Disclaimer: I don't own Superman or any associated character of DC Comics or anything like that. Please don't sue me, these are just honest opinions based on years of me spending money on your fine publications.
So here we go:
The Golden Age:
For anyone wondering, the 'Golden Age' refers to the period of time where Superman (and other superheroes) were just created. Superman is a very different individual in these stories (unlike Batman, who was just as dark and awesome as he is today. He didn't change into the fun-loving Adam West version until a little bit later). In most Golden Age stories, Superman isn't seen fighting aliens or giant monsters; he's seen tackling crooked oil-rig owners, wife-beaters, drink drivers and other social menaces. He's very much a hero for the common man, the little guy, the 'oppressed' (as co-creator Jerry Siegel put it) and unlike his later incarnations, he's not afraid to use his fists and his temper to get his way, as the legendary first issue cover of Action Comics clearly displays:
Aesthetically, he's probably not the Herculean demigod he would become in the fifties. In these early stories, Superman can't even perform his signature superpower of flight and is relegated to super leaps (hence the origin of the popular phrase 'Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound'). He does acquire his most original power of x-ray vision fairly early on, though. Also unlike the stories of the 50s, through to the mid 80s, in these early stories Superman occasionally gets wounded and knocked out and various villains (including an early incarnation of Lex Luthor) even manage to find different ways to conk his powers out for short periods of time.
Probably the best aspect of these early stories is how Jerry Siegel writes Clark Kent. Clark Kent is a bumbling, clumsy weakling and isn't at all popular in the newsroom of The Daily Star (which would later be renamed 'The Daily Planet'). The most fascinating aspect of the Superman mythos (in my opinion) which is the love triangle between Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Superman is given its roots in these early stories and it's nothing short of spectacular entertainment watching Lois shun Clark in favour of the man of steel, not knowing that they are in fact one and the same.
The early stories in Action Comics are great little tales of what Jerry Siegel believed a really strong guy with the best interests of society could do. It would be remiss of me to mention just one issue that I really liked so I'll just recommend you check out 'Action Comics Archive: Volume One' as it's the perfect showcase of this iteration of the character.
The Silver Age:
...is when everything got a bit wacky.
The Silver Age (for Superman, anyway) refers to the period between roughly 1945 and 1970. The emphasis was put on science fiction and fantasy (remember that the Atomic Age had begun and everyone was interested in sputnik and spacemen), which led to all manner of wild and wonderful stories.
As previously mentioned, it was around this time that Superman became something of an unstoppable God. He could easily stave off atomic blasts and essentially nothing could so much as ruffle his skin, other than the dreaded 'Green Kryptonite' which could kill him after prolonged exposure of a few hours. While he only had a basic roster of powers (flight, superhuman senses, speed and strength) the writers employed laughable pseudo-science to find ways that would allow Superman to do basically everything. During this era, Superman is regularly seen travelling backwards and forwards in time (with some very hilarious visions of what would have been 'the future' at that time), he can split himself into separate beings and even employ super-hypnosis for a variety of uses. The most popular of these 'makey-uppy' powers was when Superman would use "the heat of his x-ray vision" to melt or burn something or as an offensive measure against his enemies. This later evolved into 'heat vision' which basically involved Superman being able to shoot beams of heat from his eyes, completely unrelated to his x-ray power.
The Silver Age was also the first attempt at deepening Superman's origin and making it a fuller, more mythic tale than the single page origin Action Comics #1 gave him back in 1939. Superman's alien origins (which were originally relegated to a single panel) are fleshed out and it is revealed that he is the last son of the distant planet 'Krypton' and is the son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van. It seems that Jor-El knew that Krypton (at this point envisioned as being a colourful, fantasy, candy-floss land with Jewel Mountains and flying cars) was going to explode and tried to warn 'The Science Council' who shunned his claims. Jor-El then hastily built a rocket and sent his son to Earth, knowing that the lighter gravity and the yellow sun would endow his infant son with incredible abilities that would sustain him.
Superman's youth, which was originally envisioned as being spent in an orphanage was entirely revamped and showed an elderly couple by the name of Jonathan and Martha Kent adopting him and naming him 'Clark' (Martha's maiden name). By the age of 10, young Clark is immensely powerful and decides to use his powers for the good of mankind as 'Superboy'. Superboy's adventures took place in his hometown of Smallville (which, as we all know, is a quaint little country town in Kansas), which was in stark contrast to Superman's later home, the aptly named 'Metropolis'. Even Lex Luthor was given an origin (by Jerry Siegel himself, to the best of my knowledge, who was still writing several Superman comics a month). It seems that Superboy and Lex were originally friends in Smallville until Superboy accidentally ruined one of Lex's most important experiments during a chemical fire, causing Lex's hair to fall out in the process. This led to the life-long animosity we have come to see from Luthor.
Some great stories from this era include the above origin for Lex, as well as the two-part epic 'The Return to Krypton' which sees Superman going back in time to his homeplanet and falling in love with Lyla Lerrol, before having to leave, unable to avert the tragedy of the exploding planet.
The Bronze Age
An era that often gets overlooked, this is the point in Superman (and DC Comics in general for that matter) where things got a little bit more serious, partly because of an audience that was growing up with the medium, partly because of the troubled times and partly because Marvel Comics were making so much money with stories that were more accessible to readers of all ages and not just children. This led to some truly magnificent stories by the likes of Denny O'Neil (who I would credit as being the creator of Batman as we know him today) and the legendary Elliott S! Maggin.
