The Ohio schoolboy Joe Shuster drew the first pictures of his muscle-bound superhero on the back of some discarded wallpaper in the early 1930s. With his collaborator Jerry Siegel, he touted the idea around the new-born American comic book companies for several years. Eventually, they persuaded DC Comics to launch their creation in a new publication called Action Comics in 1938.

From these unspectacular beginnings sprang a phenomenon that has refused to lay down and die. Action Comics was a sensation, and Superman got a publication all to himself the following year. Over the years he evolved from a standard issue hero who could "leap tall buildings in a single bound", to a committed liberal, taking on the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in "the fight for truth and justice", to a patriot defending "the American way" amid Fifties Cold War paranoia. Through it all, he has remained the archetypal good guy, upon whose broad shoulders an almighty industry rests.

Superman's most magnificent feat has been to bring a kind of respectability to a fringe art-form. When Warner gave him the mega-budget film treatment in 1978 - "You'll believe a man can fly!" boasted the publicity - box office returns showed there was a potentially huge mainstream audience for a comic book adventure, when it's done right.

Currently, the TV series The New Adventures of Superman is attracting large audiences around the world (9.3 million in the UK), having reinvented the character as a New Man and getting much mileage out of the sexual undercurrent between its stars, Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. In this incarnation, Superman has also, thanks principally to Cain's Lycra-friendly frame, become something of a gay icon.

Superman may well be more fashionable now than he has ever been: HMV's T-shirts and club tops bearing the "S" logo are currently among its best- sellers. Eight Superman comic titles are still running, and Titan Books publishes a highly successful line of graphic novels. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's tragedy was that they made very little out of the industry their character spawned: they unwittingly signed away the rights to Superman at the very beginning; when they sued DC for more cash in 1947, they suit was summarily dismissed.

Nick Landau, managing director of the comic book importer Forbidden Planet, points out that this scenario was "very much the norm" at the time, and that it was only really the creator of Batman, Bob Kane, who managed to capitalise on his idea.

Having continued to sue unsuccessfully, the Superman pair went public with their grievance and got lifetime pensions worth $20,000 a year each from DC, which had become part of the Warner Bros amalgamation.

The success of the films raised their pensions by $10,000, but by this time Shuster was blind and unable to draw. "How would you feel?" he once asked. "People were making millions and we were barely surviving."

SCOTT HUGHES

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