The beginning of Superman’s real-life story, as told in Tye’s history, is almost as famous as his origin on Krypton: two young Jewish men, Jerry Siegel from Cleveland and Joe Shuster from Toronto, channelled their fantasies of power and heroism into a mild-mannered nerd who was actually a super-strong “man of tomorrow.” And, in what Tye calls “the original sin in the relationship between comic-book creators and their owners,” they sold the rights for almost nothing.
Apart from the continuing thread of arguments about ownership, Tye’s book is mostly a story of how this simple concept has survived so many changes in popular taste. He covers the various reboots and changes in the comics—from the crazy “fairy-tale universe” masterminded by editor Mort Weisinger in the ’50s, to the headline-making “death of Superman” ’90s storyline. And then there are the many adaptations into other media: the radio show, the TV series with George Reeves (and Reeves’s shocking death, which “spawned a hypothesis called the Superman curse”), the movies, and even the failed Broadway musical (its director feels it should have had “some teeth politically”).
Tye’s determination to describe every possible Superman comic and adaptation can produce a sense of fatigue, especially when we get to a detailed discussion of the religious content of the TV show Smallville. And with the declining sales of comics and the disappointing box-office performance of Superman’s most recent movie, it’s hard to escape the sense that Superman has seen better days. But it wouldn’t be Superman without optimism: Tye points out that the next movie, from Christopher Nolan (of the current Batman trilogy), might turn all that around.