Saturday, April 2, 2016

Time magazine March 14, 1988: Superman at 50

In 1988 it was Superman’s 50th Anniversary.

Time magazine, March 14, 1988, ran an interesting piece celebrating one of its own. That is, Time Warner owns Superman, DC Comics and Time magazine.

Our world has changed; our viewpoints have changed, but Superman, although a very different one, is still with us. But every generation remakes Superman in their own image, he is a strong reflection of what we think of ourselves and our country. Superman, is always as powerful as we feel the United States is.

The article, written by Otto Friedrich and reported by Beth Austin and Janice C. Simpson is interesting to read, often because we get to see how the character (and Lois Lane) has changed.  And we get to see a bit of how we have changed.

Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America’s favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible. 

“Behold, I teach you the superman. The superman is the meaning of the earth. “

    —Friedrich Nietzsche

"I'm lying in bed counting sheep when all of a sudden it hits me. I conceive a char­acter like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I heard tell of rolled into one. Only more so."
        —Jerome Siegel

Where do enduring legends come from? Where do mythi­cal heroes come from? Where do classic works of popular art come from?

"As a high school student," Jerry Sie­gel once recalled, "I thought that someday I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who ei­ther didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed . . . It occurred to me: What if I . . . had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?"

Great ideas, even when they seem to come all at once, actually emerge from a tangled undergrowth. Siegel, a scraw­ny, bespectacled teenager who was then drifting through Cleveland's Glenville High School, worked as a delivery boy for $4 a week, gave part of the money to help support his impoverished family and invested much of the rest in the ad­ventures of Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Imitating and burlesqu­ing such heroes, he began concocting science-fiction tales that he mimeo­graphed and sold to other students. One of Siegel's lesser creations was a story called The Reign of the Superman, which featured an evil scientist with a bald head. Superman as villain? The thought is enough to make posterity shudder. But this was not the stuff of greatness. It was only during a sleepless summer night in 1934, after Siegel had graduated, that the grand inspiration came: Superman as hero.

It was a heroic scenario: the explo­sion of the doomed planet Krypton, the miraculous escape of the infant son of a Kryptonian scientist, the discovery of the baby's spaceship by an elderly cou­ple near the Midwestern town of Small-vile. And the gradual revelations of the child's superhuman strength, the foster parents' exhortation that he "must use it to assist humanity," the youth's adop­tion of a dual identity—the mild-man­nered, blue-suited newspaper reporter, Clark Kent, and the red-caped, blue-haired Superman, the man of steel. And Lois Lane, the toothsome fellow report­er who attached herself to the Super­man-Kent duo, loving the one and snubbing the other.

Siegel went running to the house of his classmate and neighbor, Joe Shuster, the equally penniless son of a tailor from Toronto, and the two of them worked all day—Siegel writing and Shu­ster drawing—until they had finished no fewer than twelve newspaper strips. Then they set forth to sell their new hero to the waiting world, which proved utterly indifferent. "A rather immature piece of work," said United Feature. "Crude and hurried," said Esquire Fea­tures. Even at Detective Comics, which finally bought the feature after much ar­gument and delay to help launch Action Comics four years later, Publisher Harry Donenfeld looked at the first cover, of
 Superman lifting a car over his head (a treasure that now can fetch $35,000 from collectors), and delivered his ver­dict: "Ridiculous."

Woke up this morning, what do I see?
Robbery, violence, insanity . . .
Superman, Superman . . .
I want to fly like Superman.
—The Kinks

Today, of course, Superman is an in­stitution. After a half-century of crime-busting adventures in Action Comics and Superman Comics (as well as in some 250 newspapers), 13 years of radio shows, three novels, 17 animated cartoons, two movie serials of 15 installments each, a TV series of 104 episodes, a second ani­mated-cartoon series of 69 parts, a Broad­way musical and five feature films (not to mention a hoorah of shows featuring Su-perboy, Supergirl and even Krypto, the Superdog; not to mention, for that matter, a plunder of spin-offs and by-products: Superman T shirts, Superman rings, Su­perman bed sheets), the man of steel is now, well, unique.

