Ask...The Question: How Did Superman and Batman Become So Popular?

Alex Jaffe

Alex Jaffe

Aug. 6, 2020


Hello. I’m Alex Jaffe, better known in our Community as HubCityQuestion. My personal mission: to take on any question you have about the DC Universe -- no matter how strange, granular, or obscure -- and present you with an answer. As a faithful steward of the truth, I offer my time in this weekly column to address these inquiries. If you’d like to submit one of your own, you can stop by my office at any time in our Community to state your case, each of which I will in time address to the best of my ability. Onward, to mysteries uncovered!






“Why is it that Superman and Batman became so popular?” -Bluelanternofsector2814


Boy howdy. That’s the multi-billion dollar question, isn’t it? It’s really the secret the entire comic book world has been chasing since 1938. What any creative venture getting off the ground tries to guess at. How does a simple idea become a franchise empire that spans 80 years? People go to school for years, write entire books, and read countless more -- in pursuit of the secret of the World’s Finest success story.


Growing up in the world of Orthodox Judaism, my rabbi used to say this: if a question has seventy different answers, it’s because nobody knows the right one. So it is with the origin of Batman and Superman’s popularity. But, with the hindsight of history, we can make a few educated guesses.


We’ll begin, as the comic industry as we know it began, with Superman. Like all great ideas, Superman was the byproduct of his era. To borrow a little more biblical parlance, “there is nothing new under the sun” -- be it red, yellow, or any other color. Superman borrowed a mythical pedigree from figures like Samson and Hercules, true, but also drew inspiration from tried-and-true contemporary pulp heroes like John Carter, Doc Savage, and Hugo Danner.


It was also exactly the right time for Superman. America in the 1930s was still recovering from the greatest economic downturn it had ever faced. The spectre of a world war was looming large as larger-than-life tyrants branded themselves a master race. The American people were penniless, vulnerable, exploited, and needed a champion.


But just how Superman managed to find that waiting, hungry audience for a people’s hero, one who could fulfill their fantasies of power to correct the injustices of the world without fear of consequences, was perhaps less romantic. Publishers Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld already had access to a national distribution network for their history in publishing pulp magazines and other “low brow” periodicals, before branching out into the nascent world of comics, and used their connections to prominently display their experimental ACTION COMICS #1 on newsstands across America. Cynically, one might say that the early, immediate popularity of Superman was simply a matter of crafty marketing. With a tantalizingly priced 10-cent cover charge allowing for even the most meager budgets even by 1938 standards, Superman’s early adventures were immediately accessible to anyone looking for a fully illustrated escape into a world of fantasy before the age of television. Within 6 weeks of the first issue’s publication, Superman had already become a household name.


Batman, on the other hand, is a little simpler to explain. But only because the bulk of it has already been done: first and foremost, Batman is popular, and indeed only exists, because of Superman. Superman’s early unexpected success led National Allied Publications to commission artist Bob Kane to develop a similar costumed figure for their mainly flatfooted detective noir anthology appropriately titled DETECTIVE COMICS. With some creative heavy lifting by collaborator Bill Finger, the duo reformed a figure inspired by The Shadow, Zorro, and a little bit of Leonardo Da Vinci into a costumed hero befitting the darker tones of the mystery anthology he graced. A public hungry for heroes like Superman eagerly embraced Batman, and young readers doubly so when he was shortly after given the surrogate sidekick of Robin. 


But unlike the standard-bearing Superman, Batman’s popularity has waxed and waned over the decades. Accounts have it that Batman was on the verge of cancelation in the '60s, thanks in part to a decade of redirection owed to compliance with the puritanical Comics Code Authority. Batman’s popularity was only saved by Greenway Productions’ pop-art inspired Batman TV series, which did more than bring the Caped Crusader to life: it translated the colors and dynamics of the comics themselves onto the screen. 


If the “Batmania” of the lighthearted 1966 TV series was the culture, then the comics soon became the counter-culture: with legendary figures like Denny O’Neil, Jim Aparo, and Frank Miller returning the character to his detective/noir roots. In the process, these two seemingly diametrically opposed interpretations of Kane and Finger’s creation had become just as valid as each other, assuring there was a Batman for everyone. And isn’t that the magic of a masked hero? The appeal of Batman from the very beginning, perhaps, was that it allowed all of us to imagine that under the right circumstances, however unlikely, we could become a Bat.






“Has Superman ever killed in the comics?” -ProfessorMustache


Give a character 80 years of space and he’s liable to do just about anything. Yeah, Superman’s killed before. In his first year of comics, Superman was an enemy of war, doing all he could to prevent man from needlessly slaughtering fellow man. And maybe at times, that included doing the killing himself. He destroyed airplanes, munitions factories, and almost definitely killed a sadistic torturer in a fictional South American country in ACTION COMICS #2. But it wasn’t very long after that before Superman’s “no killing” rule was codified.


After that rocky definitive period, the next life on Superman’s hands is nearly 50 years later, in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” There, Superman uses a Phantom Zone projector on Mr. Mxyzptlk at the same time he attempts to retreat to the fifth dimension, cleaving the powerful imp in twain. It’s a death that Superman shouldn’t necessarily be credited for, as it was Mxyzptlk’s retreat which cost him his life, but one Superman held himself responsible for nonetheless. Either way, it was an “imaginary story.”


