Why is Superman Described as Leaping Tall Buildings with a Single Bound When He Can Fly?
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
Well, of course Superman could hurdle skyscrapers. He can fly after all. Compared to the kind of aerial self-propulsion that Daedalus couldn’t have conceived of, jumping over even the Burj Khalifa seems hardly worth mentioning. Super-vaulting seems more along the lines of Kal-El’s super-ventriloquism – sure, it’s technically part of his power set, but there aren’t many situations that call for it over one of his infinitely more practical powers. So why does this iconic line praise rhapsodically Superman’s vertical leap but make no mention of the fact that he could fly from Metropolis to Gotham without having to take his red boots off while going through the TSA checkpoint at the airport?
The fact is, when those bombastic boastings were first announced on the Adventures of Superman radio program, Superman’s power of levitation no more existed at that time than did the Transportation Safety Administration. Though the opening monologue would change throughout the radio show’s eleven year run from February 12th, 1940 – March 1st, 1951, the initial incarnation in the four fifteen-minute demo episodes that were shopped around to networks in 1939 were exacting in their description of the limitation of his powers at the time:
Narrator: Boys and girls, your attention please! The Blank Corporation presents a brand new adventure program, featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality! Faster than an airplane! More powerful than a locomotive! Impervious to bullets!
Male: Up in the sky – Look!
Female: It’s a giant bird!
Male: It’s an airplane!
Male: It’s Superman!
Narrator: Superman! A being no larger than an ordinary man, but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on earth. Able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile in a single bound, hurdle a twenty story building with ease, race a high powered bullet to its target, lift tremendous weights, and rend solid steel in his bare hands as though it were paper. Superman! Strange visitor from a distant planet. Champion of the oppressed! Physical marvel extraordinaire, who has sworn his existence on Earth to helping those in need.
That this awkward mouthful would later get trimmed to the version with which we’re familiar is no surprise, but what does stand out is the precision with which his powers are explained, and rather redundantly at that. Immediately after specifying that Superman could win the Olympic gold medal for high jump by well over a hundred meters, the announcer next describes the same feat in terms of a twenty-story high rise. Almost certainly the first figure was actually intended to describe Superman’s long jump. The measure of an eighth of a mile is taken directly from the second page of Superman #1 (1939), accompanied by an illustration of the Metropolis Marvel hoping horizontally, not vertically. In the same issue, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster included the first of many attempts at a scientific explanation of the Man of Tomorrow’s powers:
Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton, whose inhabitants evolved, after millions of years, to physical perfection! The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength! Even upon our world today exist creatures possessing super-strength! The lowly ant can support weights hundreds of times its own. The grasshopper leaps what to man would be the equivalent of several city blocks! It’s not too far-fetched to believe that some day our very own planet may be peopled entirely by supermen!
Siegel and Shuster’s vision of the character in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s was of a peak perfect human whose abilities were all of a kind with ordinary earthlings but taken to an evolutionary extreme. In the first few strips of the Superman daily comics printed in newspapers starting in ‘39, his father Jor-L was seen performing equally extraordinary feats even on his homeworld, such as running faster than an express train, hopping the rooftops of skyscrapers, emerging unscathed when a building collapses with him in it during a planetquake, and lifting many tons of rubble with ease. As the very first panel of the series explained, “Krypton, a distant planet so far in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen – beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!”
This is why besides flight the Last Son of Krypton’s other exotic powers – such as infrared and x-ray vision – were also absent in his initial appearances. They simply weren’t inline with a linear projection of the path of future human evolution. But this state of affair changed more quickly than Clark Kent in a phone booth. At least as early as November 28, 1941, with the release of “The Mechanical Monsters,” the second of Fleischer Studios’ animated Superman shorts, Supes is seen using his soon to be signature x-ray vision. In Superman #59 (July 1949), the Big Blue Boy Scout was utilizing the energy of those x-rays to melt a glacier – presaging heat vision as a unique power in the next decade.
These reflected an emerging vision of Superman being more alien in nature, his powers inhuman, but not implausible per se – the product of photosynthetic processing and repurposing of solar energy. But the succeeding decades would add increasingly non sequitur abilities to his repertoire, such as in 1958’s Superman #125, wherein he gained the not at all allegoric ability to produce from his palm a miniaturized Man of Steel, depleting his own potency in the process – this was before Cialis became commercially available. And that was still more useful than super-mathematics, in which Superman was able to calculate basic multiplication in his head (and escaping the notice of both the writer and editor, arriving at an incorrect product by a factor of ten). The movies were no less nonsensical in their establishment of new powers, such as the Cosby cocktail kiss at the end of the second Superman film or the reverse entropy vision in the third.
