What’s In a Name?
Straight From the Philosophers
The character of Superman may have debuted in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), but the name “Superman” had been used before. The first time a version of this term was published comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1883. The German-language “Übermensch” was framed as humanity’s ideal. When it was first translated into English by Alexander Tille in 1896, Übermensch became “Beyond-Man.”
It wasn’t until playwright George Bernard Shaw released Man and Superman in 1903 (the play has nothing to do with superpowers by the way) that the term “superman” entered the popular vernacular. As early as 1909, translations of Thus Spoke Zarathustra now interpreted Übermensch as “Superman.”
“Superman” became a way to describe popular heroes like Tarzan and Doc Savage within stories and in advertising. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster even used the name for a villain in a short story they published in their own fanzine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization in 1933. In “The Reign of the Superman,” a down-on-his-luck vagrant in the midst of the Great Depression is pulled out of a bread line by a scientist and given coffee spiked with a chemical concoction from a mysterious meteor. He gains telepathic powers, visions of the future, and the ability to implant thoughts in others.
Instead of a chiseled jaw and a jet-black head of hair, this Superman resembles a bald and menacing Lex Luthor. In the end, Karma pays him back for the evil deeds he’s committed, ending his villainous reign. The creators would keep the name in their back pocket for another day.
Superman’s most famous nickname, “The Man of Steel,” was also directly inspired by popular pulp hero Doc Savage. Action Comics #6 (November 1938) debuted the title when newspaper The Daily Star ran the headline “Mystery Man of Steel Re-appears…” Doc Savage was known as “The Man of Bronze” since his Doc Savage Magazine debut in March 1933 a good five years before Superman. But this wouldn’t be the only thing Superman (or Batman) swiped from the character (more on that later).
Straight From the Pulps
The name “Batman” doesn’t come from high-brow philosophy or a fancy playwright, but he too started out as a villain. In the popular pulp series The Spider, “the Bat Man” debuted in the November 1935 issue “Death Reign of the Vampire King.” This character commanded a massive colony of vampire bats that terrorized cities, killing thousands with fast-acting poison bites. He glided on large, crafted wings and wore a grotesque bat mask described as “…incredibly hideous, the nose sliced off….” Even more familiar was the detail that the Bat Man had “attached huge, pointed ears to his head.”
Shortly thereafter, another pulp magazine, Spicy Mystery Stories, ran a tale simply titled “Bat Man.” This wild story featured a disturbed main character who believed he had swapped brains with a bat amidst an imagined love triangle – a far cry from the brooding vigilante we know today.
After researching these earlier uses of the Superman and Batman names, it’s easy to see why they never made it long-term. There was something special from the start about the enduring versions of the characters we know now. So how did it all begin?