The secret Hispanic history of Superman

Part 1: From Superhombre to Supersuit

5 mins read

In 1938, Action Comics published a tale of an orphaned infant, sent away from everything he knew to have a chance at a better life, raised in a culture not his own, taught a language not his own, struggled to belong as someone “different,” and through it all wanted nothing more than to be accepted and give back to the home that adopted him.

He was the ultimate immigrant — and a reflection of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s idea of the immigrant experience.

Something in that story took hold and resonated with the time in which it was told. It made Superman seem universal. Since he was not “from here,” he was able to be emotionally adopted by readers from all over the globe who also felt out of place. The hero who just wanted to belong now belonged to everyone.

Soon there were translations of the comic books into other languages. Children in Argentina thrilled at the adventures of “Superhombre: El Hombre de Acero” (The Man of Steel). In Mexico there was “Supermán y Sus Amigos” (and His Friends). The Kirk Alyn original movie serial “Atom Man vs. Superman” became “Superman Contra el Hombre Atomico.” George Reeves spoke Spanish and stopped crime weekly on television. There were Spanish language books, cartoons, card albums…anything publishers could think of to capitalize on the the craze.

“The Man of Steel Runs to the Aid of Another Superman” and “The Dwarf Who Became Superman” in translated Argentine adventure strips, circa 1950. Courtesy of DC Comics.
English and Spanish language posters for “Atom Man vs. Superman,” 1950. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Translated versions of “Superman and His Friends” #18, June, 1957; poster of “The Adventures of Superman” starring George Reeves, Fleischer Studios Superman animated cartoons (promoted on the poster as “The Most Famous Comic in the World”); collector cards from the series “Superman On The Doomed Planet,” 1958. Courtesy of DC Comics, Motion Pictures for Television, National Comics Publications, and Murray Hill Productions.

Just as in America, Superman had become a Latin phenomenon.

It is also no surprise that phenomenon inspired generations of Spanish-speaking children across continents who would grow up to contribute back to their hero as writers, artists, editors, actors, costume designers – bringing cultural points of view and creative visions to the character that became a part of Superman’s DNA. They quietly, over decades, infused him with a universality that seemed “right” somehow – shaping him into the Superman we all think of today – and we never knew it.

‘The’ costume

Few people can claim the level of pop culture contribution as the woman who literally put the ‘S’ on Christopher Reeve’s chest.

Costume designer Yvonne Blake not only defined the look of Superman for decades of moviegoers worldwide, her own life embodied his spirit of giving one’s all to an adopted home.

Yvonne Blake’s original notes and costume designs for Superman and Clark Kent, 1976; Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in “Superman: The Movie,” 1978. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Originally born in Manchester in 1940, by the late ’60s Yvonne found herself working in Madrid on two films – and falling in love with both the assistant director and his country. She married the assistant director and by the time she worked on “Superman: The Movie” in 1976 she had long since decided Spain was where she would give her heart and spend the rest of her life.

Regarding the process of making “that” suit, she had this to say in a 1980 interview:

“The Superman costume was really more of a collaboration. All my other outfits for this picture, from Krypton to the Kent’s wardrobe, I had worked out beforehand and were already approved. The Superman costume became kind of a big deal because we went to the states [San Diego, California] for their comic book convention in ’76. I was showing off my initial design renderings in a slideshow. People loved it, but more than a few Superman fans came up afterwards and said “that’s not Superman’s costume. He doesn’t wear dark gold coloring and there’s no ‘S’ on his buckle.” So, we went back to London, back to the drawing boards and redesigned it, using the same ideas for materials: lycra, leather, wool/poly-blend for the cape, and resin/plastics for the belt. Things further came to a head during early costume fittings with Christopher [Reeve]. The actor demanded another redesign because he didn’t like the fake muscles built into costume and hated the shininess on the belt. I started to wonder what he was on about, frankly. It’s not the actor’s job. He just has to perform. Well, Christopher and Richard Donner, the director, brought me and my team about four dozen comic books and I poured over them, again, just as I had done during my first designs. I realized what I needed to do was fit him several times and alter until every dimension, every length and height, was just right. I learned a lesson on Superman and it’s that, not only does the costume have to work for the actor, it has to look just how the millions of Superman fans expect it to look. Christopher had to look attractive and manly, and credible as Superman. We didn’t want him looking like a muscled ballet dancer. In the end, I think Christopher was right to come to us because a collaboration proved necessary for the good of the film.”

By the end of her illustrious career which included an Oscar, a second Oscar nomination, four BAFTA nominations, a National Cinematography Award, and four Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar), she had become a national treasure and gave back to her beloved land by accepting the role of President of the Spanish Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences, where she fought to strengthen the impact of Spanish cinema internationally.

In true Superman spirit, she never took any money for that position.

Official super-style

When Yvonne and her team were handed those four dozen comic books in 1976 to bring moviegoers the Superman they wanted to see, it’s likely they contained the work of the artist many consider to have defined that mid-’70s audience expectation – Spanish-Argentine legend José Luis García-López.

Christopher Reeve in 1979 discussing Superman at the offices of DC Comics with then President Sol Harrison. Art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Communications Inc.

José’s Superman was iconically strong, yet kind. His was a Superman that would smile with sincerity while talking to kids about staying in school, save a kitten from a tree, and make Lois feel like a princess after catching her in mid-air.

José’s Superman helped Santa deliver toys at Christmas.

Art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics.

If you saw a lunchbox, pillowcase, milk glass, puzzle, sticker set, store standee, poster, school valentine, get-well card, gift wrapping, or any one of a slew of instant classic comics themselves from 1975 on, you have seen “his” Superman.

So popular was his version that in 1982, at the height of the success of “Superman: The Movie” and “Superman II,” Warner Communications Inc. (owner of DC Comics) chose José to create the official style guide for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and practically every major character in the DC universe – including Superboy, Supergirl, and Krypto the Superdog.

DC Comics Style Guide art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Communications Inc.

His art style was not only dynamic and incredibly skilled, he perfectly captured what was known then as DC’s “Silver Age” of comic book heroes – modern, bright, hopeful helpers of humanity perfectly suited for a new generation of children.

Original pencil artwork for the DC Comics Style Guide. Art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Communications Inc.
DC Comics Style Guide art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Communications Inc.
Action figure, in-store standee, and lunchbox based on art by José Luis García-López. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Without fanfare, the work of a quiet, humble Argentine from Pontevedra, Spain had created a standard for products that would be Superman world-wide. And then, in 1985, he achieved a pinnacle of success nearly unmatched by any other artist of the time – his art became the basis for the character styles of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon.

The included become the contributors

In less than his first 50 years of existence, “Superhombre” had gone from a Spanish-language expansion opportunity for international sales to having his globally-accepted modern identity shaped by key contributors of Hispanic heritage.

“El Hombre de Acero” had come a long way.

And he was just getting started.

NEXT: “The Greatest Comic Cover of All Time, Christopher Reeve Returns, and The World Gets a Columbian Supergirl!” STAY TUNED!

Daniel Sanchez

Daniel has been an award-winning magazine art director for “Boy’s Life” and multiple major metropolitan city magazines, a writer for a Dallas newspaper, contributed to the book “Superman: The Richard Donner Years” by Jim Bowers and Brian McKernan, is an official researcher and designer for The Caped Wonder Network, and could not be more proud to have grown up to be an actual reporter for the Daily Planet.

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