For Carl Jung, the hero was “the sum total of all archetypes,” and therefore the most potent symbol of man’s unconscious self. “What we seek in visible human form,” wrote Jung, “is not man, but the superman, the hero or god, the quasi-human being who symbolizes the ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mould the soul.” In Man and His Symbols–which borders on being a picture-book compilation of Jung’s theories–several visual examples of the hero are given: Achilles with the centaur Chiron, Arthur with the wizard Merlin, Gilgamesh (from ancient Sumer), and Samson. Who’s representing the United States in this pantheon? Rescuing a damsel in distress, a muscular man in blue tights and red cape: Superman!

Actually, I’ve had to “colorize” the Man of Steel in my imagination–in fact the black-and-white reproduction may indicate how little input Jung actually had in selecting the illustrations for Man and His Symbols (which he was coediting when he died in 1961). Jung thought the colors red and blue were symbolic of man’s outer and inner selves, and it is unlikely he would have passed up the chance to include a full-color rendition of a hero who fused those opposites in a colorful crime-fighting costume.

It is very likely, however, that Jung would have chosen Superman as the representative American hero. Almost 50 years after its first telling–in the premiere issue of Action Comics–the story of Superman still stirs excitement. A friend recently showed his preschool class the first of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. The class whispered and fidgeted during the long exposition of Superman’s origins but grew silent as soon as Lois Lane, trapped in a helicopter, seemed about to plunge to her death. When mild-mannered Clark Kent rushed for cover to transform himself into Lois’s savior, every boy in the class mirrored Kent’s actions. They pulled open their shirts and thrust out their chests to reveal to startled female classmates a host of imagined red S’s, the symbol of hidden powers.

Nor is this identification with Superman confined to the young. When DC Comics announced its intention last year to update its most popular hero, the New York Times ran an editorial on the subject. They made the “passionate suggestion” that Clark Kent–with whom the editors felt a deep “kinship” even though, in the 70s, he had become a TV reporter–be made a writer of editorials. Columnist Russell Baker hoped Kent might be made a columnist, and though the “famous blue hair may be turning a little purple at the temples,” offered to give Superman a few pointers so he’d be prepared to go “up against columnists like the demonic Evans and Novak, the wily Safire, the swashbuckling Buchwald, the canny Reston, the devastating Royko.”

But a symbol must transcend not only age differences but national boundaries. And here again Superman meets the test. In 1942, enraged at how the Man of Steel was “aiding” the Allies’ war efforts, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels interrupted a meeting of the Reichstag by screaming “Superman is a Jew!” And more than 30 years after that, the Italian writer Primo Levi–himself a survivor of Hitler’s death camps–expressed a longing to break free of his duties “toward society . . . and verisimilitude” by imagining “the boundless freedom of invention of one who has broken through the barrier and is now free to build himself the past that suits him best, to stitch around him the garments of a hero and fly like Superman across centuries, meridians, and parallels.” (Levi committed suicide last April by flinging himself down a stairwell.)

Clearly, then, this refugee from the planet Krypton–who was, after all, only the mid-Depression projection of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two pals from Cleveland–is entitled to wear the mantle of an American hero. So as DC Comics and its readers gear up for Superman’s 50th birthday in 1988, it is disturbing to hear someone’s been tinkering with the boy in blue.

It began with Crisis on Infinite Earths–the title of the 1985 12-part DC series. This was the ultimate showdown between the forces of light and darkness, a battle that spanned several parallel universes. In the process, certain familiar DC characters–or versions of those characters, existing at other levels of time and space–were killed, altered, or became “retroactively non-existent.” If you haven’t looked at a comic book in 20 years and never at Einstein, this could be a little confusing, but suffice to say that good once again triumphed over evil, if only for the moment.

The Crisis not only made for good drama but for what the cynical might regard as some great marketing gimmicks. Crisis set the stage for the much-heralded 1986 revamping of Superman, and both Wonder Woman and the Flash were “reborn.” (Barry Allen, the alter ego of the second Flash, was killed off, along with Supergirl, during the Crisis.) DC even began renumbering revived characters’ comic books. For instance, the last issue of Superman to feature the old version of that character was no. 423, but once a six-part Man of Steel “mini-series” introduced the new Superman, it was followed by issue no. 1.

Of course, a new generation will revise a myth to suit its needs. And Superman is no stranger to change. When he first appeared in Action in June 1938–to solve the murder of one Jack Kennedy–Superman was often crudely drawn and had only a fraction of the powers he possesses today. Although he could hurdle skyscrapers or leap an eighth of a mile, he was not yet able to actually fly. And while bullets bounced off his chest, “a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.”

The character, an immediate success, quickly spun off his own magazine, a daily comic strip, and a radio show. (Action Comics bought the rights from Siegel and Shuster early on.) From 1941 to 1943, Superman also appeared in a series of animated cartoon adventures by Max and Dave Fleischer, creators of Popeye and Betty Boop. Now available on videocassettes, these 17 short features are some of the most successful and visually exciting treatments of the Man of Steel. Through these various media, Superman evolved into the superhero we recognize today. He acquired the power of flight, greater strength and invulnerability, and heat and X-ray vision. The triangular, red-and-yellow shield that occasionally appeared on his chest developed into the stylized S enclosed in a pentagon that is now a registered trademark of DC Comics.