"He is our myth, the American myth," says Screenwriter David New­man, who collaborated on the Broadway musical and three of the films. "When we first started writing Superman I, some friends said, 'What are you doing that for?' And I said, 'If I were an English screenwriter and I were writing about King Arthur, you wouldn't be asking that.' " John Byrne, who actually is an English-born writer but now turns out the monthly scripts and drawings for the Su­perman comic books, calls his hero the "ultimate American success story—a for­eigner who comes to America, and is more successful here than he would ever be anywhere else." But though Superman lives in America (mainly), he is a hero all over the world. One admirer, Science-Fic­tion Writer Harlan Ellison, has estimated that there are only five fictional creations known in practically every part of the earth: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood and Superman.

So, bravo! Bravissimo! For last week the man of steel celebrated the grand mile­stone of his 50th birthday. Technically, it was not exactly the occasion of his birth, for April 1938 was when he made his debut on the cover of the first issue (dated June) of Action Comics. If he was then about 25, as he looked, he would actually now be 75, his superbody weak and weary, his X-ray vision dimmed. But since he still looks about 25, he can be said to be timeless, im­mortal. And although nobody is sure ex­actly how old he is, there is a tradition that his birthday falls on Feb. 29 (the leap-year day appropriate to Lois Lane's repeated ef­forts to get him to marry her).

CBS broadcast a prime-time special on the great day, and DC Comics rented part of Manhattan's Puck Building to throw a big party; several thousand fans came to watch favorite film clips, buy balloons and nibble on birthday cake. The obser­vances will continue throughout the year, starting with the anniversary of Action Comics next month. The Smithsonian's exhibition of Supermanobilia will run un­til June in Washington. In Metropolis, Ill., they are refurbishing for summer visitors the large statue that proclaims the dubi­ous proposition that this is "Superman's hometown." And in Cleveland, which really is Superman's hometown, a booster club that calls itself the Neverending Bat­tle is planning an international Superman exhibition and a ticker-tape parade down Euclid Avenue in June.

One of the happiest additions to the birthday celebrations is the publication of a charming book titled Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle (Octavia Press; $16.95), which provides nostalgics with a cotton-candy dose of Superman lore. Like the proposition that Super­man's sun sign is Leo. Or that he voted for Reagan in the past two elections. Or that one of his leaps over a skyscraper would require an acceleration force 20,000 times his weight and thus would cause hurri­canes that would flatten any bystanders. The book also tackles trickier questions, like whether Superman is still a virgin. Also, is Superman Jewish? His creators are, and Dr. Joseph Goebbels is reputed to have denounced the man of steel as a non-Aryan, but one of the book's contributors boldly answers, "To be honest, no. The man has all the ethnicity of Formica." And is there anything that Superman cannot do? Yes, since his superskin is in­vulnerable, he cannot get a vaccination or a tattoo. "And," adds another essayist, "since he can't get a blood test, he can't get a marriage license."

Superman at Fifty finally settles the identity of the girl who served as the inspi­ration for Lois Lane. It was not Siegel's schoolmate Lois Long, who sang in the choir, or Lois Donaldson, an editor of the Glenville H.S. Torch. It was Lois Amster, the class beauty, who hardly glanced at ei­ther Siegel or Shuster. "She's a grand­mother now in Cleveland," according to Shuster, "but I don't think she has any idea that she was the inspiration."

Oh, yes, she does. And when asked if she would have laughed at Siegel and Shu­ster if either of them had asked her for a date, she smiles and says, "Probably." Married for 46 years to retired Insurance Agent Robert Rothschild, she reveals that she never had any interest in being a newspaper reporter. "You know what I wanted to be? A detective."

The only Superman enthusiasts not taking part in the current festivities are Siegel and Shuster, both 73, living three blocks from each other in retirement in Los Angeles, Siegel suffering from a heart condition and Shuster legally blind. When DC Comics bought their creation 50 years ago, it acquired all rights, initially paying them only $10 a page for their work in writing and drawing. When the first issue sold out, and sales of subsequent issues soon climbed to 250,000 copies each, the two men sued for their rights. DC Comics dropped them, and the courts ruled against them.

Their litigation dragged on until the late '70s, when Warner Communica­tions, which by then owned DC and wanted to make a movie version, paid off the creators with $20,000 a year for life. (Superman's estimated overall val­ue: more than $1 billion.) Siegel and Shuster agreed to keep the peace, but they are giving no interviews and join­ing no celebrations. "They are just in such pain over this situation," says Thomas Andrae, a Berkeley sociologist who knows them, "particularly as it gets closer to the anniversary."

