by Mario Di GiacomoWho was first?
It's a question many have asked in the past, and probably will ask in the future. And it's a question that has many answers, depending on how you interpret it.
In the mainstream DCU universe, the oldest hero presently active is probably Zauriel, who saw the dawn of creation. The first "mystery man" is commonly held to be the Crimson Avenger.
But in the history of comics, one hero stands as first of them all, the first "Super" hero the first "Super" man. And his name was:
Kal-L crashed on Earth in the late 1910s, where he was rescued from the wreckage by John and Mary Kent., who took the human-appearing infant to a nearby orphanage. Young Kal-L soon proved too much for the nurses there to handle, so when the Kents, finding themselves attracted to the thought of raising the child, returned to adopt the boy, he was gladly released to their care. They named the boy Clark, Mary's maiden name, and took him home to raise on their farm near Smallville.
Years passed, and Clark Kent grew to manhood. While his powers slowly developed, including great strength, speed, invulnerability, and the ability to leap an eighth of a mile, he maintained a normal lifestyle, living as a human among humans. When Mary Kent passed on, the shock was quite a blow to his adoptive father, and he too soon fell ill. Before he died however, he warned the son of his heart that his powers might frighten people, and suggested that he instead use those powers in the cause of Truth, Justice, and the American Way (although not in those *exact* terms they are catchy, though. :) )
Clark took his adopted father's advice to heart and, perhaps inspired by a visitor from his childhood, (the Earth-1 Superboy, a long story) decided to create a costumed identity for himself, enabling him to live a relatively normal life. Moving to Metropolis, he attempted to get a job as a reporter at the Daily Star from editor George Taylor. A professional, Taylor declined until, as Superman, Clark not only prevented the execution of an innocent man, but also (as Kent), he gave the story to George Taylor, impressing the editor enough to offer Kent a job. Kent's first assignment: to learn everything possible about Superman.
The classic triangle soon developed with his co-worker, Lois Lane, who was enamored with Superman, but contemptuous of his human identity. Since, to prevent discovery, Clark was often forced to play the weakling, it was a situation that lasted for years. On the other hand, Kent found a friend in a young "cub" reporter named Jimmy Olsen, an office boy at the Daily Star who had aspirations to be a great reporter himself. He idolized Clark, who rewarded his loyalty and admiration by also befriending him as Superman. Olsen started his career at the Star as a young boy in the 1930s and remained there throughout World War II, eventually joining the regular reporting staff in the 1950's.
But back to Clark. During his first year as a hero, he faced mostly criminals and racketeers, which left him ill-prepared to face the Ultra-Humanite, a brilliant scientist who escaped apparent death on multiple occasions, thanks in no small part to a surgical procedure which enabled him to transfer his brain into a succession of bodies, from actress Dolores Winters, to a massive gorilla-like form.
Another foe, perhaps his greatest, was Alexander "Lex" Luthor, a mad genius who believed that it was his destiny to conquer the world through science. His advanced weaponry, chemical formulae, and scientific processes enabled him to bedevil Superman for years, until the day he vanished from prison, never to return . (He died in the Crisis, slain by Braniac.)
Late in 1940, Superman intervened when a group of Valkyries were reported to be invading the nation's capital. Along with a group of mystery-men, he protected President Franklin D. Roosevelt from assassination by the warrior maidens from Norse mythology, and was hence present at the founding of the Justice Society of America, although he only accepted reserve membership. Along with the other heroes of the day, he also joined the All-Star Squadron, formed in late 1941 after Pearl Harbor, but rarely adventured with these groups, preferring to remain a home-front champion. Considering the "Zone of Influence" which protected Axis territory from magic-using or susceptible heroes from entering, it was probably for the best.
During and after the war, Superman found himself facing a growing number of costumed adversaries, ranging from the Prankster to the 5th-dimensional imp, Mr. Mxyztplk. When, after his defeat by Superman, the technological terror Colonel Future asked the sorcerous criminal the Wizard to erase Superman from existence, the outcome was a surprise to all involved.
Superman vanished, but Clark Kent remained. Finding himself stronger of will and drive, the crusading reporter published an expose on the hapless Colonel, leading not only to the destruction of several of Future's criminal activities, but a blossoming romance with his former foil, Lois Lane, who eventually consented to marry him.
During their honeymoon, an assassination attempt on Clark led his new bride to correctly deduce that her spouse was in fact Superman, even if he no longer remembered the fact himself. She tracked down the disgraced Wizard, and convinced to reverse his previous spell, allowing Clark to regain his memory of his other identity. The couple settled down into a quiet existence.
When George Taylor retired from the office of Editor-In-Chief, Kent was promoted to that post, and over the next several years, served with distinction, not only in that role, but in his more colorful identity as well. In 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings resulted in the formal disbanding of the JSA, and many mystery-men retired rather than unmask. However, Superman remained active, due to his broad recognition by the government and the American people.
The years passed. Superman faded from public view, emerging only occasionally in cases with his comrades of the reconstituted JSA, and eventually, the Earth-1 JLA. Over time, he grew melancholy over the fact that he was the last of his kind, a melancholy relieved by the arrival, in the 1970's, of his cousin Kara, who soon became the heroine known as Power Girl.
A temporary dousing in Koehaha, the river of rage, led to a short stint as a world-conqueror, but with the aid of the JSA and their offspring, soon to become Infinity Inc. he was defeated and cured. The next major event of his life was suprisingly caused by his human identity, when as Clark Kent, he recovered a diary written by the late Batman, implicating the JSA as pawns of Hitler during World War II.
He printed the diary's contents in the Star, which resulted in the indictment of the Justice Society. However, it was soon discovered that the diary was a plot by Batman, reaching beyond the grave to defeat the time-traveling villain Per Degaton, and the JSA was exonerated (America vs. the Justice Society #1-4).
Then came the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Kal-L was witness to the depredations of the Anti-Monitor, and the erasure of his entire life. Although it was his blow that defeated the Anti-Monitor at last, it was a Pyrrhic victory, as his life
his love, were no more. However, Alexander Luthor, a hero of Earth-3, had managed to save Lois from the ravages of the fusion of the timeline, and together with the young Superboy of Earth-Prime, they entered a paradisical pocket universe
never to return.
Or will he?
Special thanks to the JSA FactFile, at http://www.execpc.com/~icicle/JSAHOME.html, for much of this information
This article is © 1999 Mario Di Giacomo.
All characters are © DC Comics