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The History of Superman's Powers

by Juan Martin Ponce

Many different versions of Superman, who has been constantly published since 1938, have existed throughout the years. In this article I will discuss the number and level of his superpowers in each version. First, the Golden Age or "Earth Two Superman," then the Silver Age or "Earth One Superman," and lastly, the post-crisis Superman, the Superman introduced in John Byrne's "Man of Steel" miniseries in 1986.

Some readers may believe a fourth version of Superman has existed since the reintroduction of his "silver-age" Krypton origin in Superman 166 (volume 2), but - in my opinion - there are only three versions, not four, because Superman 166 did not change the history or chronology of the post-crisis Superman. It only messed around with his origin (the history of these different versions and their first and last appearances will be material for a future article).

So, let's begin with the:

1) Golden-Age Superman

A) 1938-42: During these years Superman had a limited number of powers. Most important of all, he couldn't fly, only leap one eighth of a mile. He did not have all his super-senses (i.e. the vision and hearing powers). His invulnerability was at a very low level. Bullets could bounce off his skin, but a bomb or a missile could stun, hurt, or even kill him. Also, he was faster than an express train.

B) 1942-45: In these years Superman could fly and gained his x-ray, telescopic and heat vision powers. He also had a "super-acute hearing." His invulnerability, though, was at its previous level (bombs and missile could hurt him).

C) 1946-1955: In October 1946, Superman withstood the blast of two atomic bombs and could fly into the heart of the sun (that includes space & interplanetary travel) or earth's molten core. At this point he could fly at speeds faster than light itself and travel through time.

So, during these years, Superman's powers were slowly increased to a "semi-god level", where ultimately, he could do all that he wanted to.

It is not clear which issue of Superman or Action Comics marks the final story of the Golden Age Superman and the first of the Silver Age Superman. So, I will suggest that 1956 is the year that marks the beginning of the latter one, because 1956 marked the first appearance of the second version of the Flash in "Showcase Comics." (This issue is considered by comics experts the very first issue of the "Silver Age".)

2) Silver Age Superman (a.k.a. Earth-One Superman): 1956-1986

During these years, Superman was almost a god, and he could do everything, such as moving planets or extinguishing stars. Most notably in the Mort Weisinger era, Superman had ridiculous powers such as super-hypnosis, super-ventriloquism, and others that, sincerely, were a shame.

In 1971, DC (and editor Julius Schwartz), tried to depower Superman to a more real level, in order to make more entertaining stories. In the "Sand-Man" saga that lasted almost eight months, an alien absorbed a "portion" of Superman's powers (actually, a third of them) that resulted in a decrease in his powers.

But the effects of this storyline would not last long enough, and in a matter of months, Superman reverted to his old ways, traveling through time and moving planets.

At this point, Superman was so tough and strong that even Hulk couldn't move him with his most powerful blows (as seen in the second Superman /Spiderman crossover, published in 1981). Even I couldn't believe it when I read that issue!

3) The Earth Two & Earth One Supermen:

In order to keep Superman at a youngish age (around 30) DC established, at the end of the 1960's in a JLA issue, that the Superman named Kal-L by his Kryptonian father, then adopted by John & Mary Kent, who fought in World War Two alongside the JSA and worked at the "Daily Star" was the "earth two" Superman. He never was Superboy and lived on the same earth of DCs 1940s heroes, such as Jay Garrick and Alan Scott.

There are issues where the E-2 Superman (Kal-L) recognized that Kal-E1 (Earth-One) was more powerful than himself (see 1982's DC Comics Presents Annual #1). Additionally, in an story titled "Mr. & Mrs. Superman," published in "Superman Family", (yes, Kal-L married that Earth's Lois Lane), the Earth-Two Superman said he couldn't survive at a temperature of absolute zero. But, he noted that his Earth-One counterpart could survive at such a temperature without a problem.

To me, the E-1 Superman is stronger than the E-2 one, but only barely. Remember that the E-2 Superman could also travel through time and survived atomic blasts (in "Mr. & Mrs. Superman", Clark remembers an adventure in mid forties where he followed a chunk of kryptonite by traveling through time and then discovered his alien heritage).

In the maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" the E-2 Superman is depicted as weaker than his counterpart (see the battle against the creatures of the Anti-Monitor in the anti-matter universe), but it is Kal-L (in issue 12) that lands the final blow to the Anti-Monitor. Previously, Kal-L had struck down Kal-El with only one blow in order to ensure that the E-1 Superman could be sent back to earth and survive.

It is not clear for me, at least, if the E-2 Superman could move planets, I think that he could not, but it is not a definite conclusion.

I give the E-1 Superman a 10 in terms of raw power, and the E-2 Superman a 9.5 or 9 (but he could possibly reach a 10 if he was really angry, like in the battle against the Anti-Monitor).


John Byrne established, in a clear way, the extent and limits of Superman's super-abilities. It wasn't until 1994 that DC's writers and editors decided to tinker with his powers, confusing the readers in some ways about the real limits of Kal-El's abilities.

First, John Byrne made clear that the post-crisis Superman:

  • Could not travel at speeds faster than light (or even at the speed of light)
  • Had limited super-hearing abilities.
  • Could not move planets.
  • Had lessened invulnerability (see Superman #9, where an atomic bomb of 40 megatons rendered Superman unconscious for about 30 minutes).-
  • Could survive in space with no oxygen for a limit period of time (about two hours).

