The most enduring American hero of the last century is someone who lived half his life in disguise and the other half as the world's most recognizable man. He is not Jack Kennedy or Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, Batman or Jerry Seinfeld, although all of them were inspired by him. It was on his muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight. He appeared on more radio broadcasts than Ellery Queen and in more movies than Marlon Brando, who once pretended to be his father. He helped give America the backbone to wage war against the Nazis, the Great Depression, and the Red Menace. He remains an intimate to kids from Boston to Belgrade and has adult devotees who, like Talmudic scholars, parse his every utterance. And he has done it all with an innocence and confidence that allowed him to appear publicly wearing underpants over full- body tights, and to assume an alter ego who kept pursuing the prettiest girl in town even though he seldom got her.
The most enduring American hero is an alien from outer space who, once he reached Earth, traded in his foreign- sounding name Kal- El for a singularly American handle: Superman.
Ah, you say, the Man of Steel— I know him! But do you really? Do you know the wrenching story of his birth and nurturing at the hands of a parade of young creators yearning for their own absent fathers? The first was the youngest child of Lithuanian immigrants who was devastated when his dad died during a robbery. While there was no bringing back his father and role model, Jerry Siegel did bring to life a hero able not just to run fast and jump high but, as we see early on, to fend off a robber. Who would publish this fanciful tale? How about Jack Liebowitz, a hardheaded comic book entrepreneur whose own dad had died just after he was born and who needed a champion? Who better to create the ultimate childhood fantasy figure than men whose childhoods had been stolen from them?
The superhero never revealed how he voted, but during the Great Depression he was a New Dealer hell- bent on truth and justice, and during the Reagan Revolution he was a patriot trumpeting the American way. His sex life underwent an even more drastic about-face: from celibate to satisfied husband. There is one more thing that even his most fervent fans may not know about the Man of Steel: He is Jewish.
So how has Superman managed to thrive for nearly seventy-five years?
It starts with the intrinsic simplicity of his story. Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist remind us how compelling a foundling's tale can be, and Superman, the sole survivor of a doomed planet, is a super-foundling. The love triangle connecting Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Superman has a side for everyone, whether you are the boy who can't get the girl, the girl pursued by the wrong boy, or the conflicted hero. He was not just any hero, but one with the very powers we would like to have: the strength to lift boulders and planets, the speed to outrun a locomotive or a bullet, and, coolest on anyone's fantasy list, the gift of flight.
Superpowers are just half the equation. More essential is knowing what to do with them, and nobody has a more instinctual sense than Superman of right and wrong. He is an archetype of mankind at its pinnacle. Like John Wayne, he sweeps in to solve our problems. No thank-you needed. Like Jesus Christ, he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been lured back to his clunky familiarity. The outcome of his adventures may be as predictable as those of Sherlock Holmes— the good guy never loses—but that too is reassuring.
So is his uniform. His tights and cape, in radiant primary colors, make Superman as instantly recognizable as Santa Claus— and as comforting. That familiarity helped his handlers move him from the printed page to the airwaves, then from the small screen to the big. No need to explain who he was; everyone knew as soon as they saw him.
That does not mean he hasn't changed with the times. Superman has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the 1940s he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. For each era he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hairstyle, even his job title. Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of that time and its dreams.
Over the years, comics, too, have been transformed— from childhood entertainment to art form to mythology— and Superman helped drive that transformation. The comic book and its leading man could only have taken root in America. What could be more U.S.A. than an orphaned outsider who arrives in this land of immigrants, reinvents himself, and reminds us that we can reach for the sky? Yet today this flying Uncle Sam is global in his reach, having written himself into the national folklore from Beirut to Buenos Aires. It is that constancy and purity— knowing that he is not merely the oldest of our superheroes but the most transcendent— that has reeled back aging devotees and drawn in new ones. It is what makes the Man of Tomorrow timeless as well as ageless.
Excerpted from Superman by Larry Tye. Copyright 2012 by Larry Tye. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.