These are a far cry from the powerset of the Superman as he was originally envisioned, but then again, so were super-strength and speed. Superman as he appeared in his June 1938 debut in the pages of Action Comics #1 was no less than Siegel and Shuster’s third attempt at a character bearing that nom de guerre, with the first of their creations by that appellation appearing in the third issue of their self-published magazine “Science Fiction” in a short story entitled “Reign of the Superman” (January 1933). As far from a heroic Hercules from a distant planet as possible, this Superman was a villainous earthling with an ordinary physique but vast mental abilities. He used telepathy to control the will of others and even to mentally observe events on Mars.
Their second Superman appeared later that same year. Instead of prose accompanied by illustrations, this Superman was the star of an eponymously titled comic book. Only one issue was written and drawn, sent unsolicited to Consolidated Book Publishing for consideration, but politely rejected. Despite the cover – all that survived Shuster’s despondent immolation of the issue – proclaiming this Superman as “The most astounding fiction character of all time,” his strength, while considerable, was strictly of the non-super variety. Ironically, this Superman – or at least a slightly tweaked strongman now named Slam Bradley – was one of the characters created for Detective Comics #1 (1937), a series normally associated with Superman’s best frenemy and fellow son of a Martha, Batman.
But by the time that the one true Superman finally hit newsstands in Action Comics #1, all the essential elements of his powerset were in place. Beginning on the cover, his super-strength was communicated through the ease with which he lifted an automobile high over his head, smashing it against the rocky outcrop of a non-descript backdrop. By the bottom of the second page, his invulnerability was inferred as a bullet bounced harmlessly off his chest, and later confirmed when a blade broke upon striking his skin. When the events of the story caught up to the cover scene, his super-speed was shown for the first time as he overtook the car which readers already anticipated he was about to smash.
But through it all modern readers will note the conspicuous absence of flight. In the very first panel we see him high up in the air, a farmhouse far below him, but instead of the iconic swimmers’ pose indicative of flight, his posture is vertical and erect, his legs outstretched, the left fore and the right rearward, as if he’d just pushed off the ground with ball of his right foot, and when he falls hundreds of feet hence, it’ll be on his left heel. Without any narration explaining the power, Shuster’s crude art is nevertheless highly communicative of the action taking place. Later in the issue, unable to hover (or yet use super-hearing), Superman is reduced to hanging on the windowsill of a senator in order to eavesdrop on his conversation. Immediately after, the flightless Superman grabs a mobster in cahoots with the politician and traverses the city with him in tow by leaping onto powerline poles and running across electrical wires.
So when did his literal fight and flight instinct finally kick in? It wasn’t in the comics, but rather in the same medium that gave us almost every other essential element of the Superman mythos, including the names of the Daily Planet, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, the first appearance of Kryptonite, and even the first crossover between Batman and Superman: radio. On Saint Valentine’s Day of 1940, at the very start of the series’ second episode, entitled “Clark Kent, Reporter,” the narrator catches listeners up on the action: “Today, as our story continues, we find him hovering with his curious power above a quiet highway in Indiana. A trolley car is just pulling up the hill, and as Superman wheels and turns in curious flight, unseen below, a man and a boy come out of the shed that serves as waiting room.” Through it all, a steady sound of wind blows in the background, placing listeners whose imaginations were attuned to the audio cues of radio up in the atmosphere alongside Superman.
With the precedent of his new power set, depictions of Superman in other media soon followed in making the leap from leaping to full flight. First was Fleischer Studios – famous for fellow strongman and Superman influence Popeye – in the inaugural of their animated shorts, titled Superman (a.k.a. “The Mad Scientist” – September 26, 1941). The Man of Steel, having just changed into his costume in a storage closet, opens a window of the Daily Planet and looks ready to leap out. He steps back briefly, as if to get momentum for a great jump, but then bolts forward faster than the eye can see. Any ambiguity as to the action is immediately removed; looking through the still open window, the viewer sees Superman turn sharply in midair, his pose prone with both legs straight back and one arm forward as if to steer through the atmosphere. Yet Fleischer was strangely inconsistent in its portrayal; in the fourth episode, “The Arctic Giant” (February 27, 1942), Superman flies out of the main entrance of the Daily Planet building before immediately proceeding to hop, skip, and jump for the remainder of the short.
The comics were even more inconsistent. The first alleged example of Superman in flight from the comics is Superman #10 (1941), in which artist Leo Nowak – new to the series as of that issue – drew several panels that certainly look more like Superman is hovering stationary in the air rather than being depicted midleap. Of particular note is one panel in which Superman, with clouds behind him and buildings below, appears to be conversing casually, his cape not flowing in the wind, and not an action line anywhere to indicate movement. But elsewhere the issue makes clear this is a mistake, showing him limited to leaps and incapable of truly defying gravity. Per Glen Weldon in Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, “The comics, however, wouldn’t make up their minds on that leaping/flying score for years – at times showing him seemingly hovering in the air, at times showing him scaling buildings to reach upper floors. It wouldn’t be until 1943 that he was depicted unequivocally flying on the comics page.” The 1943 dating is in reference to Action Comics #65. Though the majority of the issue is likewise ambiguous in its art, with Superman’s body movement more reminiscent of Shuster’s skipping Superman than Fleischer’s flying Man of Steel, in one of the penultimate panels an orphan asks “Let’s see ya fly,” to which Supes obliges, proclaiming “Up, up, and away!”
