Superman's 50th birthday cake.

Happy 78th Birthday to Superman: February 29, 2016

Exclusive Article by Brian McKernan

February 29th is Superman’s birthday. Now, before you post an angry rebuttal that Superman’s birthday is definitely not February 29th, but instead some other date clearly specified in an important comic book story or television episode, please note the following from the late Barry Freiman, a Superman historian:

“The idea that Superman’s birthday is February 29 initially began as a lark. DC editors explained tongue-in-cheek in comic book letter columns that Superman remained eternally youthful because he was born on Leap Day, February 29, which occurs only once every four years.

“When DC celebrated Superman’s 50th anniversary in 1988, they treated February 29 as the Man of Steel’s birth date. Even a Time magazine cover story (March 14, 1988 cover dated magazine) commemorating the 50th anniversary (with a cover by John Byrne) declared for all of America that Superman’s birthday is February 29.”

So there you have it. Except for one more detail. The party that I and so many others (including Mr. Freiman) attended back in 1988 was actually held on Friday, February 26th. Then-president and publisher of DC Comics Jenette Kahn explained why that date was chosen in the official press kit her company issued:

“The Earth equivalent of Superman’s Kryptonian birthday is actually February 29th, 1988. But we’re having the party on Friday the 26th because it’s not a school night.”

As for all the many other valid dates for Superman’s birthday, please read this excellent essay.

No matter what date you claim, however, let’s all agree on this: We’re all very glad that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented Superman in the first place. And we’re grateful that so many talented people have contributed to telling his stories during the past 78 years. As Christopher Reeve once said:

“[Superman is] such an accurate psychological model. You’re combining basic fantasy with everyday reality, and it’s an unbeatable combination. What person has not dreamt of flying and freedom and power and all those things, yet had to face the 9-to-5 work world that we all really live in? It’s a strong visual mass-media representation of something that goes on in every citizen of Western culture, really. That sort of dilemma of ‘How do I function as an individual in a society where I feel like a mouse?’ He was the first and the truest.”

Happy birthday, Superman!

Text and images are © Copyright 2016 by Brian McKernan and used with the permission of the author.

Superman's 50th logo.

Remembering Superman’s Fiftieth Birthday in 1988

Exclusive Article by Brian McKernan

Twenty-eight years ago this week, I attended Superman’s 50th birthday party, in New York City. It was three days before Superman’s “official” birthday of February 29th, but as then-President and Publisher of DC Comics Jenette Kahn explained it, “We’re having the party on Friday the 26th because it’s not a school night. We’ve waited a long time for this event. And while for us mere mortals, reaching our 50th year can be a shock, it is truly wonderful to know that Superman will go on and on.”

DC Comics actually held three consecutive 50th birthday parties for Superman on the evening of February 26, 1988. Each was 70 minutes long (at 6, 7:30, and 9pm) and the location was Manhattan’s historic Puck Building. It was an appropriate venue, having been the home of Puck magazine from 1876 to 1918. Puck was a weekly publication of political cartoons and the ancestor of the modern comic book. The building’s large galleries were well-suited to containing the sold-out Superman birthday party crowds.

Tickets to each party cost $12 for adults and $6 for children (age 12 and under). For each ticket sold DC Comics donated $1.00 to the National Foster Parent Association. (“Superman,” Kahn noted during the proceedings, “is the world’s most famous foster child.”) Souvenir and licensed commemorative items were also sold at the party, with net proceeds donated to the NFPA. In addition to Kahn, DC Comics notables attending included editor emeritus Julius “Julie” Schwartz, artist Curt Swan, today’s President and Publisher Paul Levitz, and New York City’s then-mayor Ed Koch. The event was produced by master showman Robert F. Jani. Ironically, none of the three Superman actors alive at that time (the serials’ Kirk Alyn, Broadway’s Bob Holiday, or the movies’ Chris Reeve) were there in person, but Superman was nevertheless present, projected onto large video screens in the form of excerpts from the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons, the serials, the George Reeves TV series, and the Chris Reeve movies.

Each attendee received a Superman Birthday party coupon book good for Superman peanuts, Superman pretzels, an Armour hot dog, an Orangina soft drink, a Hostess Twinkie snack cake, and a Polaroid photo with a Superman or Lois Lane cutout figure. Each Hostess Twinkie snack cake was packaged in its own small box. Thousands of these were stacked, brick-like, to build what resembled a giant Superman birthday cake. Elsewhere, a piece of Kryptonite, the Bottled City of Kandor, and a bent crowbar were displayed on pedestals as Superman artifacts. CNN reporter Jeanie Moss was on hand with a cameraman and filed a TV report that aired that night.

The party was but one event in Superman’s year-long 1988 fiftieth anniversary celebration, which also included an exhibit at Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of American History and a CBS one-hour Superman retrospective broadcast on February 29th (you can see it on Disc 7 of Warner Home Video’s Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD).

Onstage at the February 26, 1988 party, a “Superman Celebration” musical revue featured Broadway-style singing and dancing by a group calling itself The Entertainment Company and young dancers known as Kids 2 Go. No Superman-specific songs were performed; instead The Entertainment Company sang a medley of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” and similar fare. Kids 2 Go then took the stage with an a cappella rendition of the John Williams theme, followed by a group chant:

“It’s Superman!

