Superman debuted in Detective Comics' (known now as DC Comics) Action Comics #1 in April of 1938. It depicted Superman's first sally of righteousness into the criminal underworld of Metropolis. On its classic cover, thieves run from him, wild with fear, their expressions just short of the agony on the face of the poor bastard in Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Those common, everyday criminals had no chance. Their opponent was stronger, faster and invulnerable. Superman was unbeatable. It wasn't just a problem for criminals. It was a problem for the writers of Action Comics. Invincible characters are boring. Superman's creators kept fans interested by piling on gimmicks, but after riding the wave of novelty, writers had to find a way to knock The Man of Steel off his lofty perch. To make him interesting they had to make him vulnerable. Their solution was a spectacularly bad, poorly thought out plot device: kryptonite.
When he debuted, Superman's novelty was total: the sheer newness of the superhero idea immediately propelled Action Comics into a best-seller spot. Overnight it became a staple offering at newsstands across the country. The Son of Krypton quickly captured a large, dedicated following.
Common, unexceptional villains filled the first few spots in Superman's rogue's gallery. There were no villains of note until the introduction of Lex Luthor in Action Comics #23. And back then he certainly wasn't the criminal mastermind I love today. I get as nostalgic as any comic book fan about those first few Superman stories, but in and of themselves, they aren't compelling. There isn't anything interesting about the strongest, toughest guy on Earth delivering two-fisted justice to completely average bad guys. It's just a series of beat-downs.
Monthly publishing schedules are brutal now, and they were brutal then. Seventy-five years after his introduction, we know that Superman is here to stay. Not so in 1938, when comic book creators banged out new characters every 30 days. Some stuck for awhile, but most came and went in the space of one or two issues. It was a surprise when characters lasted more than a few printings. Superman was the biggest surprise the nascent comic book industry had ever seen. His creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, certainly didn't assume that their new, modern age hero would enjoy such explosive popularity. They weren't ready for it. They hadn't planned ahead. All they knew when Action Comics #1 hit the stands was that Superman fights bad guys -- really effectively. But after a few issues of mundane crime-fighting, they realized Superman was too effective.
Unknowingly, they tripped over a storytelling problem that showed up millennia before Superman yanked his first car off the ground. What the hell does a writer do with a character that easily wins every battle and dispatches his enemies with ridiculous ease?
When The Iliad #1 hit the stands 2,500 years earlier, it introduced Achilles, best known for his thumping of the Trojan hero, Hector. In his first incarnation, he was invulnerable. He was immortal. He wasn't quite a god, but he was pretty damn close. Homer, author of this first issue and runaway hit, was okay with this. For him it was good enough to tax Achilles with one problem: finding Hector. Achilles stepped up, finally finding Hector after a series of seemingly endless ass-haulings up and down the battlefield. Achilles bitchslapped the poor Trojan. Homer laced up the rest of the story and moved on to the spin-off, The Odyssey.
Hollywood didn't invent retakes. That stuff goes way back. The ancients loved them as much as the producers of Smallville. Rewriters of ancient epics, such as Statius, took their retakes seriously. When he reached Achilles in The Iliad #2, he faced the same problem that eventually plagued the writers of Action Comics: an invulnerable hero is a boring hero. Statius answered the problem of the immortal hero with the introduction of Achilles' heel, eventually pierced by an arrow launched from the bow of Paris. Bam: vulnerable, flawed and human characters give stories good wrinkles.
Homer, Statius and later miners of Greek mythology had advantages over the original superhero creators. They weren't working on monthly deadlines and they weren't under pressure to fill newsstand cash registers. Their job was done when the story was done. But comic book creators' jobs never ended. The stories couldn't be finished. The character had to go on. But the writers also had to hold an audience's attention.
Time. Money. Novelty. Competition. Rack space. Shuster and Siegel were pulling down big paychecks, but I can't imagine the pressure they labored under. Given the nature of comic book storytelling, though, their answer to Superman's Achilles problem is unsurprising. Shuster and Siegel had started with novelty and they stuck with it. Over the next few years, they piled Superman full of novelty after novelty to keep fans coming back for more.
When first introduced, Superman couldn't fly. He was inconveniently forced to leap small buildings in a single bound. He also fought crime without heat vision and x-ray vision. These gimmicks were writers' poorly examined answers to the problem of Superman. Super-breath gave us an immortal who froze everything in sight when he accidentally sneezed. Nobody set limits on Superman. By 1941, he had become a god. Statius would have shot himself in the face with an arrow if he'd seen this stuff.
Superman was so popular that he made the jump from one medium, comic books, to another, radio, in record time. Only two years after his debut, he earned his own radio show, The Adventures of Superman. Its writers inherited the whole mess. And pressure? These guys had to crank out enough scripts to run episodes three times a week. They were lucky in the beginning. Radio played to a wider audience than comics, and when the show launched, most listeners were hearing about Superman for the first time. Once again, the gimmicks worked for awhile. But with that kind of writing schedule, writers hit the wall fast. Scrambling, they found their solution in the form of a glowing green rock from Superman's home planet, Krypton. Fittingly, they dubbed it kryptonite.