The version of Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 (1938), was both bizarre and simple. A dark-haired athletic man wearing what was essentially a contemporary circus strongman outfit. The cape gave him a sense of motion and of authority, as if he were some regal military leader of another culture. Adding to this was the symbol on his chest.
The original "S-shield" was just that: a shield with an S stamped on it. It was not an alien symbol or derived from a family crest. Superman had simply chosen to monogram his shirt with the initial of his alias. But again, there was a sense of authority that came with it, as the original S-Shield seemed similar in shape to a policeman's badge. Within the actual pages of Action Comics #1, however, the symbol was different. A simple yellow triangle bordering a yellow letter S. This was how Superman appeared for his first few adventures, though occasionally the S would be depicted as red.
Another major difference the original Superman look has with the classic design that came later is that he seems to have red sandals instead of boots. Often, the interior pages would have the sandals and their laces be the same color blue as Superman's trousers, so they were hard to even notice.
Beginning in Superman #6, the Man of Tomorrow gained a pair of red boots. For the next few years, his symbol was inconsistent. It began to become a red S on a regular basis. Then the yellow triangle border became red as well, starting in Action Comics #19. Then, artists began to experiment with the shape, turning it into a diamond. There was also a brief period where the S had a black background, similar to the famous cartoon serials done by Max Fleischer.
The S on his cape also had a few variations, depending on the issue. It could be red over yellow or blue over yellow. Eventually it just became yellow over yellow.
As the shield border became more of a diamond, artists made it yellow again and also increased the symbol's size. Around the same time, the S began to take on a more stylized form, curving along the sides of the border. Eventually, the border was made red once more, giving us something very similar to what would become the classic S-shield.
1945 was the year when the classic depiction of Superman truly came into form. The S-shield was now a large, proudly stylized monogram that curved with its border and merged with it. This version of the Superman symbol (which many people credit to artist Wayne Boring) and his suit are what audiences became familiar with in the live action movie serials starring Kirk Allyn, the television show starring George Reeves, the feature films starring Christopher Reeve, and beyond.
Over the decades, many artists have put their own spin on things. They might make the shield larger or smaller. They may make the boots look heavier. They may alter the exact shade of red and blue that is used in the uniform. But even with these tweaks, the classic Superman design is instantly recognizable to many. It has been emulated and parodied all over pop culture and many consider it the standard style against which romantic, high-flying superheroes are judged.
Although Superman continues to wear this costume to this day, there are times when he's worn other outfits for a particular adventure or story arc...
Imaginary Stories. Mind control. Changing superpowers. Loss of superpowers.
All of these and more led to Superman sporting different looks for either specific story reasons or because the writers decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny to do a story out of continuity where Superman basically splits into two people, one of whom is all dressed in red and one of whom is all dressed in blue? And we can call them Superman-Red and Superman-Blue? That'd be classic!"
Don't even get me started on the yellow costume Superman wore, complete with diving helmet, when he needed to make up for a seeming loss of power.
After a storyline in the mid-1980s called Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman (and many characters in DC Comics) had his continuity and history relaunched. But certain things that have happened before seem to happen again, and sure enough, Superman continued finding himself in strange adventures where he'd have to work as a circus strong man or he needed armor during a time when he had no powers (wait, how often has this actually happened?), or he had just come back from the dead and decided to grow his hair long and wear all black for a few issues because hey, man, it's the '90s.
None of these lasted nor were they meant to. But one alternative design wound up having a lot of impact and influence. In the out-of-continuity story called Kingdom Come, creators Mark Waid and Alex Ross presented an older Superman in a possible future who had become darkened by tragic experiences. After coming out of retirement, this aged Superman wore a variation of this classic suit, one that had a black belt and a black symbol where the S was far more subtle.
There was one costume change that became very notorious and actually lasted for a full year. When a magic spell directed against him backfired, Superman found himself becoming an energy-based life form. To stabilize his body, he needed to wear a new containment suit. As a result, we suddenly had a new capeless Superman with an entirely different set of powers based on the absorption and manipulation of electricity and other forms of energy.
This new take on the nickname "the Man of Tomorrow" was meant to give fans a new twist on Superman. For years now, he's been a pretty competent and confident hero and now he suddenly had to learn how to walk again, instinctively trying to use old powers he no longer had and needing to change his strategies based on new abilities.
This eventually branched off into a new story where Superman's energy form divided into two beings, one red and one blue. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. In any event, the two Supermen wound up saving the world together by discharging their energy reserves. The result of the massive release of power was that Superman wound up shifting back into his original, Kryptonian form, to the relief of many fans who missed their classic hero.
Of course, changes didn't stop there. After the events of September 11 (which eerily coincidence with a major storyline in the Superman comics involving a suddenly attack on Kansas and war breaking out across the world), Superman spent some time wearing a black and red version of the S-shield (complete with black belt) in order to recognize those who had fallen. There were also still stories where for one reason or another he was required to change his look, such as a suit of lead-lined armor to protect him when he knew he was going to encounter the radioactive ore known as Kryptonite (one of his major weaknesses).
After the film Superman Returns, a few artists briefly depicted Superman's S-shield as being a raised decoration on his shirt and gave him an S-shield shaped belt buckle. Both of these design elements had been introduced in the film. However, these changes were quickly dropped and Kal-El went back to his classic suit.
Beginning in September, DC Comics is relaunching its entire comic book universe. A couple of characters, such as Batman and Green Lantern, are being left alone for the most part. But some folks are getting new back stories, new origins, and being de-aged a little bit so that we're seeing them at an earlier stage in their career. And nearly everyone is getting a new costume.
In the new status quo, Superman will be the first publicly known superhero of Earth and, as far as the present-day comics are concerned, he has been in operation for about five years. His early days will be featured in the new Action Comics series, where Grant Morrison and Rags Morales will showcase a young Clark Kent as he begins evolving his superhero identity "five years ago." As there has never been any public costumed protectors before in this new continuity, Clark has no model to follow when it comes to how he should look and so his first attempt will be an off-the-rack look. Rather than emulate a 1930s circus strongman, Clark's modernized proto-costume is jeans, a stylized T-shirt he has custom-made with the S-shield, and the blanket he was wrapped in by his biological parents, a sheet of indestructible Kryptonian cloth that he decides to use as a cape.
In the new Superman series, Clark's present day adventures will be presented by George Perez and Jesus Merino. Now an experienced and famous hero, Superman wears not jeans and a T-shirt but rather an armored suit. How he acquires this armor and what its exact origins are will be revealed in the comics. But whatever the case, this is quite a different look for our Man of Steel and the fact that it's meant to be the new standard has divided many fans.
Of course, the Man of Tomorrow has had a few other looks in other media and we've also met various versions of himself and his progeny from parallel worlds and possible futures. But those characters can be looked at in another column at another time. We hope you enjoyed this look at the visual evolution of Superman. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!