Superman's Developing Power Set

By | Wednesday, July 22, 2020 Leave a Comment

I had this idea a little while back to do a Twitter thread where I posted each of Superman's powers in the order they were first mentioned/used and the cover of the issue where they first appeared. I thought the idea of not just mentioning what issue a power debuted in, but providing the cover might be interesting to provide some context to the era of comics at the time. I mean, you can say he first displayed the ability to time travel in Superman #141, but I don't think that really registers even with most comics fans. Is that a 1950s story? 1960s? 1970s? By providing the cover and a date, I think it would give folks a visual and chronological reference to what was going on culturally at the time. "Oh, yeah -- 1960, Curt Swan art, middle of the space race. That makes sense." I've seen listings of his powers generally and a handful of "Superman's strangest powers" and that kind of thing, but I hadn't come across anything like what I was thinking of.

So in doing some digging into Superman's powers, I was surprised at how amazingly hard it is to pin down when many of them first appeared. Heat vision, for example. In Superman #59, he tries to look inside a glacier with his x-ray vision, but can't. So he melts the glacier... with "the full strength of my x-ray powers." He uses "the full terrific force of those x-ray eyes" similarly in Action Comics #139 a few months later to burn a wooden bridge. Although he performs the feat again and again, using various descriptions, it's not until Action Comics #275 that it's expressly called heat vision.

Or how about a classic like super speed? Easy, right? It's noted right there on the first page of his first appearance, he can "run faster than an express train." Well, that's not all that fast, honestly. The world record speed for trains in 1938 was 126 miles per hour. (And technically, that record was set after Action Comics #1 had hit the stands!) That's still faster than the fastest human ever recorded -- Usain Bolt's been clocked at 27.8 mile per hour, so Superman's still four and a half times faster than the fastest human ever, and that could qualify as super speed. But Superman later got upgraded to the classic "faster than a speeding bullet" -- which is about 1,800 miles per hour. He was once noted as going Mach 4 -- 2,953 miles per hour. The Flash later stated that Superman was moving at over 7,200,000 miles per hour! So where do we say Superman really started using "super" speed?

So in looking through all that, I decided that with as many caveats and explanations as I'd need to include, it wouldn't really work as a Twitter thread. But since I went to the trouble of tracking down all this anyway, I figured I should post it somewhere. With that said, here's what I pulled together before I threw up my hands and decided this is a job for super-fans!

Super Strength
June 1938

So right there on page one of of the first Superman story, we get several of his powers right out of the gate. Strength is the first mentioned, but he's only cited as being able to "raise tremendous weights." As a point of comparison, it is noted that ants "can support weights hundreds of times its own" and later in the issue, Superman is shown lifting a car, so we're talking in the thousands of pounds range right from the start.
Super Speed
June 1938

See my note above.
June 1938

Still on page one, we get a caption that reads, "nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!" He gets tougher over time, of course, but that's a lot more directionally relevant than anything with regard to his speed.
X-Ray Vision
April 1939

Somewhat out of nowhere, Superman is able to use his "x-ray eyesight" to watch some bad guys from a nearby rooftop. No explanation is provided.
Super Hearing
Fall 1939

Earlier in the year, Superman is described as having "sensitive ears" but not necessarily super. The term "super-hearing" appears in this issue.
Super Breath
August 1939

At first, Superman is noted here as being able to hold his breath for hours underwater. The following year, he uses his breath to extinguish a torch and the year after that, he extinguishes a large fire.
Photographic Memory
Summer 1940

Superman is described as having a photographic memory.
January 1941

Superman is able to revive a drugged boy using hypnosis. This hypnosis power is brought up on occasion later, and is at one point used to explain how no one can tell Clark Kent and Superman are the same person -- that he's basically constantly using a low-grade hypnosis to keep people from making the connection. This idea was later dropped.
May 1941

Initially, Superman could just jump really far. An eighth of a mile (660 feet) according to Action Comics #1! When artist Leo Nowak came on board, though, he mistook the leaps for flights and erroneously drew Superman as if he were flying. That got picked up by the radio show (that's where the "Look, up in the sky!" bit first came from) and later the Fleischer cartoons. But while Superman was shown to be flying around, it was never expressly described as flight in the comics until 1943.
Super Ventriloquism
November 1941

