Superman’s Most Iconic Power Didn’t Come From the Comics

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One of Superman’s most famous abilities is his ability to fly, but it originated in one of his most influential adaptations, not in the comics. Superman is one of the most iconic superheroes in both the DC Comics pantheon and the genre itself, having changed pop culture in his 1938 comic book debut. However, Superman did not appear fully formed on newsstands, and just as his characteristics, enemies, and supporting cast gradually developed, so did his abilities, with one of his most iconic abilities coming from Fleischer Studios animated shorts.

In Superman’s first appearance, his powers were much more modest than what readers and viewers are used to today. Superman’s abilities originally consisted of superhuman strength, speed, and stamina, and although he couldn’t fly, he could jump an eighth of a mile. Later stories will feature abilities such as thermal vision and icy breath, but Superman’s famous vehicles did not make their comic book debut.

Seventeen animated short films about Superman from Fleisher Studios (later renamed Famous Studios) presented Superman’s ability to fly in its first part. The Fleischer brothers were unhappy with how Superman jumping through Metropolis looked in animation, so they contacted DC Comics and asked if they could make Superman fly. With the publisher’s permission, Superman officially took off in 1941’s Mad Scientist, and the Man of Steel’s ability to fly instantly became one of his most famous abilities.

Superman’s ability to fly has been explained in various ways in the comics over the years, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that Kal-El has autonomous control over the gravitational field surrounding his body. This was clearly demonstrated in the 2013 film Man of Steel, where Superman’s first flight touched the rocks and snow around him before he took off. With this explanation in mind, Superman’s incredible and seemingly limitless flight speed follows an internal logic.

Superman’s comic source material is the source of most of his myths, but like many other superheroes, his adaptations also often have a lasting impact. Just as Fleischer’s cartoons presented Superman’s ability to fly, Richard Donner’s films showed that Smallville, Clark Kent’s hometown, was in Kansas. Prior to the 1978 film, the location of Smallville was often vaguely (or inconsistently) determined.

Fleischer’s cartoons about Superman had a big impact, in addition to adding to the myths about Superman. The shorts were a major source of inspiration for Bruce Timm and Paul Deeney’s Batman: The Animated Series, which later led to the DC Animated Universe franchise, which included the Superman series. Superman’s ability to fly is one of his most famous abilities, and Fleischer’s cartoons about Superman were one of the rare adaptations that influenced comics.