For many connoisseurs of American pop culture, Superman is the first and ultimate superhero. He is everything we strive to be as Americans—an immigrant from a far off place, making a new start and fighting for truth and justice. As opposed to troubled teen heroes we can associate with like Spider-Man, or dark avengers like Batman, Superman is a beaming ideal. A shining symbol of greatness and helping others.
And few things are as iconic and recognizable about Superman as the very symbol he wears: the Superman Shield or S-Shield. The symbol has been emblazoned on Superman’s chest in all of his many appearances, in some form or another, since 1938. It’s also been worn by any number of related characters in the DC Comics universe—Superboy, Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog, Bizarro, even Lois Lane donned the Big S a few times.
In fact, just as Superman would pave the way for most of the forthcoming costumed superheroes, he was the first to wear a logo on his chest. Eventually all major superheroes would wear similar emblems, as many of them still do today.
While most have a pretty consistent mental image of the Superman symbol—a big red ‘S’ on a yellow background, within an inverted triangle or diamond shape—it’s actually changed quite a bit over the years. Not only the shape, but also the meaning (or why an alien superhero would wear a letter of the Latin alphabet) has also evolved over time.
History of the Superman Shield Appearance
The image most people have of the S Shield probably comes from the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner movie versions starting in 1978. That’s likely because few people actually read the comic books, but also because the logo has been in a similar format for some time now with variations here and there. But that version of the big S didn’t actually emerge for years after the hero was created. Here are some highlights from the journey of the Superman logo:
Original Superman Logo (1938)
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they introduced the character in comics form, this version is quite different from what we identify as the logo now. It was more like a gold police badge with a pretty small, red S in the middle. In the three years following it would morph into the inverted triangle, and the S would grow to fill most of the shield.
Fleischer Cartoon Logo (1941) – Superman was first seen on the screen in a series of cartoon shorts by legendary animator Max Fleischer. This logo involved a yellow shield shape with a field of black and a thin red S.
Kurt Swan (1960s-1970s) – Probably the most iconic Superman artist, Swan’s logo established what most of us know it as today. The shape and color scheme are similar to the 1940s version, but the shape of the S is a bit bolder and more modern.
Christopher Reeve (1978) – Close to Swan’s logo, but in retrospect, it looks a bit low-rent, maybe intended to make the suit look homemade.
Superman Returns/Smallville (2006) – Brian Singer’s movie adaptation introduced a shinier, darker, non-cloth shield. While in earlier episodes of Smallville, Clark’s symbol was more of an 8 or infinity symbol, the Singer shield is the same version worn by Tom Welling in the show’s final episode.
The Meaning of the S
Superhero enthusiasts, writers and fans alike, have grappled with explaining the more nonsensical traits of favorite characters from the early days. Fact is, many of these early defining stories were created when the comics weren’t all that serious or tethered to reality. So in Superman’s original story, there wasn’t much explanation other than, “He’s a guy named Superman, so he wears and S.” As his story was fleshed out, however, it did seem odd that a Kryptonian would name himself Superman and wear an Earth letter in his costume.
Over the decades, the creative minds behind the character have made efforts to reconcile the symbol. Early stories say that Clark made the logo himself, first as Superboy. The 1950s show explained that Ma Kent made the suit and the logo. Other comic book explanations have Pa Kent dreaming up the symbol for Clark, in one origin reboot explaining that it was derived from a Native American symbol (of course!).
In the 1978 film, it’s explained that the S is actually a Kryptonian symbol that represents the El family, Superman’s clan on his home planet. Lois Lane first sees Superman close up (sans glasses), recognizes it as an S, and dubs him Superman. The comics from then on would sometimes adopt this explanation, and other times flip back to the earthly or Kent family origins of the S.
More recent stories tend to fall in the Kryptonian symbol camp, and in recent comics stories, it’s been referred to as his family coat of arms, and the symbol for hope. In the latest, poorly reviewed film by Zack Snyder, Superman also explains to Lois that the symbol he wears is not an S, but a Kryptonian symbol for hope. Here’s hoping we ever get another decent Superman movie.