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The first version Superman began being published by DC Comics in 1938 appearing in Action Comics #1. To explain discrepancies in the aging of Superman across several decades, his earliest stories were retroactively portrayed as having taken place on an alternative world called Earth-Two.
These stories take place from 1938 until the late 1950s, although the exact dividing line is unclear and some stories happened identically to both the Golden Age and Silver Age Supermen.
Beginning in the late 1940s, demand for comics shifted from superheroes as war, horror, science fiction and romance comics became more popular. Most of the DC Comics superhero titles were cancelled or began featuring the more popular genres. Superman, however, continued to be published.
To explain how Superman could have been active as a young man in the 1930s when later stories show Superman still youthful in the 1960s, DC Comics developed a multiverse, the existence of several realities. The Golden Aged Superman (above) was ret-conned to Earth-2, while the currently published hero was assigned to Earth-One.
In 1971, Dennis O'Neil and Julius Schwartz set out to ground Superman's overelaborate framework. They streamlined the Superman mythos, by downsizing his abilities and reducing his normal powerful prowess. This version only lasted a few issues.
DC attempted more of a soft reboot in the 45th Anniversary of Action Comics. Lex Luthor and Brainiac were updated and modernized to make them more visibly dangerous for Superman.
Other Pre-Crisis Versions
The Multiverse was also used to explain an "evil" version of Superman from Earth-Three as well as others versions who official existed. Other stories were originally listed as "What Ifs" or imaginary stories which were not originally an official part of DC continuity. Superman Red/Superman Blue was the subject of several storylines.
The Silver Age version of the tale was an "imaginary story" in which Superman splits into two beings, one which marries Lois Lane, and the other marries Lana Lang, and both are happy. Both retained their powers, with one having all red removed from his costume and the other having all blue removed. In Superman #300, a story imagines what would have happened if Superman had landed in the middle of the cold war, with both the USA and the USSR trying to capture the capsule as it is landing. Kent is a reporter for a worldwide news service, and takes the name Skyboy.
The Multiverse system was discarded in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series (1986). By compounding all of DC continuity into one single- continual earth (New Earth). Thus DC rebooted A more modern adaptation of the mainstream "Earth-One" Superman in John Byrne's The Man of Steel miniseries in 1986. The post-Crisis Superman was the Superman from 1986 to 2011.
In the aftermath of the Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series (1985–1986), which depicts all existing Earths collapsing into one in an event that changes DC Universe history, Superman's backstory was heavily revised and many Silver Age elements, such as his career as Superboy, were removed.
Significant changes included a reimagining of all Kryptonians being genetically bound to Krypton, making it fatal for them to leave the planet. Jor-El devises a serum to counter this, which he administers to baby Kal-El. DC used this plot device to make Superman Krypton's sole survivor until this was retconned in the mid 2000s to introduce the post-Crisis Kara Zor-El. Krypton was also reimagined as an emotionless and sterile society where all their babies were grown in a birthing matrix as Kryptonians found sexual reproduction to be barbaric. Clark never becomes Superboy, with his powers manifesting gradually as he matures in age.
The Superman from DC's Tangent Comics imprint is a radically different character from the traditional Superman. Due to an experiment conducted on an entire town by a government black-ops group called Nightwing, Harvey Dent was the lone infant survivor of a failed super-human program that killed hundreds.