Clark Kent personifies fairly typically the average reader who is harassed by com­plexes and despised by his fellow men . . . any accountant in any American city se­cretly feeds the hope that one day there can spring forth a superman who is capable of redeeming years of mediocre existence.
—Semiotician and Novelist (The Name of the Rose) Umberto Eco

Although Superman's adventures were a fairly crude story, fairly crudely il­lustrated, their overnight success not only earned millions but also created shoals of imitators, such as Batman, Captain Mar­vel, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Won­der Woman. "Oddly enough," says Car­toonist Jules Feiffer, "the Depression enlivened the American dream that any­one could make it, and that's what Super­man did. I loved the fantasy of this guy who had all this strength. While Superman went around beating up crooks, in my dreams I was beating up authority figures."

But if Superman was a reassuring hero for troubled times, for the Depres­sion and the coming World War, why has he endured so long? Partly because trou­bled times have endured in other forms, and partly because he has always had qualities that go beyond the flying fists. He was orphaned, and thus forced to rely on himself, just like Little Orphan Annie or Huck Finn. He is a foreigner from out­er space in a land built by foreigners. And he is one of the good guys, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way," which seems to many people a very good thing to do. Superman's violence is never cruel, however; he punches villains but rarely does them any real harm. His greatest powers are exerted to deflect vio­lence, by stepping in front of bullets, say, or moving huge objects out of harm's way.

In some ways, Superman's relentless virtue goes even beyond virtue. In his extraterrestrial origins and the shining pu­rity of his altruism, some commentators have detected a divine aura. "Superman, I've always thought, is an angel," says An­drew Greeley, gadfly Roman Catholic priest and best-selling novelist. "Probably the angel stories found in all of the world's religions are traces of the work in our world of Superman and his relatives. Who is to say I'm wrong?" Proponents of the angel theory believe it is no accident that when Superman is in full flight, his flared collar and flowing cape resemble wings.

Such speculation goes even further. Experts have pondered the fact that Superman's original Krypto-Man name, Kal-El, resembles He­braic syllables meaning "all that God is." Greek and Norse mythology have been in­voked to show that Superman resembles a god who comes to earth and walks among men in mortal guise. Screenwriter New­man sees yet more exalted implications in the legend. "It begins with a father who lives up in heaven, who says, 'I will send my only son to save earth.' The son tales on the guise of a man but is not a man. The religious overtones are so clear."

In secular terms too, Superman repre­sents something quite special. "It's very hard for me to be silly about Superman," says Christopher Reeve, who plays the role in the movies, "because I've seen firsthand how he actually transforms people's lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their be­lief in this kind of character is intact. I've seen that Superman really matters. It's not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character they're connecting with; they're connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand diffi­culty and to turn your back on it."

"0 Superman, 0 Judge, 0 Mom and Dad. Hi. I'm not home right now, but if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone."
   —Laurie Anderson

Americans are inclined to think they know Superman and know him well and have known him forever. In fact, we hard­ly know Superman at all, for the details of his life have been changed again and again, according to either the whims of his owners or the demands of the market. His originally nameless father on Kryp­ton, for example, became Jor-L, then Jor-El (and eventually Marlon Brando). His employer in Metropolis, before it was the Daily Planet, was the Daily Star and then the Evening News. His Luciferian arch­enemy Luthor, the mad scientist who wants to conquer the world, once had red hair, then became bald, then reacquired red hair; in the movies he was played as a buffoon, but now he has turned into a rea­sonably sane but incurably wicked con­glomerate tycoon. Superman is also vulnerable to Kryptonite, the stuff that Krypton was made of, except when he is sometimes not vulnerable to Kryptonite. There is no longer one Superman, in other words, but half a dozen or more. The com­ic-book hero is different from the movie hero or the TV hero, and all of these differ from what Jerry Siegel imagined one sleepless night in 1934.

Nothing illustrates this mutability better than the delicate matter of Super­man's sexuality. Superman at Fifty asserts that the essence of Superman is to remain perennially pure: "Virginity is a large part of what makes him so godlike . . . The superior being has to be sexless; further­more, it must be thought a taboo or a dese­cration even to look upon him/her as a sex object." Although Superman over the years has generally remained impervious to Lois Lane's wiles, he has succumbed occasionally to other entanglements. In the 1950s there was a handsome brunet named Lori, "mysterious as the sea," whom Clark rescued from her runaway wheelchair. She puzzled him by issuing orders to an octopus that had wrapped its tentacles around her, but he fell in love with her anyway and proposed. "Al though I love you," she replied, "I can never marry you." Because, as Superman soon learned, she was a mermaid (Lore­lei?), and the reason she rode in a wheel­chair was to hide her tail.