In the stories of this era, Superman was still incredibly powerful and utterly unstoppable (he even became immune to Kryptonite), but his inner angst and loneliness was explored a lot more, as well as setting up some limitations to his godly powers; for example: while Superman could travel back and forward in time, during his travels he would only exist as a ghostly phantom, unable to have any effect on future or past events (or communicate with lost loved ones). Also, the aforementioned ability of Superman being able to split himself in two was done away with and stories explored the sad truth of while Superman was extremely fast and immensely strong, he just couldn't be everywhere at once and this meant that there were many people he couldn't save (one of the most important counter-arguments for people who believe the character to be too powerful, in my opinion).
Also, in an awkward attempt at updating the mythos, Clark Kent was moved from The Daily Planet to Galaxy Broadcasting and was changed from being a mild-mannered newspaper reporter to being a sexy, action TV newsman, with the sharp suits and the winning smiles to match. While Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White still made regular appearances, Clark was now usually seen dealing with boss Morgan Edge (who later turned out to be a crime boss with ties to mega-villain Darkseid) and Lana Lang of his youth (who was now a weathergirl).
Lex Luthor's hatred of Superman was made even richer, in the classic story 'Luthor Unleashed!'. While battling Superman in his new 'WarSuit' (which was brought into the comics to sell 'Super Friends' action figures) on the distant planet Lexor (where Lex is praised as a hero and has a wife and child), Luthor accidentally destroys his beloved planet. Naturally, he blames Superman and claims that he has only "just begun to hate!". The story, while a bit melodramatic, is really effective as a study of the classic Luthor and how in spite of his incomporable genius, he just can't get over his irrational hatred of this hero.
The Steel Age
One of the most important eras in Superman's history and the point where he was solidified as a character for all audiences and not just children, 'The Steel Age' refers to the twenty years between 1986-2006 where Superman's vast, often confusing comic book history was thrown out entirely and a bold new one was forged. In the six-issue miniseries 'The Man of Steel', Superman's new origin was shown.
In this version:
- Krypton is envisaged as being a cold, sterile, emotionless world where children are born in a 'birthing matrix'. Jor-El sends Kal-El's unborn matrix to Earth, thus allowing Superman to be 'born on Earth'.
- Clark never operates as 'Superboy' and does not become Superman until the age of about 22, after travelling the world and experiencing all manner of its cultures.
- Clark Kent is seen as being the 'true' identity, while Superman is merely a disguise he uses to help people in trouble. Unlike the earlier stories, Clark is shown as being a likeable, confident reporter who is successful in his own right as a novelist. In the early years of this era, Clark repeatedly states that if he is to win the affections of Lois Lane, he has to do it as his 'true' self, the normal guy from Kansas, as opposed to Superman (whose arms she would happily fall into).
- Superman is "powered down" drastically. While still being immensely powerful (and probably one the most powerful hero on Earth), he can be killed with brute force and generally isn't nearly as indestructible as his 1950s counterpart, who would laugh at the power of atomic bombs. He can no longer travel back in time (at least not by using his own powers) and he can't move anywhere near as fast as the speed of light (compared to the Silver Age, where he could travel several times faster).
- Superman truly is the 'last son' of Krypton. During this period, he never encounters other Kryptonians. Even General Zod is just a Russian guy.
- Probably the most significant change is to Lex Luthor, whose every motivation and status is changed entirely. In this era, Luthor is envisaged as a successful businessman, who has made billions legally through his genius. However, behind the scenes is a highly corrupt, white-collar criminal who essentially 'owns' Metropolis. When Superman comes along and shows that not everyone is afraid of him, Luthor makes it his business to destroy him, creating an entirely new and different dynamic.
The stories of this era were highly entertaining for the most part and for the first ten years or so, demonstrate the only time in Superman comics where the story was an ongoing, soap-opera-esque adventure, that would carry on from the last story every week (at one point, there was a different Superman comic every week, all continuing from the same story threads). While some of the writing is a bit sensationalistic when read with a current frame of mind, they're still damn entertaining and it's always funny reading how the writers try to make references with pop culture of the time. Some view the Steel Age as being a bit too 'hip' and that Superman shouldn't have been 'depowered', but I view it as the most accessible and cohesive period in Superman comics, where Superman was more of a normal person rather than a God. Plus, it inspired the greatest superhero show ever:
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman incorporated most of the elements of The Steel Age (Clark as the 'true' identity, Luthor as a crooked billionaire) and crafted what is (in my opinion) the finest television version of Superman, ever. The plots were sometimes a bit mundane and didn't always seem like 'a job for Superman', the villains were often a bit too hammy (and sometimes flat-out farcical) and the special effects are obviously quite dated looking at them today, but the performances of the two leads, the unlikely Dean Cain and the breathtakingly definitive Teri Hatcher, carried the show throughout its four seasons. Not to mention John Shea (who looked even less like his comic book counterpart than Cain; he had a head full of hair!) gave a truly deceptive portrayal as the conniving white-collar criminal Lex Luthor and gave the most under-appreciated performance of a comic book villain, ever. If the other villains were a bit silly, Luthor's appearances throughout the series made up for it.
Up next: The 'Must-Read' Superman Graphic Novels