Lois Lane, who had appeared in the first story, was soon joined by coworkers Perry White and Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet (originally the Daily Star), and a variety of supervillains–the chief of them Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor–were created to challenge Superman’s extraordinary powers. Sometimes the development of the myth was a bit random. When Bud Collyer, the actor who portrayed Superman and Clark Kent on radio, went on vacation, the writers came up with a deadly radioactive element–Kryptonite–to explain why the Man of Steel was reduced to unintelligible moans for two weeks. Two Columbia movie serials (1948 and 1950) starring Kirk Alyn, and a feature film (1952) and TV series, The Adventures of Superman (1951-1957), added additional shadings to the Superman story. (One tragic outcome of the TV series was the 1959 suicide of its 45-year-old star, George Reeves, who killed himself not in an attempt to prove he actually was Superman, as rumor had it at the time, but because casting directors could envision him as nobody else.)

The 1970s brought the first attempts to “modernize” Superman, as DC sought to overcome the inroads its chief competitor, Marvel Comics, was making on its audience. The major change was akin to making Babe Ruth a football star: Clark Kent became a TV reporter. This variation, greeted with dismay by most purists, is rather inexplicable given the success of Superman: The Movie (1978), a faithful rendition of the traditional story.

But the alterations of the 70s cannot compare, at least in ballyhoo, with DC’s current attempts to “streamline” the Superman legend with a new team of writers and artists, the most notable of whom, John Byrne, made his reputation at Marvel drawing Spider-Man and the Hulk (Marvel’s big sellers). In an afterword Byrne wrote for the six-part series that appeared at the end of 1986, he said DC hoped “to pare away some of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the company’s flagship title . . . [and] make Superman of today as exciting in his own right as was that primal Superman of yesterday.” Byrne also claimed that the magazine was renumbered because he demanded “the pure ego-boost of a new first issue.”

And what of the new, improved Superman? If it weren’t for all the hype, a casual reader would be unlikely to note the difference. The six-part Man of Steel series (available now in one volume) closely follows the time-honored story line, recounting Superman’s origins and his adoption by Ma and Pa Kent and setting up his relations with such familiar characters as Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. Clark has been turned back into a newspaper reporter on the Daily Planet–and he also writes novels on the side. Superman’s powers, particularly his strength, have been reduced–“he will have to sweat a bit to get the job done,” according to DC executive editor Dick Giordano–which often prompts Supe to “work through the pain.” Perhaps the Man of Steel will produce the next workout video.

The most startling changes have occurred not in Superman but in his alter ego, Clark Kent. In fact, for all practical purposes, there is no longer a Superman, only Kent. “Superman isn’t real,” Clark tells Ma and Pa. “He’s just a fancy pair of long johns that lets me operate in public without losing my private life.” It’s a subtle distinction, but whereas in the past Clark was Superman’s secret identity, today the reverse is true. And much of the conflict in these new adventures doesn’t concern Superman’s titanic battles but Clark’s attempts to balance his alien origins against his human emotions–leading him to such statements as: “It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human.”

All this has the melodramatic flair of soap opera, as do the new, interconnected plot lines that spin out interminably across issue after issue. If fans wanted to follow every installment of the recently concluded Millennium series (of course Crisis had a follow-up) featuring all the heroes of the DC universe, they had to spend more than $40 for 45 different comics during an eight-week period. But melodrama, always a staple of comic books, can be enjoyable when it’s backed up with solid artistry, as the new Superman episodes are. What is dismaying is that Clark Kent, when he’s finally allowed to step out of Superman’s shadow, emerges as little more than a cross between Don Johnson and Howdy Doody. Unshaven and apple-cheeked, Clark strolls (or jogs) ingenuously through life; and his primary pleasures seem to be meeting girls and having his slicked-back hair tousled by Ma.

There are plenty of women interested in the new Clark. The now brown-haired and anorexic Lois Lane, who finds Clark “hard to resist,” still dislikes him–not, as of old, because he is a weakling (he no longer is) but because he beat her to the “story of the century,” the first interview with Superman. There is the redheaded Lana Lang, Clark’s high school girlfriend from Smallville who is privy to his dual identity. (“You can never belong to one woman,” Lana informs Clark. “You’re Superman. And Superman belongs to the world.”) Catherine Grant, the Daily Planet’s new blond gossip columnist, thinks Clark’s novels are “scrumptious” and their author “the hunkiest hunk of all.” And then there is the blue-haired goddess Wonder Woman, about whom Clark has been having some rather provocative dreams.

DC’s sales have in fact increased. But has the character of Superman been revitalized? The critic Max Lerner insisted that a society’s “basic myth-making needs arise from the people themselves.” It would seem that in this instance the situation has been reversed: the Superman myth, instead of evolving naturally, has undergone a wholesale reshaping by proprietors seeking only their own profit, not readers’ gratification. One wonders whether any process so rational and manipulative can meet unconscious needs; this may be the toughest test yet faced by the Man of Steel.

Superman, The Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics, DC Comics Inc., 75 cents each.

The Man of Steel by John Byrne, DC Comics Inc. (also available in February 1988 from Ballantine Books), $12.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.