Action Comics #1 (1938)Without question one of the most iconic images of Superman was his first appearance on the cover of "Action Comics" #1 (pictured), but his suit was a far cry from the one fans would come to know. From the police badge-shaped crest on Superman's chest to the strange boot webbing on his shins (look closely), this version of the character was bound for some fine-tuning. Even so, there's no question that the blue tights and red underpants - based on those worn by Victorian-era 'strongmen' over flesh-colored bodysuits to resemble nude, classical heroes - were a hit, as the basic design remains unchanged seventy years later. Granted, if a man in tights was throwing a car next to us we probably wouldn't be paying much attention to how high his boots were, either.
Action Comics #7 (1938)Superman wasn't the only star of "Action Comics," meaning he had some time to perfect his look. H next appeared on the cover of Issue #7 (pictured), with higher boots, and the second incarnation of his symbol: a bold red 'S' placed within a yellow triangle. The new logo is certainly sharper than its predecessor, but it's the boots that most stand out. With their tapered ankles and scalloped top seam, artist Joe Shuster drew a pair of boots in 1938 that would be called classic, old-fashioned, groovy, retro, hip and 'futuristic' by fashion-lovers over the next seven decades - without ever changing. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' we suppose. But now that the costume had been all but nailed down, the matter of the logo and cape became the main priority. And as anyone who has ever tried to design a strong logo (or worn a cape) knows, the devil is in the details.
Paul Cassidy's New 'S' (1940)While Shuster got the most important parts of Superman's look set in stone, the rise in the character's popularity meant that more artists were soon hired to help handle the workload. It was these early artists - like Fred Wray, John Sikela, and others - who helped flesh out the rest of the costume by committee. Few of the lesser-known artists were more influential than Paul Cassidy, who in 1940 blessed Superman with a new logo on both his chest and cape on the cover of "Action Comic" #26. With a bigger, more graceful 'S' inside of a diamond-shaped triangle, the logo took another step towards the one we know today. Although the colors of the cape's emblem changed from the first appearance to "Action Comics" #29 (pictured), Cassidy had made his mark, also adding movement to the cape, making it look significantly less like a heavily-starched bed sheet.
Fleischer & Famous Superman (1941)It's impossible to talk about the early days of Superman without paying special attention to the animated serials produced by the Fleischer Studios in the early 1940s. Mainly, because the cartoons are some of the most incredibly animated and highly-polished in existence; due in no small part to Max and Dave Flesicher's lack of interest in producing them. Let us explain: to scare off Paramount Pictures, the Fleischers claimed that producing the serials would cost $100,000 per ten-minute episode (over $1.6 million today). Shockingly, Paramount agreed to half that price, and the studio set to work, changing Superman's logo yet again. Placing the 'S' onto a black background made it a bit harder on the eyes, but would resurface in the comic books decades later. Although the logo didn't last, the use of rotoscoping (animating over footage of actual actors) gave Superman fans their first idea of how the hero would move - and fly - on screen.
The Finishing Touches (1944)By 1945, Siegel and Shuster had nailed down the design of Superman's costume - the bottom of the 'S' badge would be pointed, not squared - and was able to copyright the symbol that what would one day become the second most recognized on Earth. In testament to how quickly the artists had ironed out the kinks: as Superman was set to make his debut in live-action, his costume in the comics would follow this exact design for the next forty years. The muscles that pushed the fabric to its breaking point would fluctuate with the times (as would Superman's hair), but the basic design would not. Superman was set to make the leap to TV and film, and would never leave.
Superman (1948)In the serial Superman (1948) and its sequel Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), Kirk Alyn became the first actor to know what it felt like to wear the costume of the Kryptonian orphan, even if the times mandated a higher rise in his underpants than the comics allowed. The costume was actually light grey and brown instead of Superman's trademark red and blue, since those colors photographed better in black and white; and color wasn't the only compromise. Since the special effects required to make a man fly were still years away (suspending Alyn from wires was attempted, and abandoned completely after deemed a painful waste of time), the live-action Alyn was replaced by an animated version when performing super-heroics or flying. The serials became a massive hit for Columbia Pictures, bringing about the sequel and making a live-action TV series inevitable.
Adventures of Superman (1952)For an entire generation of TV viewers, George Reeves was synonymous with Superman. Originally starring in the feature-film Superman and the Mole Men (1951), Reeves' initial outing as the titular hero became the pitch for the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952), which would run for six seasons. Unfortunately, the suit worn in both the feature-film and the first two seasons was still grey and brown. The producers made the shift from shooting in monochrome to color in 1953, even though color television had yet to be widely adopted. So although the suit was red and blue on set, it was broadcast in black and white - fans wouldn't actually see Reeves in color until the series hit syndication in 1965.
Superman: The Movie (1979)"You'll believe a man can fly"; it was the promise made by the producers of Superman: The Movie (1979), and one on which they delivered. But while the special effects team proved that showing Superman in flight was possible, Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner proved the Superman suit could still silence crowds. Staying with the comic book fiction and explaining that the fabric of Superman's suit came from the Kryptonian blanket he was wrapped in, it also added to the story behind the logo. Previously explained away as a symbol chosen by a young Clark, Martha or Jonathan Kent (depending on which comic you read), Donner's film made the 'S' a sigil of the House of El, and Kal-El's family crest. In many ways the four appearances of Reeve's Super-suit is still the most iconic in film, due largely to the fact that it was a perfect adaptation of the comic book's costume up to that time; short red underpants, a boldly drawn symbol, and colors you could see coming a mile away. But we're still not sure about the 'throwable 'S'' thing.
John Byrne's 'Man of Steel' (1986)We'll spare anyone who isn't a big fan of DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" storyline, and simply say that in 1986, the comic book publisher needed a fresh start for Superman. Comic book writer/artist John Byrne was called upon to craft a new origin story for their biggest superhero, and he wasted no time in choosing what would stay from the original stories, and what would go. While the 'S' logo was once again chosen by Clark and Martha Kent, and the suit was crafted from regular fabric, it was the visual style of Byrne that was most influential. Artists of the previous decades (special nod to Curt Swan in particular) had drawn Superman as an imposing figure, but Byrne took things much farther. Hulking shoulders and arms, slim waist and musculature visible through his suit likened Superman to action movie stars of the 1980s - and ever since, the navy blue and crisp symbol have remained the status quo.
The Return of Superman (1992)The 1990s were an interesting time for Superman, as storylines and style choices divided fans like never before - not least of which was the "Death of Superman" arc - considered by some to be one of the best ever written, while being decried as an abomination by others. Ushering in the "Reign of the Supermen," Superman's death brought the unforgettable (for different reasons) costumes of Superboy, Steel, Cyborg Superman and the Eradicator. But it was Superman's return from the grave that had the most impact. "The Return of Superman" had the superhero emerging into the world with shoulder-length hair, and a jet-black bodysuit sporting a chromed logo. Superman had gone metal. Eventually Kal-El returned to his flashier outfit, but this black suit would remain influential, playing a large role in more than one attempted reboot of the hero on film.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)
Like we said, the 1990s were an interesting time. Superman made his triumphant return to television in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (the rare double-allusion title), a new focus placed on Clark Kent's personal life, inspired by much of Byrne's reboot. The suit was once again created by Clark (Dean Cain) and his mother, although the 'S' badge was sent to Earth along with baby Kal-El. The darker blue material and larger chest emblem may have been a nod to the art style of the comics, but there's no denying that this suit is a bit of an oddity among the other live action incarnations. The plunging neckline, emblem and cape all embody the lighter tone of the TV series, but it's no surprise that the style choices were never adopted elsewhere.