our culture?
In his new book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, Larry Tye pens a biography of sorts of the character, biographies being something Tye has more than a little experience writing (his previous works include biographies of Satchel Paige and Edward L. Bernays). Given that focus, Tye doesn’t really set about answering the question of why Superman is our most enduring hero, a question that seems particularly relevant as Supes has ceded the title of most popular hero to his one-time imitator Batman in a lot of the most pertinent metrics (comic book sales and box office earnings, for example).
Tye naturally alights on some of the most oft-cited reasons, including the psychological appeal of the incredible amount of wish-fulfillment Siegel and Shuster imbued their hero with — from being stronger than everyone else and able to fly to successfully leading a double life in which one persona is as accepted as the other persona dreams of being to the character’s unique relationship with the woman of his dreams — and the way the hero almost literally wrapped himself in the American flag and made himself synonymous with his home country.
While recounting the history of Superman, however, Tye reveals another obvious but less obsessed over reason. By a mixture of luck and his owners’ relentless pursuit of profits, Superman has managed to experiment with and conquer emerging media almost as immediately as they became viable — from the brand-new comic books of the late 1930s he segued easily into comic strips, and his was an early and huge hit radio program. He was in movie theaters with both cartoons and serials. He was on television in the 1950s, and between reruns and new shows, he never really left — live-action or animation or both at once, Superman is and always has been a television mainstay. Then, of course, there were feature films — Hollywood is riding a still-cresting wave of superhero blockbusters, and the next Superman feature is due next year, but there were Superman movies a full decade before there were superhero movies.