At one point during the age of subur­ban "togetherness," Superman's keepers actually married him off to Lois Lane, but they soon explained that the bride had only dreamed of her wedding. Since those keepers were generally desperate for new plot twists, they often amused themselves by bringing in rivals to Lois. Lana Lang, for example, was an old acquaintance of Kent's from Smallville who applied for a  job at the Planet. Then there was a Super-girl who appeared as a result of Cub Re­porter Jimmy Olsen's making a wish over a Latin American idol. No sooner was she dispatched back to pre-Columbian limbo than it turned out that Krypton had not exploded all at once and that Superman's cute cousin Kara had also rocketed to earth as another Supergirl, a.k.a. Linda Lee. (Why all the females in Superman have names beginning with L remains unexplained, and might make a promis­ing subject for a Ph.D. dissertation.)

In this month's 50th-anniversary is­sue of Action Comics, one episode opens with the man of steel indulging in a long and steamy kiss with Wonder Woman. After a good deal of fisticuffs and flying around, though, the tale ends with Super­man saying "I was fooling myself when I thought there might be a chance for ro­mance between the two of us, Wonder Woman . . . I admire you, Wonder Wom an. I respect you. But I really am just a boy from Kansas." From which it seems clear that the comic-book Superman, at least, remains as squarely virtuous as ever.

The movie Superman is a different matter. He has to contend with Margot Kidder as a liberated Lois Lane who can look on him with an earthy yen ("How big are you?" she asks in a tone that even Su­perman can almost understand). In Su­perman II she throws herself into the Ni­agara River just above the falls to tempt Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent into re­vealing his identity by rescuing her. Kent avoids the trap by helping her out with a tree branch. Only when they are drying off in front of a fireplace does his failure to be scorched by a flame inspire Lois to try again: "You are Superman!"

Before they go any further, a message from Superman's mother tells him he must give up all his superpowers before he can get involved with a mortal. This raises a philosophic question of Thomist subtle­ty: Can the figure subsequently seen na­ked under the sheets with Lois be consid­ered the real Superman? Or is he now just a newspaper reporter on a spree? To eradicate all such problems, the screen­writers magically imbue his kiss with the power to make Lois forget her discovery.

If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children . . I would say that they were conquered by Superman. Dr. Fredric Wertham, in Seduction of the Innocent

Much of Superman's complex evolu­tion derived from his reincarnations in different media. On radio, for example, which could not show the red-caped hero in full flight, an imaginative scriptwriter dreamed up the deathless lines: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall build­ings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Super­man!" Because radio shows had to be performed by real people, and because Actor Bud Collyer demanded a vacation, the writers invented the Kryptonite meteor­ite. For two weeks, all that was heard of Superman was muffled moaning from a closet, until Collyer returned.

Partly, too, Superman evolved in re­sponse to changes in American so­ciety, starting with the cataclysm of World War II. In one misguided early effort, his creators had him fly to Berchtesgaden and Moscow and haul both Hitler and Stalin before a League of Na­tions tribunal in Geneva. Believers in veri­similitude began wondering how Super­man avoided getting drafted. Simple. Clark Kent patriotically went to take his physical exam, but when he looked at the eye chart, his X-ray vision caused him to read figures from a chart in the next room. He was rated 4-F.

So Superman went back to catching Axis saboteurs. The Army sent his patri­otic adventures to G.I.s around the world, but when they returned home, they want­ed more pizazz. Superman's physical powers became more and more extravagant. Not only could he fly through space, but he could wrestle planets out of their orbits, and with his superbreath could extinguish a distant star.

More significant, it was time for Super­man to move on from radio and comics and enter a new medium, time for a mere mor­tal to impersonate the man of steel on the screen. Kirk Alyn, an agile dancer, began appearing in Saturday serials in 1948, let­ting his voice drop by an octave each time he reached for his necktie and declared, "This looks like a job for Superman!"

