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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #423

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Welcome to the four hundred and twenty-third in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous four hundred and twenty-two. This week, in honor of the Man of Steel opening today, it’s an All-Superman edition of CBLR (also, amusingly enough, this is CBLR #423, the same number as the last issue of the original Superman ongoing series)! Learn the odd origin of Superman’s S! Find out whether Jerry Siegel REALLY reviewed Philip Wylie’s novel, Gladiator! And finally, discover a odd series of edits involving Superman’s super-imagination!

Let’s begin!

NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There’s a little “next” button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).

COMIC LEGEND: Superman’s S was not a Kryptonian symbol until Mario Puzo came up with the idea for Superman the Movie.


When Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, the S on his chest had a simple explanation – it was there because he was called Superman, thus he had an S because, well, Superman begins with an S.


That’s it.

And people were fine with that for years. It was just an accepted part of Superman’s set-up. He fights crime and has a costume that has an S on it because it stands for “Superman.”

Even when Superman’s origin was detailed, the design of the costume was just glossed over…


Same when Superboy debuted, the costume is just glossed over…


Even in the most detailed Superman origin of the Silver Age, Superman #146, which at least explained WHERE the costume came from (it came from the clothes SUperman was wearing when he landed on Earth)…


it skipped over the S part entirely.

It was not until 1960’s Superboy #78 (drawn by John Sikela, I dunno who wrote it) that an attempt was made to explain the S, and it was quite a doozy…


That was about the most any comic book spent on the origin of the S for the rest of the Silver Age.

However, when it came time to write the screenplay for Superman: The Movie, Mario Puzo had the idea that Superman’s S was NOT an Earth symbol, but rather, in effect, the logo of Krypton. So it would be used all over Krypton in the early scenes in the film set on the doomed planet. That approach was altered in the later editions of the screenplay, but the idea of the S being present on Krypton persisted and it eventually became the symbol of Superman’s family, the Els. Marlon Brando’s Jor-El wore the S on his shirt (apparently Brando specifically requested that he wear the S on his shirt).


However, in the comics, it remained an Earth invention. In Action Comics #500, Martha Kent explains that it came to Jonathan Kent in a dream…


(Later, there was a Superman Annual that explained HOW it came to him in a dream. You can sort of tell the passing of time just based on how many more stories came out explaining minutiae…)

When John Byrne rebooted the Superman comics, he had the Superman name PREDATE the Superman costume…


so when the Kents got around to designing the costume, they planned on doing an S design because of that name…


It was not until Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright mini-series in 2004 that the S symbol once again became a Kryptonian symbol, as Jor-El wears it…


but the symbol is found elsewhere, as well…


It appears as though Waid was mixing the idea of the symbol being the El crest along with the idea of the S symbolizing hope.

That’s what the S has been ever since, a symbol of hope, and that’s what it will be in Man of Steel….


Thanks to my pal Loren for the suggestion and thanks to Barry Freiman for a cool article he wrote on the topic!


Check out some Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed!

Did Kirstie Alley Once Have a Publicist Provide Mother’s Milk for a Pet Opossum?

Were Dr. McCoy’s Medial Instruments Really Just Fancy Salt Shakers?

Did Salman Rushdie Secretly Live in Bono’s Guest House in Ireland for Four Years?

Did MTV Cancel the Reality Show Fear Because a Contestant Died During the Filming of the Series?

On the next page, did Jerry Siegel review Philip Wylie’s Gladiator?

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What a confusing bunch of crap.

Prior to Birthright, the “S” had also been used as a Kryptonian symbol on Superman: the Animated Series.

What I don’t get about this idea is… why? It’s just a letter of the alphabet, people!

“Super imagination” to me makes no more sense than using his telescopic vision to see past the time barrier. Super imagination might make even less sense.

I’d kind of like to see a follow-up story to the super imagination idea, where some archaeologists excavate a giant ape skeleton, only to realize it had tragically died a slow and lingering death after some monster with super strength cruelly threw it into a cliff face. Then Lois confronts Superman, and he says “Well, I did say ‘imagination’. It’s not like I can actually see across the time barrier. So I just kind of guessed he was all right. My bad. Are you going to print a retraction about the happy ending?”

