A promotional effort by Gillette to tie into the movie “Man of Steel” sees several famous figures, including actor Kevin Smith and children’s science show host Bill Nye the Science Guy, analyze a “long-standing” question: how does Superman shave?
I put “long-standing” in quotes because it’s not the case in the original comics source material. Granted, things have changed over the years, but it’s been dealt with. However, appearances of Clark with a rather thick beard in previews for “Man of Steel” and the Gillette campaign has had the internet abuzz about how Clark can possibly shave an invulnerable beard. Much of the buzz seems to be among non-superhero comic fans, or those who haven’t seen much recent Superman media.
Golden and Silver Age comics
Originally, Golden Age and early Silver Age comics ignored the issue of Superman’s shaving habits. Superman simply didn’t have a beard, and that was that. No letter columns until the late 50s or so also would’ve dissuaded such question-asking by fans. The occasional story did see the “someone tries to cut Clark’s invulnerable hair with scissors” bit. A 1959 Superboy story (“Superboy” #76) has Clark mention his hair simply doesn’t get excessively long.
The first possible look at Superman and shaving I can think of might be “Action Comics” #262, from March 1960. This is a landmark issue for the Supergirl story in the comic; it’s the first mention of the famous “yellow-sun” origin of Kryptonian superpowers. However, the lead story in question here might have served as a lead-in to the yellow-sun revelation.
In “When Superman Lost His Powers,” we see Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and Perry end up trapped in an alternate dimension for several days, where Clark discovers he’s powerless. Though unstated why, we see in the background the dimension has a red sun. As Superman explains to Supergirl in her story in this comic, red suns render anyone from Krypton powerless. This is because only yellow suns contain “ultra solar rays” that somehow enable the usual superpowers in Kryptonians.
While earlier comics had differing explanations for Superman’s powers, the yellow-sun explanation’s been the one that’s stood up to this day. There’s been some minor changes in said explanation over the years; one example is Byrne’s “living solar battery” in his origin revamp. There’s also been variations in whether Earth’s lesser gravity also plays into his powers, and if so by how much.
With this new weakness also came emphasis on the idea that Superman doesn’t grow a beard (or his hair in general) at all due to being under a yellow sun. Thus, explaining why he doesn’t need to shave or get haircuts. “Action” #262 shows Clark noticing his whiskers growing after the group spends a day or so in the red-sun dimension. This prompts Mr. Kent to take action, as the included panel above shows.
Later comics continued to mention that Superman’s beard will only grow while powerless under a red sun, or in an otherwise weakened state. “Acton Comics” #300 showed Clark with a five o’clock shadow while stranded on the red-sun Earth of the far future. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing story in “DC Comics Presents” #85 showed Clark with beard growth, thanks to his sickly/weakened state. Clark would usually take time to shave before fully recovering or returning to a yellow-sun world.
“Superman” #139 (August 1960) shows Superman using heat vision (or “the heat of his x-ray vision”) to shave for possibly the first time. In the story, red kryptonite gives him super-hard-and-long hair and nails. However, his own heat vision fails to work here, so Supergirl and Krypto’s combined heat vision does the job.
With Kal-El’s powering-down from pre-Crisis power levels in Byrne’s 1986 “Man of Steel” reboot came the idea of having Superman’s hair grow even under a yellow sun. This also let Byrne come up with the idea of Clark “shaving” via burning the hair off with his heat vision; said heat vision was reflected off of a piece of the Kryptonian rocket that brought him to Earth.
This method of shaving’s largely stood up until the present day; it’s also one of the Byrne mythos contributions to not get retconned away or ignored by later writers. It seems to have survived into the New 52 (from its pre-New 52 Superman losing his beard…long story).
We also see Clark shaving in such a manner (though with an apparently ordinary bathroom mirror) in the 90s TV cartoon “Superman: The Animated Series.”
The answer to Gillette’s (and others’) questions is that his hair either doesn’t grow at all under a yellow sun (in older comics) or that he uses his heat vision to shave (in modern comics). Not sure why the massive online “debate” when there’s already an answer, but there you go.
If anyone has an earlier example of Superman shaving than “Action Comics” #262, feel free to let me know.