There were efforts later on to clip his wings. During a Bronze Age update to ground the character, Editor Julius Schwartz and writer Dennis O’Neil flirted with the idea, as chronicled by Les Daniels in Superman: The Complete History, in which O’Neil relates “One of the first things Julie and I agreed on was the story line that would scale him back almost to what Joe and Jerry started with in 1938.” Supes was depowered to those levels briefly after his resurrection following his death at the hands of Doomsday. When the risen Superman took on the cyborg impostor who tried to replace him, he had to make do with long leaps and big guns instead of supersonic flight and heat vision. Another longer lasting depletion occurred in a 2016 story arc entitled “Truth,” wherein overuse of his new solar flare ability – an evolution of his heat vision emanating from every part of his body – permanently depleted his cells’ stores of solar energy, leaving Superman grounded for months and giving readers a reprieve from ancillary characters shouting “Look! Up in the sky!”
Still, for the majority of his eighty plus years as a strange visitor on our planet, Superman has been able to fly. But how? When writer and artist John Byrne was tasked with rebooting the character of Superman following the multiverse ending event Crisis on Infinite Earths, he offered a novel explanation: tactile telekinesis. The conceit was that Superman could subconsciously psychically move objects – but only so long as he directly made contact with them. This greatly enhanced the superstrength granted by his natural muscularity, and as he was always in contact with his own body, he could also use tactile telekinesis to lift and move his body anywhere he thought to. He comes to this realization in Superman #1 (December 31st, 1986), musing in a thought bubble: “The lab seems to have lost almost all its weight now that I’m flying rather than lifting with pure muscle-power… Evidently, I fly objects the same way I fly myself – by sheer force of will, not by strength.” Though subsequent writers soon discarded this explanation, it was brought back to explain the powers of Con-El, a.k.a. Superboy, a half-human clone created of Superman after his death at the hands of Doomsday.
An alternate explanation was put forth by Mark Wolverton in The Science of Superman. He postulated that Kryptonians had evolved an organ which allowed for the direct manipulation of the fourth fundamental force: “Gravity – specifically the possible existence of gravitons and negative gravity – give us a mechanism that Superman might be able to use to achieve flight without encumbrances like wings and engines.” This explanation was recycled in the Mass Effect video games, wherein individuals with “biotic” abilities could directly manipulate this universally repellant Dark Energy (a.k.a. the titular “Mass Effect”).
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So, we know when Superman first took flight, but who was the first character in recorded writing to escape the bonds of Earth without wings or a vehicle with which to do so? Jesus’ walking on water is a feat later replicated by Superman, and His ascension certainly bears resemblance to levitation, but one of the first to be described explicitly as flying was Christ’s contemporary, the magician Simon Magus. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Magus challenges the faith of the titular Apostle by flying over the crowds gathered along the Via Sacra in Rome. Taking up the challenge, Peter prays to the Lord for Simon to fall and break his leg in three places, which the wizard promptly does before being stoned by the fickle onlookers.
An even closer analogue to Superman can be found in Saint Joseph of Cupertino. Per the Catholic Encyclopedia, his miraculous works were a grab bag of common comic book superpowers: “Neither dragging him about, buffeting, piercing with needles, nor even burning his flesh with candles would have any effect on him… Frequently he would be raised from his feet and remain suspended in the air.” Unsurprisingly, like Magus, he was suspected by his contemporaries of witchcraft, earning a denouncement from the Inquisition. More surprisingly, posterity remembers him equally for his intellectual shortcomings as for his alleged aeronautics. Joseph is the patron saint of aviators, astronauts, and the mentally handicapped. At this point just for fun, we feel compelled to point out that the patron saint of not just children, but prostitutes, is St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas.Expand for References
- Action Comics #1
- Action Comics #65
- The Acts of Peter
- Adventures of Superman (episode 2): “Clark Kent, Reporter”
- Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Joseph of Cupertino
- Comic Book Legends Revealed #373
- Comic Legends: When Did Superman First Fly?
- Comic Legends: When Did Superman First Use Heat Vision in the Comics?
- Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1998.
- Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. Spiegel & Grau, 2012.
- Superman #1 (vol. 1, 1939)
- Superman #1 (vol. 2, 1986)
- Superman #10
- Superman (episode 1): The Mad Scientist
- Superman (episode 4): The Arctic Giant
- Weldon, Glen. Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. Wiley, 2013.
- Wolverton, Mark. The Science of Superman. iBooks, 2002.
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