So – Kryptonian baby = Invulnerable. Check. Kryptonian cloth = Invulnerable. Check. Kryptonian metal spaceship crossing galaxies = crumples against a rock. Check.

What I don’t get about this idea is… why? It’s just a letter of the alphabet, people!

I guess the notion is that you want to tie his whole origin in to Krypton, and this is the only way to explain how an English “S” was used on Krypton.

I read one of thoe edited reprints of the Titano story a few years ago. I remember having a big “WTF??!??” reaction at the “super imagination” bit. How the blue hell does Superman daydreaming that the chimp is okay make for a happy ending? Knowing now that he originally saw through friggin’ time is even more hilarious.
When we saw “Man of Steel” last night, I was kinda hoping they might slip in what some of the other Kryptonian symbols meant, just because. I’ll just have to assume that the symbol on Zod’s chest is the Kryptonian symbol for “douchebag.”

Didn’t the min-series “The Kents” have its own take on the origin of the S symbol? Something to do with it being a Native American design given to one of Jonathon’s anscetors?

I thought the S as the Kryptonian symbol of hope came from Smallville.

When did the shield design first appear?

Yeah, I dislike all the attempts to say that it’s just a coincidence that Superman has an S on his chest, or it’s just a coincidence that Wonder Woman has American patriotic iconography all over her costume. The coincidences that these explanations rely on seem much sillier than the original explanations.

What next? It’s just a coincidence that the Wayne family crest that Batman wears on his chest happens to look like a bat? Come to think of it, I guess the recent stories about the Wayne family having been associated with bats for centuries comes down to pretty much the same thing.

While I can live with the Kryptonian explanation, I much prefer the simpler idea that the stylized S is simply the result of Martha having a good eye for graphic design. Makes her all the more impressive and requires little else by way of explanation.

Poor old Lois, can’t decide which hand to hold her broadcast gear in, can’t stop stuttering, in grave danger still has time to change the name of the chimp!

And yet, that final image, as assertive-looking as she’s ever been,

Byrne’s Clark looks oddly like Jon Hamm…

The suggestion here is that “super-imagination” is the ability to dream about stuff that is actually happening or happened. Thus, “super-imagination” is the worst kind of imagination. Superman can’t dream up anything new, different novel. He just dreams up the truth.

Brian Cronin:”The novel is about a scientist coming up with a serum to essentially mutates his unborn son. His son has the proportionate strength of an ant and the leaping ability of the grasshopper. Both of those examples were exactly what Siegel used in Action Comics #1 eight years later…

Awfully big coincidence, right?

However, not so shocking that it would be impossible for it to actually be just a coincidence.”

The similarities go beyond this, though. Here’s an offhand list of some of the more blatant ones:

1. Hugo Danner comes from a small town in Colorado (cf superman and Smallville)

2. Hugo Danner’s abilities are exactly the same as Superman’s initial power set: super-tough skin, speed, strength, jumping, etc.There is even a scene where Hugo is injured in WW1 by a bursting shell (cf the early comics where nothing less than a bursting shell can injure him)

3.One of Superman’s earliest adventures involves him going to Washington and contending with crooked lobbyists–When Hugo Danner attempts to use his powers for the greater good, he, too, attempts to root out corruption in Washington.

4. The whole set-up of a superhumanly powerful man in the contemporary world. Yes, one can point to numerous antecedents for superstrong heroes (Samson, Hercules, etc) but Wylie’s GLADIATOR marks a real departure. I defy anyone to read it and not see the obvious influence that it must have had on Superman.

5. Frankly, the early Superman strips read like an upbeat version of GLADIATOR. Wylie’s novel was tragic; there was no place for a genuine Superman in the world, and all of his attempts to use his powers for good failed. Siegel and Shuster basically recast the novel, converting tragedy to heroic romance.

Brian Cronin:”Siegel HAS been quoted on the influence of seminal pulp fiction works like Doc Savage and John Carter of Mars, but not Gladiator.”

And that, to my way of thinking, demonstrates the anxiety of influence. Siegel will mention Doc Savage and John Carter because their influence is less important.Wylie’s GLADIATOR can’t be mentioned because it was the actual taking off point.

