In 1933, two high school students in Cleveland started a story about an alien living in disguise on Earth. They named it The Superman. For a few years they worked to capture this story on paper, as they refined and illustrated and edited. The alien took on a personality and backstory: To hide its great abilities this creature does its best to appear human and live peacefully among us, only risking detection to help those in need. The boys sold the story rights in 1938 for $130 to a comic book publisher and saw the first issue in print later that year.
The books were a critical success with its target audience of young boys. In the first few published chapters, Superman saved some trapped coal miners and met his future wife. He investigated corruption in the Senate and stopped a war. He became the first superhero- a word which came to mean someone who has incredible talents and chooses to use them to help people.
As the story now belonged to a publishing company with deadlines, the writing and drawing duties were shared by several individuals. The young men who created the story did most of the work at first, and other talents were brought in over time. The Superman became a communal tale, told by many voices and imagined by many hands. Every month a new chapter was added to the story and shared with the world.
After a year of success, the company added a second comic book featuring Superman. The next year came a newspaper comic strip and then a serial radio show. The Superman’s abilities started to steadily grow more fantastical- he started out leaping tall buildings, then he could clear city blocks, then one day he could fly. Before long the bank robbers didn’t seem so intimidating- more demanding challenges were needed. The radio show contributed the concept of a meteoroid from the alien’s home planet that saps its strength, and the story marched on.
For decades this story raged unchecked, branching and multiplying and spreading through the world. It was entrusted to dozens of creators- hundreds! Each added a unique element to the narrative. The alien fought armies, moved moons, changed jobs; even died (he got better). Once he squared off against Muhammad Ali in a boxing match for some reason. There were television shows, movies, novels, cartoons. All equally valid parts of the story, all unfolding this same tale. The original young readers grew up and introduced the fable to their children, who began to contribute as well.
Eventually contradictions arose that demanded resolution. One writer indicated that the alien and his wife had met as children, another that they met for the first time as adults. Deeper problems than that came with time. If The Superman fought in World War II, wouldn’t his coworkers notice that he hasn’t aged? For that matter, why haven’t they? Clever writers set about to fix these irregularities using untraditional plot devices such as multiple universes, malleable timelines, magic spells. The story became self-healing and never missed a beat.
The legend of The Superman is still unfolding and I expect it always will. Sprawling, complex, evolutionary. Has there ever been anything like this?