Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Old Is Superman?

Here's an oddity that consistently pops up in the Superman family of magazines. I'd guess that whatever age we thought Superman was when we were kids, nowadays we'd put him in his mid-late 20s at the youngest. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense for him to be much younger than that. For starters, we are always told that Clark is one of the top reporters for the Daily Planet, a major metropolitan newspaper. It is often mentioned that he has won numerous prizes for his reporting, and it is clear that he was graduated from Metropolis University, which means that he could not have started his career much before age 22.

However, there are problems. In the advertisements for Lois Lane #1, they gave her age:

Okay, so let's assume that maybe Clark/Superman is a little older than Lois. This makes some sense; it explains why he seems less interested in her than she is in him. It also might explain her frequently zany antics and risk-taking behavior.

But even this solution has its drawbacks. For starters, it was established in the early Superman stories that Lois was a reporter at the Planet before Clark arrived there. And indeed, there are several Silver Age stories that confirm this. For example, in Superman #133, there's a story that tells how Clark got his job at the Planet, including this scene:

So maybe Clark earned his chops at some smaller newspaper, before going to work in the big city? That's arguable, but the problem is that there are many stories which establish that Lois and he are the same age (or at least very close). For example, in Superboy #90, there's a story about how Lana was able to look into the future and observe the "romance" between Superman and Lois Lane. So she visits nearby Pittsdale (Lois' hometown) and attempts to sabotage prevent her from becoming a reporter:

But if Lana (who is the same age as Clark) is a high-schooler at the same time as Lois is, then Clark cannot be more than a couple of years older than Lois. And there are other stories which establish that they are actually the same age. For example, consider this famed story, from Adventure #128:

In addition, there is another story where Clark is shown as reasonably the same age as this young woman:

And yet, Clark is shown as meeting up with her in Metropolis years later, after he and Lois are reporters, and she is not yet 21!

So the conclusion seems obvious. Superman is 21 or 22 years old in the stories we read as kids. But even this causes problems (beyond the question of how he got a prestigious job at such a young age). Consider this letter to the editor from Superboy #68 (October 1958):

Indeed, many of the early letters columns in Superboy complained of such supposed anachronisms. But think about it for a second. World War II had been over for 13 years by then. If Superboy was in high school in the Superboy stories, then he must be at least 13 years old in those tales. Plus 13 years would make him 26+ in the Superman stories. Or looking at it the other way, if he was 22 in the Superman stories, then that would indicate that the Superboy tales were taking place around 1949 or 1950, when the television antennas would not be an anachronism.

But apparently chastened by this reader and others like him, Weisinger was more careful to make sure that Superboy didn't encounter anything too modern. Consider this scene from Adventure #253:

That dates the lecture to no later than mid-1945, or about 13 years before the 1958 publication date. But in the story, Robin the Boy Wonder has come back in time to visit Superboy (as discussed here). Robin appears to be about the same age as Clark Kent in the story. But Robin is often shown driving the Batmobile in Batman stories of the time, which means he must be 15 or 16 at the youngest, which again would place the contemporary Superman at no less than 28 years old.

The conclusion? Superman is somewhere between 21 and 28 years old, depending on the needs of the particular story.


Darius Smith said...

Thanx for this and all your articles here and at NOTHING BUT BATMAN. You just might be a national treasure!

Dean said...

I think that you can narrow it down further.

If he was at most 28 in 1958, then Superman was born after 1930. His birthday was often cited as being on February 29th. So, that places his birth year at 1932, or the only leap year in your range.

Anonymous said...

I have a vague recollection of an old story in which Superman is a write-in candidate for President, only to be disqualified on the basis of his Kryptonian birth--not his age. That would suggest that he's at least 35.

But I think the best answer to your question is: "He's a grown-up." Kids (in my experience, at least) don't usually make strong distinctions between people in their 30's, 40's, 50's, seeing them all as "grown-ups." When my four-year-old nephew was challenged to guess my age, he was off by a full decade.(I won't say which side he erred on!) So it's unlikely that a juvenile reader would have found it odd that a man in his early 20's could be a full-fledged reporter for a major newspaper. --Jim

frasersherman said...

I read an article back in the eighties that argued Silver Age Superman was actually over 30, but I don't remember any of their evidence, darn it (when Julius Schwartz took over, Superman's age became a permanent 29).

rudecherub said...

Great article.

Take a step back to the Golden Age, and I think it's more reasonable to argue Lois is older than Clark.

In fact a young man from the sticks is more likely to have a crush on an older urbane woman, and she would be dismissive of the Okie.

The thing with Superboy being before WWII was the 38 origin was still canon. Thus the DOB or DOA is somewhere around 1918, beginning in Metropolis @ 20 years old.

Allen said...

Wasn't there a story in the 70's where a hippie-type found himself with powers to make anything he wished happened if he only said "please"? If I remember right, he asked for everyone in Metropolis over the age of 30 to leave, and it was specifically stated that Superman was indeed under the age of 30. Now I haven't read the story in years, and may very well be remembering it wrong. Does anyone else remember this story?