In this issue, Superman only employs "normal" ventriloquism, but as time progresses, his ability improves. He's later able to mimic others' voices precisely and project his voice over huge distances to seem to come from specific places.
Super Language Comprehension
January 1942

OK, this is where things start getting absurd, I think. In this issue, "Superman's advanced intellect instantly comprehends the mermaid's strange language" despite never having heard it before.
March 1947

Here, Superman is able to read an alien's thoughts. This pretty much comes out of nowhere. It's used in a smattering different ways over the ensuing years; but in the past couple of decades, it's been limited to only telepathy among fellow Kryptonians.
March 1947

In the same story as above, Superman disguises himself as one of the aliens by literally molding his own face! This power is almost never seen or used again.
Time Travel
September 1947

This is basically a variation on his super-speed as Superman flies fast enough to crack the time barrier. This is later revised so that he needs to uses The Flash's Cosmic Treadmill, but prior to that, it was how he flipped back and forth between hanging out with his parents in Smallville and the Legion of the Super Heroes in the far future.
Microscopic Vision
June 1950

Superman's optical powers were very roughly handled for the first couple of decades. As noted above, his heat vision was originally part of his x-ray vision, which was sometimes called "telescopic x-ray vision." Here is when Superman uses his eyes like a microscope to examine minute particles.
Spotlight Vision
April 1952

This one is rarely used, but Superman here uses his eyes to project light, like a set of car headlines. This kind of makes sense as extension of his heat vision -- instead of lasers, he's just broadening the beam and reducing the intensity.
Super Mini-Proxy
November 1958

Superman temporarily gains the ability to project rainbows out of his hands which materialize a miniature version of himself that he's able to command. I'm pretty sure this power has never been used outside this one issue.
Energy Consumption
November 1959

It's noted here that Superman can consume a virtually endless supply of food. It's later explained as his body being able to process energy remarkably efficiently.
Super Weaving
February 1960

Here again, it's basically just his super-speed while he's weaving. But he actually calls it out as its own power in the story.
Super Sneezing
Februrary 1961

The less said, the better.
Heat Vision
April 1961

See my notes at the top of this post.
Memory Wiping Kiss
November 1963

This bit always bugged me from the movies. Kissing someone to make them forget what they just saw/experienced. "Where the hell did that come from," I thought. Well, evidently here. Clark Kent kisses Lois Lane in order to make her forget he's Superman. He actually calls it a "super-kiss" in the story.
Super Healing
March 1978

If Superman is invulnerable, how does he have super healing? It's only speculated in this issue, but there's the overt suggestion that if Superman sustains any injuries while he's de-powered (thanks to red kryptonite, for example) his body will heal itself extraordinarily fast once his powers return. This is shown most explicitly in The Dark Knight Returns #4 when he regrows his entire body from a skeleton after a nuclear explosion.
Tactile Telekinesis
November 1980

Superman can exhibit telekinesis -- moving things using only the power of his mind -- but only if he's touching them. How does that make any sense, you ask? This is basically a retroactive power given to explain how Superman can lift an entire building without it collapsing on itself.
December 2001

This is another variation of super-speed. A classic maneuver used by The Flash, Superman is likewise able to vibrate his body fast enough to allow objects to pass through him.
Solar Flare
April 2015

Superman's able to discharge virtually all the energy within him to create what amounts to a solar flare, incinerating everything in quarter mile. This leaves him powerless for about 24 hours afterwards while his body recharges.
Kinetic Energy Punch
April 2016

This is kind of similar to the solar flare in that he's able to release a large amount of his internal energy, but it's channeled through his fist as motion, resulting in an even-more-powerful-than-usual-for-him punch.

I've undoubtedly missed some of Superman's powers here, and I may have not found prior instances of his exhibiting some of these, but I think seeing it in this setup is a more interesting approach than many others I've come across.

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