Over the decades, DC Comics has given the Man of Steel several different dates of birth. But the weirdest one is February 29, because it’s supposed to explain why a 78-year-old character only looks like he’s in his late twenties.
If Superman was 29 (an age often cited for the character) when he first appeared in 1938, he’d be 107 years old today. Yet the Man of Steel has been written and drawn as a man in his physical prime for much of his publishing history. Like Mickey Mouse, Mario and many other long-lived fictional characters, Superman is frozen in amber as far as his personal aging process. That agelessness has periodically prompted readers to ask just why Clark Kent isn’t getting older as his tenure as a pop culture con lengthens.
Part of the reason DC Comics has repeatedly hit the reset button on its fictional universe has been to keep the mainstream versions of their flagship character anchored in contemporary sensibilities. In the 1960s, that meant structuring their multiverse so that the original iteration of Superman who fought in WWII lived on Earth-2 and a younger version was native to Earth-1. But the solidification of the multiverse wasn’t the only answer given to the conundrum of an ever-young Superman. Longtime DC editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz had taken to answering reader questions about Kal-El’s birthday by saying that the character’s birthday was on Leap Day. If he only had a birthday every four years, that would mean he’d age slower, right? Er, sure.
[Note: Legendary comics writer and first-class Superman scholar Mark Waid got in touch to let me know that it wasn’t Schwartz who came up for the Leap Day birthday for Superman. Schwartz’s assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell was responsible for that bit of lore, who put it forth in the letter column in a 1967 issue of World’s Finest Comics #164.]
The February 29 date was made more concrete over the years, showing up in a 1976 calendar that also had a different birthdate for Clark Kent, pegged to the day that his rocket landed on Earth. One of the best Superman stories ever also uses February 29 as Superman’s birthday. Done by Watchmen creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, “For the Man Who Has Everything” first ran in 1985’s Superman Annual #11 and told the story of a birthday that went horribly wrong for Superman.
In the tale, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude to find Superman trapped in a hallucination after unwittingly opening a present sent by his archenemy Mongul. After freeing himself from a heartbreaking dream-life where Krypton never exploded, Superman displayed extremely uncharacteristic rage.
(“For the Man Who Has Everything” was adapted into an episode of the great Justice League cartoon, too.)
Three years later, the landmark crossover series Crisis on Infinite Earths compacted the multiverse and paved the way for another new take on Superman. DC made its biggest February 29 to-do over the Leap Year birthday in 1988, which was Superman’s 50th anniversary. A splashy cover story in the March 14, 1988, issue of Time Magazine cited the February 29 date, and a commemorative coin was also minted to celebrate Clark Kent’s half-century.
Other dates have been presented as Superman’s birthday, too. In Superman: Secret Origin, Geoff Johns’ reimagination of Kal-El’s origin offered December 1 for the character’s birthday. The ongoing American Alien miniseries, written by Max Landis, is another iteration of Clark Kent’s journey to becoming Superman that teases April 18 as the crash-landing/birthdate for DC’s flagship character.
Despite the various other dates that have been mentioned as Superman’s birthday, February 29 is the date that’s stuck. In honor of the Man of Steel’s birth, there’s a big sale on Superman comics today on digital distribution site Comixology, and the publisher’s social accounts are shouting out many happy returns today. The most recent changes have Superman angrier and more human, but he’s never going to shake the goofy bygone logic of having a Leap Day birthday. That’s probably a good thing, as it connects him to a whimsy that seems in short supply in his latest iterations.
[Note: A previous version of this story said that Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright was the story that offered December 1 as Superman’s birthday. It was Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. I regret the error.
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