Being fans of Superman is what we’re all about!

He fights for peace and justice; he knows that truth wins out!

He’s our superhero; he’s what we want to be!

I always feel like Superman is right inside of me!

We gotta listen to his message; let’s cheer throughout the land!

Wish him Happy Birthday! We love you Su-per-man!”

The Kids 2 Go youngsters then danced 1988-era hip-hop to several spirited numbers, displaying remarkable talent despite their tender years.

As their performance concluded I mingled in the crowd and spied Julie Schwartz, who I had met three years earlier when I visited DC Comics to pitch them on a Superman 50th anniversary book. DC passed on my proposal but I spent an enjoyable half-hour with Julie as he showed me his First Fandom scrapbook from the early days (mid-1930’s) of modern science fiction. I greeted Julie and took my little Sony tape recorder from my pocket. Here’s a transcript of the interview…

McKernan: How far back does your career with Superman go?

Schwartz: Well actually two days ago I started my 45th year with DC Comics. But I took over the editing of Superman in 1971 until last year. I guess that’s about 17 years of editing Superman. When I took over Superman I did a lot of things that were done by John Byrne revitalizing Superman–decreasing his strength, making him more lovable, and so on.

McKernan: You made him a television reporter.

Schwartz: Yeah, but that didn’t work out, did it? Very few people know that when Mario Puzo did the first screenplay of the Superman movie—and he came up to the office, did a lot of research, and talked to me—the first screenplay of the movie had Clark Kent as a television reporter.

McKernan: Really?

Schwartz: What happened is they decided to do sort of a ‘man on the street’ and they went around asking people ‘Who is Clark Kent?’ And everyone said ‘He’s a reporter for the Daily Planet’ And so they said ‘I think we made a mistake’ and they re-wrote the script, taking him out of the television and putting him back as a reporter.

McKernan: What do you think has made Superman last for 50 years?

Schwartz: Well, we all identify with Superman. We all identify with Clark Kent and secretly hope we someday could be Superman and do those heroic things that he does. We can lash out at our tormentors and get even with our schoolteachers and all the bullies that kick sand in our face. You know, Superman was the original double-identity theme as far as comics, but was of course borrowed from other sources—Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and so on.”

McKernan: Do you think Superman will be around 50 years from now?

Schwartz: Well, he’ll be around, I’ll try to be around. Fair enough. I think he will. Many people say there are three fictional characters who are known worldwide. One is Superman, one is Sherlock Holmes, and one is Tarzan. No matter where you go in the world they all know these three people. So Superman is that popular, he’s going to hang around.

McKernan: It must make you feel very proud to have worked on a character like that.

Schwartz: Sure does. And people come over to me out of nowhere, pass me on the street and say ‘Can I have your autograph?’ It makes me feel good.

(Julie Schwartz passed away on February 8, 2004.)

Our attention was then diverted back to the stage as Jenette Kahn introduced then-Mayor Ed Koch, who told the crowd:

“To be celebrating Superman’s birthday together is very special. How old is he?” “Fifty!” they responded.

“But how old does he look?” Koch added.

“Twenty!” agreed the onlookers.

“Superman is like Peter Pan, he never grows old,” Koch continued. “And he’s always there to protect the citizens of Metropolis. There is no crime that goes unpunished in Metropolis. Would that there were a Superman that I could have here in the city to protect us from crime. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

After the cheering subsided, Koch concluded: “So let’s say to Superman, May you live to 120, Superman!”

He’s now at 70 years and counting as of Friday February 29th, 2008, Mr. Mayor. Happy Birthday yet again, Superman.

Text and images are © Copyright 2016 by Brian McKernan and used with the permission of the author.

Superman's 50th birthday cake.

DC Comics’ Official Superman 50th Anniversary Press Release

Milton Glaser created the 1976 DC Comics logo that many of us grew up with in the 1970s. He also designed Superman’s 50th birthday logo seen below. Images courtesy of Brian McKernan.

Superman's 50th birthday cake.

The Smithsonian Institution’s ‘Superman, Many Lives, Many Worlds’

Brian McKernan attended this 50th anniversary exhibition, ‘Superman, Many Lives, Many Worlds’, at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1988. Featured here are some of his photos (more to come next year). Be sure to visit Supermania’s excellent coverage of this event here and here.

Photographs are © Copyright 2016 by Brian McKernan and used with the permission of the author.

Superman's 50th birthday cake.

Superman’s 50th Birthday in Advertising and Media

Please enjoy these miscellaneous Superman 50th birthday files. Be sure to open the file (a floating box will appear), right click to save it to your computer, and then open it in your favorite viewer to enjoy it full size and be able to more easily read the copy. Many more 50th birthday files will be added to the gallery in the future.

Check out the UK Midweek magazine article here.

You may have noticed that some of the images on this page are marked with a “SAM” logo (see it below). “SAM” stands for “Superman in Advertising and Media”, which will be launched later this year as a dedicated webpage here on showcasing a variety of rare and unique images from the collection of Brian McKernan. Stay tuned!

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