Speaking of which, there are of course many comics outside of regular continuity where Superman kills. In Speeding Bullets, the young Bruce Wayne (as named by his adoptive parents) learns of his Kryptonian powers when he vaporizes Joe Chill with his heat vision. Despotic versions of Superman populate every corner of the multiverse, from the Nazi Overman to the Crime Syndicate’s Ultraman, and authoritarian incarnations of every stripe. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about INJUSTICE.


But when we’re talking about modern mainstream comic book continuity, in a time where Superman’s morality has been fully codified and established, there are a few more entities that we might or might not say Superman has “killed.” In a previous column, I wrote about the number of times Superman has obliterated vampires and undead. But whether slaying an undead creature constitutes “killing” is perhaps a philosophical debate -- one which Swamp Thing attempts to make against Superman when he’s similarly inclined to kill Solomon Grundy.


That’s a common theme among more violent Superman stories. We’ll often see Superman “killing” if he doesn’t consider his opponent to be strictly “alive,” as it were, whether that’s Parademons or Kryptonian dragons. That’s particularly true when it comes to Doomsday, where Superman himself dies in the act of killing him. How “alive” Doomsday was to begin with, and whether he’s a true thinking creature or a living weapon, is a matter open to interpretation. This again is true in respect to the climax of “Our Worlds at War,” where Superman “kills” both Imperiex and Brainiac-13 by Boom Tubing them back in time to the Big Bang. The former, a cosmic force given humanoid shape, and the latter, a purely artificial intelligence, were both only arguably alive at best in their own rights.


There was also that messy affair with Doctor Light during Trinity War, but don’t put that on Supes. Atomica was stepping on his brain.


You can probably tell I’m trying pretty hard to defend my man Big Blue here, huh? Well, now we come to the part I can’t excuse: the straight-up murders, both attempted and successful. First, the attempted: after Superman returns to life in “Reign of the Supermen,” the resurrected Man of Steel rewards the traitorous Cyborg Superman for his destruction of Coast City with what any objective reader would deem an execution. And even I’ll admit that the fact Cyborg Superman ultimately survives the attempt doesn’t exonerate him.


And then, finally, infamously, there’s the saga of the Pocket Universe. Two years into writer-artist John Byrne’s Post-Crisis run on the character, Superman finds himself on a parallel Earth where General Zod and his cronies, Ursa and Non, have subjugated and exterminated the human race. For their crimes against humanity and no one left to judge them, Superman takes it upon himself to sentence all three of them to death by Kryptonite.






“It’s Sunday, and I’m channel surfing. I came across a televangelist railing about sin and the temptations of Satan. All while passing the collection plates, of course. Of the many things that could have gone through my mind at that time, I found myself wondering … has the Spectre ever met DC’s Lucifer?


I know that seems like a silly question. Just as in a theological sense, I know they have. Both being different aspects of "the Almighty." But in a comic book sense, have these "characters " ever interacted in a story? Either in Lucifer’s own title, or in any of the Spectre’s several series over the years? If so, please direct me to said source.


Thanks! Stay safe and be well.” -Wrightline1.42741


As you say, since both The Spectre and Lucifer Morningstar have angelic origins, the two are reasonably familiar with one another. That familiarity comes to light in 1997’s THE SPECTRE #57, when God’s avatar of vengeance seeks divine answers from any source he can regarding an existential crisis -- up to and including the retired lord of Hell, relaxing on an Australian beach. Predictably, Lucifer is entirely unhelpful. Thanks, Satan.






“Has the Shadow-Thief and Doctor Light ever teamed up? They seem like a natural pairing.” -ralphsix


Combining those power sets of light and shadow is tempting, isn’t it? But I’m sorry to say that they’ve only been allied in the broadest of terms. In 1999’s JLA #34, Light and Shadow-Thief are both participants in the same Belle Reve breakout, but don’t do any direct collaboration. They wouldn’t meet again until 2007, as members of Lex Luthor’s “Injustice League Unlimited.” The pair are briefly seen on patrol guarding a captive Batman, but otherwise fail to engage their heroic adversaries side by side. Like many super-villains, Light and Shadow-Thief are among those exiled from Earth in SALVATION RUN, and both side with Lex Luthor after the schism instigated by The Joker. In FINAL CRISIS, the pair are among those recruited as part of the mysterious Libra’s own Secret Society of Super-Villains, but they’re both defeated off-panel by the rebellious Rogues of Central City.


Now, if you want to talk about the OTHER Doctor Light, the heroic Kimiyo Hoshi… well, they haven’t teamed up before, but they have been positioned as adversaries in a major Milestone Comics crossover by the great comic creator Dwayne McDuffie. Give it a read, why don’tcha!



Man, that one was pretty research-heavy! If you’d like to know more about the complex origins of Superman and Batman’s popularity and impact in the real world, I’d recommend a couple of books: Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, and The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon. But for anything else, all you’ve got to do is ASK… THE QUESTION.



NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.