Allen Ross said...

In the past, someone posted a "Frequently Asked Questions" response letter that DC used to send out to people who wrote letters to them. This one is undated, but appears to be circa 1968 (due to the membership of the LSH listed, and a reference to younger Kents). Here is what that FAQ letter said:

Allen Ross said...

"In the matter of our characters' ages, we use a good deal of 'poetic license.' This is a common practice in comics and has kept Little Orphan Annie a 'little girl' since 1924. At present, we consider Superman to be about 32. Lois Lane and Lana Lang are a year or two younger. Supergirl was 15 when she came to Earth and is now about 19. Jimmy Olsen is 23. Lucy Lane is 21. Perry White is about 55. Superboy was 2 years old when he arrived on Earth, and his foster parents, the Kents, were in their 30's. Most of our Superboy stories occur when the Boy of Steel is between 14 and 17; they don't always happen in the exact order in which they are published. At this time, Jonathan Kent is about 50, while Martha Kent is a year or two younger. But they appear younger since a serum from another dimension restored their youth."

Allen Ross said...

The story the other Allen is referring to is Action 508 (June 1980), where "Starshine" says "Since you're not over 30 yet.." to Superman (and he had ordered everyone over 30 to leave town, and Superman was otherwise affected by his commands).

Allen said...

Thanks Allen Ross - that is the story I was trying to remember.

Allen Ross said...

Ah, I found the original post about that FAQ (almost 6 years later). It's still here: http://booksteveslibrary.blogspot.com/2005/08/national-comics-no-prize.html

Blaze Morgan said...

I'm surprised. I know the rule of thumb for the post-Crisis Superman is to be "late twenties", but I never considered that for the Silver Age hero. Not going by any text, in story or on letters page, but by the art. Boring and Swan drew a mature man. Barrel chest and physique along with general attitudes always shouted at least mid-30's to me.

Allan said...

I recall reading somewhere that Weisinger considered Superman to be 34. When Schwartz took over he declared Superman to be permanently 29 -- fudging the issue by having February 29th the big guy's birthday so he'd age more slowly than everyone else.

Anonymous said...

In Superman the Motion Picture (1979) Superman's age is as follows. At the time when Clark and Lana are in high school, the football season is going on. The weather appears warm. Thus, it must have been late in the summer or early in the fall. The song "Rock Around the Clock," as performed by Bill Haley and the Comets, is played. That song came out in 1954. Thus, the high school scenes must been in 1954 or up to a few years after that.

Let's call Clark's senior year in high school 1957.

Subsequently Pa Kent died. Clark tells Ma Kent that he is going away "to the north." That must mean that Clark dropped out of high school at the beginning of his senior year.

Clark gets to the far, frozen north, and the Fortress of Solitude is built. His father's image appears. His father tells him that for the next 12 years he will study and learn the knowledge of Krypton and about Earth. His father says that Krypton is in a different galaxy, and that the planet Krypton would have exploded thousands of Earth years ago.

So Kal-El was born thousands of Earth years ago on Krypton. That said, Kal-El's true age as determined by the Theory of Relativity, and his faster than light speed travel. In current science, we do not know what would happen to someone's age should they travel faster than the speed of light, since that is considered impossible. Let's call it a wash and say his age is his actual age as we think it to be.

Let's say that in 1957, when he travels to the north, he is 18. If he had been born on Earth, the year of his birth would have been 1939.

The next scene has Clark in Metropolis, being hired by the Daily Planet. As played by Christopher Reeve, Clark appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s. The fashions, automobiles, dialect, and mannerisms suggest that the setting is in the late 1970s. The film was released in 1979. Let's assume that Clark joins the Daily Planet in 1979.

Thus, Kal-El spent the years between 1957 and 1979 at the Fortress of Solitude, or perhaps doing other things. His father told him it would be 12 years, but it turned out to be 22 years.

That means that in Earth terms, Superman would be about 40 when he starts his adventures. Now, he is not human so he might not age at the same rate as humans.

Anonymous said...

I remember a story from the early '60s. I think Wayne Boring drew it. It was either stated that Superman was 35 or implied. I think Superman had aged to 70, then stated he was twice his age. Don't make me LOOK for that issue!

Now, the 1978 movie. Lex Luthor helpfully tells us that Krypton exploded in 1948. We saw Jor-El and Lara put baby Kal-El into the spaceship. Luthor stated that the ship landed on Earth in 1951. So, Kal-El was about three. That's means the scene where young Clark kicked the football should've been around 1965. Having the radio play "Rock Around the Clock" was very misleading. More appropriately, a Beatles tune should've been featured, or anything from the proper time period.

In "Superman III," we see Clark return to Smallville for his class reunion. I assume he graduated in 1966, then headed north. After about 12 years of study with the Jor-El hologram, Clark donned the uniform and flew away to begin life in Metropolis. He'd be 29 or 30.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the best answer is that "he's a grown-up." When I was 7-12 years old (and that was in the 1960's, during the Silver Age), all adults over 21 and under 60 looked pretty much alike to me.