REVIEW: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

superman unauthorized biographySuperman: The Unauthorized Biography

by Glen Weldon

$25.95 / 352 pages / Hardcover

Published by Wiley

75 years ago, two young men created a hero that embodied their most sacred ideals. 75 years later, their hero still intact, Glen Weldon came along to write their creation’s story, and what a story it is. I may have been around for a mere third and change of Superman’s existence, but his impact on my life is both prominent and palpable, which I’ve discussed in detail before and will refrain from doing so again. Suffice it to say, I went into this reading with some baggage. Yet, for possibly the first time, my baggage added layers of complexity and a thrill of discovery, as Weldon wove a tapestry of Superman’s exploits through the ages. If you’ve ever felt like you “know” who Superman “really” is as a character, an idea, or whatever; bring that conception of him with you to this book, and prepare to have your mind blown.

The book begins with a few failed starts to catapult the Man of Steel into the public eye by Messer’s Siegel and Shuster, which is necessary but also serves to give the progression the feeling of a fire slow to start. However, once raging, its influence on culture is unavoidable, but ultimately Superman’s humble beginnings subtly mask his all too powerful and primal nature.

From there the book proceeds decade by decade, or reboot by reboot, as is appropriate. This approach, as opposed to disjointed flashbacks from a certain more modern movie, highlights the construction of the mythology that I used to think was deeply ingrained in the character from the beginning. We being with a hero almost as alien to the modern version as he is to humanity, save the essential core Weldon is keen to highlight, and from that framework layers are added, removed, and altered as time passes, yielding the hero we know today.

One of the most admirable achievements of the book is to focus on all of the media in which our Man of Tomorrow appears. It would be all too easy to focus solely on the comics, but to do so would miss so much of the story, both in terms of canonical developments (Kryptonite was first introduced on the radio) as well as the portrayal of Superman as possibly one of the first cross-platform icons, capable of leaping from comics to television in a single bound!

But far from being a list of facts and dates, Weldon’s keen analytical eye is ever-present throughout. It is so refreshing to have an author who clearly appreciates the character, and aims to serve the ideal rather than denigrate it, yet is to still open to admit any of the well-founded criticisms which are impossible to ignore (e.g. the 90’s mullet). Weldon’s ability to boil down classic narratives into a simple, “this is why this story worked” and “this is why this story didn’t”, while providing enough justification not to come across as reductive, demonstrates both his immense talent as a ‘biographer’, such as the term applies. There were times reading this book that Weldon managed to crystalize nagging sensations I’ve held for years such as, “why didn’t Superman Returns work even though by and large it was inoffensive and enjoyable?” Such a feat seems to suggest a potential alien origin for the author.

I will readily admit that this book may best serve those already fans of Superman (if you’re reading a biography of someone you’re not already interested, you might have bigger problems in the first place). I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book and the polite interest was all too clear. So clear that I stopped recounting every factoid I could remember? Hardly. For a Kal-El fan this book is morsel after morsel of saccharine Superman trivia, page after page. The trick is actually weaving disparate notes into a narrative, which is what makes what Weldon has done an accomplishment. I realized that I might start reading in the 50’s, only to wind up in the middle of a 1986 Crisis, without having noticed how far I’d come. The changes were there, to be sure, but the through-line was such that I was never left disjointed from page-turn to page-turn.

I actually think that a big part of the joy in reading this book comes from knowing roughly what lies ahead, and yet still being surprised by the things you’d forgotten. When I transitioned from the 60’s to the 70’s, I was all too ready to leave the “Superman is a Dick” era behind me, but then it hit me that this decade was the decade I’d get Donner, Reeves, Hackman, and everything else that went into the movie. And the path leading up to that is both fascinating and satisfying to boot. This feeling repeats over and over again. You get to a point in modernity where events being recounted are things you remember going to the comic shop for. How often does a biography open up the option of you being a participant in experiencing the events as they unfolded in years past?

Superman is defined as much by who he is as those he surrounds himself with, and Weldon does not shy away from depicting those relationships through the ages. From Lois’ many awkward transitions as the Man of Steel’s leading lady, to his oft revised relationship with the Dark Knight, you never lose the thread of just who the Last Son of Krypton is to those around him, while still retaining the context of who he is to the reader. It made me want books on all the other characters, because I’d get glimpses of them as a reader, want more, then be whisked back into what was happening with our titular Kryptonain.

Suffice it to say, Weldon gets Superman, if that wasn’t clear from Paul’s previous conversation with him on the podcast. By the end of the book, you will believe a man can write both passionately and intelligently about Superman. Weldon’s prose is imbued with a clear affection, but also a scholarship that I am so glad is being afforded to the big blue Boy Scout. I often needed my Dictionary app at the ready to make sure I was comprehending the full extent of just what Weldon was trying to say, and I’m all the richer for it.

It can’t have been easy to put together a book about a character still very much alive in the zeitgeist, but Weldon does so with grace and aplomb. This book represents a wonderful combination of having some of your own ideas confirmed, others refuted, and many others much more informed, due to the research and care presented by the pages within. I hope Weldon, as well as Clark Kent’s, optimism as to the continuation of the initial superheroic ideal is rewarded, and that 75 years hence, someone as skilled, capable, and passionate as Weldon can come forward to update the continued chronicles of Superman all over again.

5 Stars

(Out of 5)

Snag yourself a copy from Amazon.


  1. I loved Paul’s interview and am going to have to check this book out.

  2. This sounds interesting, I’ll see if my local library has a copy ordered. What mainly appeals to me is the analysis of Superman through the decades, not all the different versions he’s been on TV. Incidentally, I spotted a book titled “Superboys: the secret lives of the men who created Superman”. Anybody know if that’s worth perusing?

    Addendum: Good review Paul.

  3. Excellent book. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. Sounds intriguing . . .

  5. This sounds like a pretty interesting book, actually. For anyone who has read it, how much does the book go into the parallels between Superman and Moses? I actually find that to be the most fascinating aspect of Superman.

  6. A solid book overall. i prefer Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, which came out last year. Weldon’s preference for some of the stranger sillier silver age tales sometimes colors his view of things that don’t quite match that vision of the character. Tye is a little more dispassionate and even handed. Also Tom Dehavens Our Hero: Superman on Earth.