But Hollywood's technology was still so rudimentary that when Alyn lifted his arms and cried, "Up, up and away!" only a spliced-in animated cartoon could show Superman in flight. "When I was Super­man, I did it with my attitude," recalls Alyn, now 77. "In my mind, I'd visualized the guy I had heard on the radio. This was a guy nothing could stop. So that's why I
stood like this, with my chest out, and a look on my face saying 'Shoot me.' " To demonstrate, the old man rises from his easy chair and adopts the Pose, and once again, Superman lives. "And by the way," Alyn adds, "I didn't wear any padding, the way the other guy did."

Yes, it is true: when Superman moved to television, where George Reeves first donned the cape in 1953, his bulging mus­cles were made of foam rubber. No matter. There are plenty of viewers who can still recite, at any mention of Reeves in his foam-rubber muscles, a quasi-liturgical text: ". . .Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman! Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and . . fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"

Reeves, a rather lardy figure, had seri­ous acting aspirations (he had been one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind), and he felt that Superman was somehow beneath his dignity. He also dis­liked the need to diet for the role. He once referred to his heroic tights and cape as a "monkey suit." After growing famous as Superman, Reeves encountered great dif­ficulty in finding work as anything else (the same problem ended the careers of Alyn and Noel Neil, who played a perky Lois Lane in both the serial and TV show). When he did get a minor part in From Here to Eternity, the preview audi­ence guffawed. "Every time he appeared, they yelled again and again," says one witness, Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the TV series. The producers cut Reeves' part to almost nothing. Reeves dutifully went on playing Superman, but when filming for the seventh season was about to begin, he shot himself.

"The attitudes of Superman to current social problems . . . reflect the strong-arm totalitarian methods of the immature and barbaric mind." —Marshall McLuhan

Despite the success of the TV series, which is still being syndicated to this day, Superman had some bad times during the '50s and '60s. For all his superpowers, he proved quite helpless against the on­slaughts of Dr. Fredric Wertham, one­time senior psychiatrist for New York City's department of hospitals and author of a widely read anticomics diatribe, Se­duction of the Innocent (1953). Though much of Wertham's crusade was a com­mendable attack on the sadism in crime and horror comics, he denounced Super­man before legislative committees on rather dubious political grounds. He at­tached weighty significance to the deriva­tion of the name from Nietzsche, and to Nietzsche's supposed popularity among the Nazis. Wrote Wertham: "Superman ' (with a big Son his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an SS) needs an endless stream of new submen, criminals and 'foreign-looking' people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible."

The publishers responded to such at­tacks with a code, guaranteeing in effect that all comics would henceforth be as mild as milk toast. But just as the publish­ers promised sweetness and light, the '60s began to demand "relevance." What had Superman's crime fighting ever done about civil rights or Viet Nam? Youthful eyes turned to the work of "underground" comic artists like R. Crumb, whose heroes used and acted out words that would have shocked the irremediably respectable man of steel. Even in the swinging '60s, Superman's idea of a really strong exple­tive was "Great Scott!"

Then came, out of nowhere, nostalgia—including nostalgia for things the nostalgia lovers were too young to know. That mood gave rise to the first of the feature films in 1978, and sudden­ly Superman was soaring again. And this time, when Christopher Reeve waved his arms and pointed his heroic chin upward, he really seemed to takeoff over Metropolis. "Honest to God, I was disappointed by the flying," Reeve says of the TV version that he had seen as a boy. "I remember thinking, 'He's got to be lying on a glass table.' I want­ed him to really fly." Reeve did his flights on an elaborate series of wires suspended from ceiling rails. These shots were then superimposed on foot­age taken from a helicopter. With such special effects, the film reportedly cost Warner's a then record $40 million, but it earned $245 million in the theaters.

Bay-bee, I can fly like a bird
When you touch me with your eye.
Flying through the sky,
I never felt the same.

But I am not a bird,
And I am not a plane.
I am Superman.
It's easy when you love
me . . .

—Barbra Streisand

As Superman evolved over the years, so, of course, did Lois Lane. Shuster's dream girl was a sketchy figure with bobbed hair and a working girl's hat; his successors filled her out a bit, made her almost glamor­ous; today she wears slacks, bangs and a look of grim deter­mination. From the beginning she has been an object of her cre­ators' male chauvinist sport. When she asks, in one of the very first comic-book install­ments, to cover the collapse of a crumbling dam, Planet Editor Perry White gruffly insists on sending the less experienced Clark Kent: "It's too impor-tant!—This is no job for a girl!" Lois reacts by tricking the de­voted Clark ("Would you do me a favor?" "You know I'd do any­thing for you") into missing the big assignment so that she can grab it. Clark gets fired; Lois gets stuck in the path of a flood; only Superman can rescue them both, as he always does.