Technical point, DC didn’t win the lawsuit. The first ruling went against DC on the grounds they’d released some Superman strips without proper copyright. On appeal, the judge (Learned Hand IIRC) ruled that wasn’t an issue but as comic book characters were completely interchangeable, there was no damage to DC if someone made a knockoff because nobody cared. DC then had to find specific instances of plagiarism (apparently in went along the lines of “A-ha, Superman bounced bullets of his chest two years before Captain Marvel!” “But Popeye bounced bullets off his chest four years earlier!”). They were still hammering at it when Fawcett decides super-hero sales were down and through in the town.
This based on an article in Amazing World of DC Comics years ago. Fortunately if I got it wrong, someone on this site will correct me.
I still wish we had the “see more comments” box to click.

“What next? It’s just a coincidence that the Wayne family crest that Batman wears on his chest happens to look like a bat?”

You mean kind of like Thomas Wayne beating up criminals while dressed in a bat-man outfit? That was a Silver Age story, wasn’t it? And set up that the Waynes were murdered for revenge, not just a random crime?


Actually i think a previous CBLR dealt with the trial, and the fact that people that worked on Cpt. Marvel actually testified that they where told to copy Superman stories outright…


I always liked the explanation that he’s called Superman by the media because he has what looks like a big S on his chest… don’t remember where that’s form though.

And we can just pretend that in the DCU the super- prefix isn’t as overused as IRL (after all, would they even be called superheroes if not for Superman? ).

Technical point, DC didn’t win the lawsuit.

Technical point (well, I think it’s more than a technical point, really), I didn’t say that they did.

Hugo Sleestak

June 16, 2013 at 1:57 am

Siegel’s avoidance in referencing Wylie’s “Gladiator” as an influence on Superman has always reminded me of Alex Raymond’s avoidance in referencing Wylie’s “When Worlds Collide” and Burroughs’ Mars (or especially Venus) series when talking about influences on “Flash Gordon.” Routinely, Raymond would refer to Jules Verne – which had about as much to do with Flash Gordon as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did.

Wait a minute… Gladiator was an influence on Superman… And now Man of Steel has Russell Crowe, the star of the film “Gladiator” playing Jor-El, Superman’s father! Coincidence? Is it? IS IT?!?

… Yeah, it is…

Not a legend, but some trivia: Claremont named Gladiator from The Imperial Guard after the Wylie novel.

John Byrne once said that when he was a kid and first saw Superman comics, he saw the negative image image on the logo. That is, he saw a couple of yellow fish swimming on a red pentagon. ;-)

In the Action 500 sequence, why is there what appears to be a giant translucent sword hilt floating in front of Clark………?

Commander Benson

June 17, 2013 at 8:07 am

“In the Action 500 sequence, why is there what appears to be a giant translucent sword hilt floating in front of Clark?”

The art about which you’re asking is not from Action Comics # 500 (Oct., 1979). It’s from Superman Annual # 10 (1984). The tip-off is the age of Ma Kent in the art is all wrong. (Julius Schwartz was on the verge of retirement at this point and errors started eluding his usually impeccable blue pencil.)

Action Comics # 500 actually has very little to say about the origin of the “S” insignia. I’ve got a copy of that issue in front of me and I’ve gone over it closely.

The only reference to the origin of the “S” insignia comes on page 24, which largely deals with how Clark Kent obtained the accoutrements for his costume from items salvaged from the rocket that brought him to Earth. The last panel depicts Jonathan Kent handing Clark the familiar “S” insignia, while the text (narration by Superman) reads:

“And then Pa designed an insignia—a stylized ‘S’—to stand for my ‘professional name’ . . . .”

The story in Superman Annual #10 is more popularly known as “The Sword of Superman”. It purports that at the time of the formation of the universe, a sword was fashioned by cosmic forces—a sword with an image on its hilt (the image, of course, being the traditional Superman “S”). The mystic sword floats in the void for millenia, waiting for its “chosen wielder”, which—surprise, surprise—is Kal-El of Krypton.

Through some more cosmic existential fol-de-rol, the sword is capable of psychically following the events in Kal-El’s life and can even vaguely link with persons in his life.

As the story would have it, the sword psychically connected with Jonathan Kent in the middle of the night and implanted in his mind the “S” symbol. Pa Kent, mistaking it for a dream, thus offered the symbol to his son as his insignia.

Hence, the translucent image of the sword hilt in the last panel of the art.

Hope this helps.

