Among the lesser things debated about last year’s movie “Man of Steel” was a scene where a young Clark is wearing a red towel, pretending to be a superhero like many young children. However, various people asked: if Clark’s the world’s first superhero, then how can he pretend to be a superhero as a kid? And if so, what hero was he emulating?
I’ll look at each era of comics below. However, my overall answer is that while Clark’s the first “real world” superhero, there were various (in-universe) fictional heroes that would’ve served as inspiration when setting up his super-career. There’s also other factors depending on continuity (including actual heroes preceding Clark in some versions).
As the world’s first superhero, Superman started his career after the deaths of John and Mary Kent and moving to Metropolis; there, he started working for the “Daily Star” newspaper.
There isn’t much revealed about Clark’s pre-“Action Comics” #1 youth. However, I’m under the impression Clark made his costume himself, given he started his career after the Kents’ deaths. Like in real life, Clark’s costume might’ve been influenced by the circus performers (and circus “strong men”) of the day, who would’ve worn such colorful costumes.
In real life, comic strip heroes like the Phantom (who pre-dated Supes by a a few years) and Popeye the Sailor (a hero with vast strength), as well as pulp characters like Doc Savage, also were likely influences on Superman’s creation. Perhaps on Earth-2, Clark grew up reading their adventures in Smallville’s newspaper.
One more influence, albeit via a retcon, came from 1981’s “New Adventures of Superboy” #15 and 16. The story sees Superboy of Earth-1 accidentally wind up on Earth-2 in the 1930s, where he meets Earth-2’s teenaged Clark Kent (and John and Mary Kent). Superboy gets back home, after a brief attempt at training Clark in his powers. The story shows Clark was considering joining the circus, and almost does so, which might lend credence to the circus costume notion. Of course, actually meeting his Earth-1 counterpart would’ve been an influence as well—at least as far as “what to make his costume look like.”
So for Kal-L, his influences might’ve been the same ones as in real life that led Siegel and Shuster to create him (circus strongmen, the Phantom, Doc Savage, etc.); there’s also that fateful meeting with Earth-1’s Superboy.
Earth-1/Silver and Bronze Age
On Earth-1, Clark began his superhero career in childhood as Superboy; Ma Kent created his costume from the indestructible blankets that brought him to Earth. As for what might’ve inspired Clark and his parents?
Fans will recall on Earth-1, the Golden Age superheroes of the Justice Society were just fictional characters on Earth-1; Barry “The Flash” Allen was a big fan of Jay Garrick and company’s adventures. Since DC Comics exists on Earth-1 (and other Earths), it’s probably not too far off to assume Clark (or even Ma and Pa Kent) read the Justice Society’s adventures as well. Ditto Fawcett Comics’ own Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, whose books existed on Earth-1 as well. Yes, Earth-1’s Superman could’ve been influenced by his own “imitation!”
Besides the JSAers, the Phantom, Popeye, and Doc Savage likely also had their adventures published in comics, pulp novels, etc. on Earth-1. There’d also be animated superheroes as well; however, which ones depends on what point on Earth-1’s sliding timeline Clark debuted as Superboy. Mighty Mouse, created in 1942, would certainly be such a superhero; I’ll assume the JSA/other heroes influenced Earth-1’s Terrytoons, versus a not-yet-existing Superboy/Superman.
The very end of the Bronze Age—at the time of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”—would’ve seen Superboy’s debut shift to the mid-60s (always being about 20 years behind the “present”). Thus, along with all of the above, another influence could be the earliest Marvel superhero comics like the Fantastic Four (debuted in 1961) or Spider-Man (debuted in 1962). That is, assuming Marvel comics exist in the DC Universe; DC’s gone back and forth about that during the various cross-company crossovers over the years.
So for Earth-1’s Superman, his superhero influences would be, like fellow hero the Flash, the (fictional) adventures of the Justice Society, as well as Captain Marvel, various comic strip heroes (the Phantom, Popeye, etc.), and even animated superheroes like Mighty Mouse, plus (at the very end of the Bronze Age) the long-shot possibility of the earliest Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man.
With the JSA and JLA now coexisting on the same Earth, this one gets somewhat different. Superman became the first hero to debut in the modern age, decades after the JSA’s heyday. Thus, Clark’s influences were more direct—with actual superheroes preceding him by decades that Clark, Ma and Pa Kent would’ve read about or even recall.
Meanwhile, other fictional heroes would’ve still existed; there’s the aforementioned Phantom, Popeye, and Mighty Mouse. There’s maybe (depending on DC editorial’s mood) also the Marvel superheroes. Captain Marvel, of course, now coexists on the same Earth as Supes, with his debut well after Superman’s.
So for post-Crisis Superman, it’s primarily the Justice Society as living historical heroes.
The New 52
The 2011 New 52 reboot once more returns Superman to being the world’s first superhero. The JSAers are once more relegated to Earth-2; however, they don’t seem to be called the “Justice Society” and have been de-aged, among other gratuitous changes. Clark’s superhero debut came “five years ago” in the New 52’s super-compressed timeline. Similar to the Golden Age, Clark began his career as an adult, while creating his (awful Lil’ Abner-like) costume himself. The Kents (once more) are deceased by the time of Clark’s superhero debut.
Since this version of Clark would’ve grown up in the 90s and 00s, I assume his influences could include characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, and the Power Rangers. There’s also still older characters like Popeye, Mighty Mouse, and even Underdog (despite Sweet Polly being a Lois Lane pastiche). Depending again on DC’s editorial mood, even the Marvel characters could’ve been an influence. (A Clark that grew up with the Spider-Clone saga?) Like post-Crisis, Captain Marvel—er, “Shazam”—is a contemporary successor hero.
Given the changes to the JSA characters, I assume there’s no Justice Society comics (or those resembling such) on the “Prime Earth” of the New 52. No, I don’t know what influenced Barry Allen (over in Flash) otherwise either, if not Jay Garrick. (Well, besides the cynical “death of his mother motivating him to fight crime” retcon recently added). Maybe Barry grew up reading comics about the Terrific Whatzit?
So for the New 52 Superman, his superhero influences are likely random non-DC heroes and superheroes seen in TV and movies (TMNT, Power Rangers, etc.); there’s also perhaps older characters like Popeye, Mighty Mouse, and Underdog. There’s also the long-shot possibility of Marvel superheroes, as well.
The “Lois and Clark” TV show had Clark once note (after being shrunken) that he felt like “Mighty Mouse.” Which’d support the above idea of Mighty Mouse as an influence, assuming Mighty’s not a present-day creation in the L&C Universe.
Overall, seeing little Clark pretend to be a superhero in Superman movies shouldn’t be a head-scratcher; there’d be plenty of heroes/superheroes a young Clark Kent could pretend to be. Said characters’ cultural influences would surely also be on Clark and/or the Kents’ minds when crafting Clark’s superhero identity.