Some women profess to regard Lois as a pioneering role model, the only go-getting female reporter. (Older  observers can recall that Brenda Starr has  been tearing through the comic pages since 1940, and that real-life role models  of the period included such famous by‑ lines as Anne O'Hare McCormick, Mar­tha Gellhorn, Dorothy Thompson, Genet,  Marguerite Higgins and Dorothy Kilgallen.) As a chauvinist creation, Lois not only bungled most of her assignments and  repeatedly double-crossed the faithful  Clark, but also subordinated all profes­sional demands to her one romantic obsession. After she parachutes into a flood, she tells her rescuer, "I'd like to be in your arms always, Superman! As your wife (sigh!)."  The latter-day comic-book Lois broke off from Superman in 1982 because their relationship, such as it was, "didn't seem to be working anymore." But they remain friends. After a recent rescue, she offered him some white wine and brie. Lois has won a Pulitzer Prize. And she is dating none other than Lex Luthor, the onetime mad scientist, now transformed into the "most powerful man in Metropolis." This is liberation?

The cry for the Superman did not begin with Nietzsche, nor will it end with his vogue. But it has always been silenced by the same question: What kind of person is this Superman to be?
              —George Bernard Shaw, in Man and Superman

One of the odd paradoxes about Su­perman is that while he is a hero of nostal­gia, the constant changes in his character keep destroying the qualities that make him an object of nostalgia. "For one bright, brief moment, we had a hero right there, and then we lost him, dammit," la­ments one disillusioned enthusiast, Mar­shall Fishwick, who teaches communica­tions at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "You have to look back to the '30s for the real thing. There are too many M.B.A.s now and not enough Supermans."

The most radical alteration of Super­man is also the newest, the work of Writ­er-Artist Byrne, 37, who redesigned him for DC Comics in 1986. Circulation had slumped below 100,000 copies a month (compared, for example, with nearly 500,000 for Uncanny X-Men), and DC

Comics President Jenette Kahn decided that "there was a coat of rust on the man of steel." She also knew that the audience for comics was changing. The corner can­dy store where kids used to buy comics has largely disappeared, and the kids have grown older. Today's buyers average about 20 and are apt to be science stu­dents or even engineers, "techies" with money to spend on modems, vcrs, quad­raphonic sound and the book-length com­ics now known as graphic novels.
"We knew we were going to offend some people," says Byrne, "but the modern audience now wants a superhero who  grunts, sweats and goes to the bathroom. He used to be a SUPERman; now he's a super­MAN. " Byrne's Clark Kent brushes his hair straight back and wears round glasses. He and Su­perman are also drawn quite dif­ferently, more cinematically and in more garish colors. Superman's superpowers have been modified, and to keep in shape he works out with weights. He reflects the con­temporary vogue of male "sensi­tivity"; DC officials hint he may become involved with AIDS vic­tims and the homeless.

There is in this a deplorable element that might be called adultification, in which a figure created for children is subjected to adult concerns, much as though Tom Sawyer or Alice in Wonderland were updated by being made to confront sexual problems. Yet despite the myri­ad changes in the legend, some­thing strong and fundamental remains. DC Comics is delight­ed that its newest Superman has doubled sales, to 200,000, but that is a relatively paltry number compared with the millions who cherish an older image from their childhood.

This older image, this Classic Coke, the real Superman, is a figure who somehow manages to embody the best qualities in that nebulous thing known as the American character. He is honest, he tells the truth, he is idealis­tic and optimistic, he helps people in need. He not only fights criminals but is indiffer­ent to those vices that so often lead the rest of us astray. Despite his heroic abilities, he is not vain. He is not greedy. He is not an operator, a manipulator, not an inside trad­er. He does not lust after power. And not only is he good, he is also innocent, in a kind and guileless way that Americans have sometimes been but more often have only imagined themselves to be.

This is what Reeve saw—and was touched by—in his encounters with his fans. This is why we can give three cheers and sing Happy Birthday to the man of steel on his more-or-less 50th. Let us just hope that he someday reaches 100!

'—By Otto Friedrich.
Reported by Beth Austin/Cleveland Janice C. Simpson/New York, TIME, MARCH 14, 1988