It’s a kryptonian symbol showing two yellow fiches swimming. It all makes sense now!

Travis Pelkie

June 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm

IIRC, in the latest Action 0, Lois remarks something about the “two fishes” bit, and then Jimmy points out that she’s looking at the negative space.

The bit with the sword above, look at how Martha is looking directly at the reader when telling us that it came to Pa in a dream. It’s like she’s thinking “can you believe this crap?”

[quote]Kryptonian cloth = Invulnerable. Check. [/quote]

Invulnerable, except to Ma Kent’s sewing machine, presumably made out of kryptonite.

Commander Benson

June 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

“Kryptonian cloth = Invulnerable. Check.”

“Invulnerable, except to Ma Kent’s sewing machine, presumably made out of kryptonite.”

This is all pre-Crisis, of course . . . .

During the first year or so of baby Clark’s existence on Earth, he often got so exuberent in play that he inadvertently used his super-powers, e.g., riding his tricycle at super-speed. Normal toddler clothes could not stand up to this kind of punishment. (Such as, in the example cited, his clothing would burn from the friction heat of his super-speed).

The solution presented itself when a fire broke out in the attic of the Kent home. Young Clark extinguished the blaze with his super-breath before it could do too much damage. However, Ma and Pa Kent noticed that the Kryptonian blankets from the rocket, the ones in which baby Kal-El had been wrapped, had been in the midst of the flames, yet were undamaged.

The Kents tested the fabric. They jabbed the blankets with a pitchfork. They blasted them with a shotgun. Jonathan Kent even detonated some dynamite under them. But nothing proved able to damage the blankets in the least. Like baby Kal-El, they were invulnerable.

That gave Martha Kent the idea of making Clark a super playsuit from the blankets. She unravelled the blankets, thread by thread. Whenever a thread had to be severed, Clark used his heat vision to accomplish that. Since there had been one red blanket, one blue blanket, and one yellow one, she soon had skeins of thread of the same colours. From this, Ma wove Clark’s indestructable playsuit.

Years later, when it was time for the older Clark to assume his identity as Superboy, Martha unravelled his old playsuit and, using more of the thread from the skeins, wove his famous red-yellow-and blue costume from them.

These facts were referenced on a number of occasions in the Silver and Bronze Ages, but most noteably and completely in “The Story of Superman’s Life”, from Superman # 146 (Jul., 1961) and “The Life Story of Superman”, from Action Comics # 500 (Oct., 1979).

Incidentally, a green-kryptonite sewing machine, or even a kryptonite needle, wouldn’t have had any effect on the Kryptonian fabric.

Hope this helps.

Jeff Nettleton

June 19, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I preferred the indestructable clothing to Byrne’s answer of Superman’s aura protecting him, since it is within the aura, but not his cape. It was mostly a cheap stunt to allow him to shred the cape for dramatic effect. I always like the idea that you could put on Superman’s costume and be protected from bullets and knives, although I would assume that you could still be hurt by the kinetic energy, as with kevlar vests.

I bow to your superior knowledge, Commander.

There’s also a neat little touch in that first “Birthright” panel. If you look at the screens of Kryptonian language in the background, there’s a repeating symbol that looks like an ‘8’ inside of a Superman shield. I like that that kind of introduces that shape as being common Kryptonian symbology.

I’ve never read “Birthright”, but I’d like to. It’s one of those stories (like Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot) that people who’ve read all seem to have strong opinions about. In the recent CSBG Superman event, there was a lot of discussion of which version of Supes’s origin different fans considered “the ” origin, and almost everyone seemed to pick either “BR” or “MoS”, with most of them picking one to praise and one to condemn. It’d be interesting to see how my own opinion shakes out on that.

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I always liked the explanation that he’s called Superman by the media because he has what looks like a big S on his chest… don’t remember where that’s form though.

I’m positive that’s from The Last Son of Krypton, the best Superman origin ever.

LOL, that Byrne drawing is so goofy and so Byrne. “Hey, here’s my version! It’s our on-model corporate logo! Hyuck hyuck, Ma Giordano! Paydirt!!!”

How is the idea of a family crest “silly”? Or even the ” hope” symbol. To me, the analogy, such as one can be made, is to an Earthly cross, but without any supernatural/religious connotations.
And yeah, Birthright is definitely “the” origin. ;0)

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