For a clear example of his depowerization, see Action Comics #591 where Superman battles the "pocket earth" Superboy (the post-crisis version of the silver-age Superboy). I think Superman fought well, but other readers think that he did not. When the battle ended in a draw (it was stopped by that earth's Jonathan Kent) Superman said to Superboy: " know full well that the only way you can beat me is by killing me..."

That gives us an hint that the post-crisis Superman is still very powerful, and Superboy - in order to defeat him - must kill him. Also, I like very much that scene where Byrne's Superman follows Superboy, and when the boy just starts to exceed the speed of light in order to travel through time, he grabs him and thinks "the speed is dizzying," giving us a clear example that he can no longer fly faster than light.-

Yes, Superman was weaker and stories were more entertaining and believable, but he had the very same basic powers that made him famous: He could fly, move at super-sonic speeds, had the full range of vision and hearing powers, could move mountains or buildings, bullets bounced off his chest, and he could withstand any kind of impact from rockets, missiles or laser rays. In summary, he could do what we expected of him. Only the ridiculous extremes of his powers were eliminated.

But, like always, in 1994, began the mess with that clear number of limits depicted before.

It all began with Superman #82, where the Eradicator - in order to save Kal-El from the fatal kryptonite ray fired by the Cyborg - absorbed it, channeling the energy in a different way. This resulted in Clark regaining his powers (that energy has been called by Professor Hamilton "Kryptonite X"), and eventually, it gave his abilities a power boost.

Then, Superman noted that his super-powers began to increase, most precisely in Man Of Steel #30 (Feb. 94), where he knocked out Lobo with only one blow. In this issue, he also, discovered that he was faster than a space ship and did not need an oxygen mask in order to stay in space for a long period of time.

All these changes led to a saga in which Superman had grown "too-powerful" and become a danger to earth's people. Ultimately, the Parasite (in Action Comics #699) absorbed Superman's excess energy, allowing him to be normal again. At this point it is not clear if the Parasite reduced Superman's powers to their normal levels (as established by John Byrne) or if Parasite only depowered him to the level he was at just before his abilities went out of control (Man of Steel #30).-

In the letter-column of Superman #0 (October 94), DC said that Superman "was simply depowered to the level he was at just before his abilities went out of control, so he is able to travel in space...and that is a good power level for us and for you, superfans, too".-

So, at this point, there is no problem. Superman is more powerful and the Parasite absorbed only the excess energy that was making him a danger. He remained at the power-level introduced in Man Of Steel #30: He could fly at the speed of light -or faster, was stronger and more invulnerable, and he could stay in space for days or weeks without needing oxygen.

In the limited series "Hunter & Prey" in 1994, where Superman battled Doomsday for a second time, he said to Maxima (issue 1) that he could travel in space easily. In issue 2 - in a fight against the Cyborg - he states that he was stronger, and knocked out the villain with a blast of heat-vision, the beams of which were depicted bigger than before.

In the saga of "The Trial" (mid 1995), Mope and Leeya (two aliens) purchased a special vehicle to travel in space, and Superman said he did not need one, and flew the interplanetary distances under his own power. But, however, he needed to use an oxygen mask.

Here it is not clearly stated if he used the mask in order to survive or if he only used it to maintain communication with his partners in the vacuum of space. I think, however, that he only used it, so that he could speak to Mope & others. In Superman #108,(part of the same storyline), Superman -in order to save Mope, who was put in a rocket traveling at hyperspace to Krypton by the tribunal- follows the rocket at a same speed (see page 19), but could not save him.

Once again, we notice that he is more powerful than before, at the level DC referred to in the previously mentioned letter-column. Then, in Superman #112, Kal flies all the way to Mars with no need of oxygen mask.

The real mess began in Man of Steel #66 (April 97) where Superman says: "I don't have time to rush home for my breathing mask...I can hold my breathe for an hour, maybe more if I have to." What's going on here? A few issues before he says that he can travel in space with no need of oxygen, follows a rocket that travels through "hyperspace" with no problem, but now he needs an oxygen mask? It is not clear.

During that year, a reader postulated that this was because Superman lost his powers during the "Final Night" saga. When he regained them in Man Of Steel #64, it was at their basic levels, because the Eradicator's extra energy (Superman 82) dissipated when Superman lost his abilities.-

Are you still with me? I know it may be difficult, but all I want to say is, why mess around when a clear power limit was established by previous editors and writers? If you change Superman's powers in order to make him more or less powerful, at least do it in a clear way.

And finally, I noticed that ever since Superman regained his original powers in March 1998 (remember the energy-based Superman? Awful, really), he is - without a doubt - much more powerful than before.

But, this time, the team of writers explained very well why Superman does not need to breathe in space. Namely, Mongul Jr. trained him how to overcome the lack of oxygen and said that Superman's own conscience imposes limits on his super-abilities.

In conclusion, Superman is now, without a doubt, more powerful. He's not exactly as powerful as he was Pre-Crisis, but he's very close. For example:

1) In Superman #167, he moves Krypton (with help of several of Jor-El's machines, however).

2) In Superman #171, he travels in deep space without an oxygen mask.

3) In Action Comics #782, he moves Warworld all by himself.

4) In the "Infestation Saga" we finally see him with an oxygen mask in space, but he used it only after spending a week in space (not two hours like before) (see Man of Steel 113, page 8, panel 4).

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This piece is © 2002 by Juan Martin Ponce
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