When Superman made his debut in the first issue of “Action Comics” 80 years ago this week, his world was grounded by simple tales of an indestructible human-looking alien who was more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Today, he can move mountains and make it to the other side of planet in minutes.
“Action Comics” has its 1000th issue hit the stands on Wednesday, with an appropriately enough 80-page issue featuring stories from iconic creators such as Paul Dini, Dan Jurgens, John Cassaday, Brian Michael Bendis and Brad Meltzer.
While the generations of writers and artists who worked on the superhero delved into their imaginations to keep the character fresh, they also tapped into a huge resource to tell their tales: New York City.
Paul Levitz, a Brooklyn native and longtime writer and editor at DC Comics, said he and his fellow staff members would constantly use their experiences in the city, especially its diversity, to help readers connect with the Man of Steel and his alter ego, reporter Clark Kent.
“The fact that it was home to so many of the characters that I loved over the years in the comics, just reinforced things [as a writer],” he said.
Even though Superman’s creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, grew up in Cleveland, they did have New York as an inspiration for creating Metropolis, according to Levitz, who knew both men. The two first-generation Americans were huge science fiction fans who yearned to be part of the publishing scene in New York.
“It was a fantasy land, they didn’t know it when they were doing the stories, so they couldn’t do things detailed and influenced by it, but they could portray what their ideal of New York was as Metropolis,” said Levitz, who contributed to “Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman,” a hardcover collection of Superman stories.
When Superman’s world began to get fleshed out in the ’40s and ’50s with now common elements such as Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen and the Daily Planet staff, the New York-based writers and artists used the city to develop Metropolis. Clark Kent’s apartment building at “344 Clinton St.” resembled the modern Manhattan apartment buildings, and his newsroom was modeled after a typical New York newspaper bullpen.
For more recent Superman contributors, like writer Peter J. Tomasi, it made sense to emphasize the urban landscape and diversity to convey Superman’s compassion and heroism.
“He was able to come in and adapt himself to a city situation and be involved in that sort of urban mix of so many different people, races, creeds and colors,” he said. “Maybe it helped him sort of see more of a melting pot.”
The Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies of the late ’70s and ’80s, which filmed extensively in the five boroughs, fully cemented New York into the mythos for generations, according to Levitz.
“One of my favorite moments was watching Chris Reeve being put on a [flying] crane at 9 W. 57th St.,” he said. “There’s magic to that. There is magic to seeing something you fanaticized as a kid coming to life.”
Big Apple fans said seeing Superman in a thinly veiled version of their streets, just made their appreciation for the character stronger.
“There’s something about this place, even when it’s written as Metropolis, where you can see a guy like Superman just walk down the street and he would fit in,” said Pete Garcia, 50, a police officer from Washington Heights.
Juan Leiva, 35, a data analyst of Jersey City, said while other superhero stories have a New York backdrop, Metropolis stood out as an allegory for the city because it provided a sense of hope.
“I always saw Gotham City as the grungy, dark side of New York and Metropolis fits with New York’s idealized side,” he said.
Levitz said the city’s changing dynamic has allowed storytellers to put a different spin on Superman’s future stories. The best part, he said, is that they will be bringing their personal New York experience and insight that is different from the graffitied subways and smoke-filled restaurants of his early adulthood and move the Man of Steel’s mythology forward.
“Some kid will be able to make a different type of Superman story, not because it’s not about Superman and Lois and Luthor or the core elements, but because they’ll be able to tell the story in a unique and different way,” he said. “They are probably more likely trying to figure out how to set something in the wilds of Brooklyn.”(With Lisa L. Colangelo)