[25 July 2013]
As I begin this consideration of how Superman was born, a note of full disclosure: like Superman, I am a Clevelander.
With all due respect to the good people of Metropolis, Illinois (more about them later), anybody who knows anything about the creation of Superman knows he sprung from the imaginations and aspirations of two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, in Cleveland in the ‘30s. One noteworthy example: in 1998, when the U.S. Postal Service (more disclosure: my employer) released a sheet of stamps celebrating Superman’s debut and 14 other momentous events of the ‘30s, it held the unveiling in downtown Cleveland, raising a super-humongous enlargement of the Superman stamp up the façade of the Terminal Tower in the heart of Public Square (still more disclosure: I arranged for the raising to happen live during the local TV news, and worked on other elements of the extravaganza).
And while my hometown has generally made less of a civic deal of its integral connection to Superman than its midwifery of rock ‘n’ roll, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that Clevelanders themselves aren’t proud of it. Over time, there has been a growing awareness of that role. That includes the Siegel and Schuster Society, a small band of pop culture geeks dedicated to growing that awareness. That includes the current residents of Siegel’s boyhood home, who lovingly maintain the home and a sign in front of it, and welcome pilgrims who come to pay their respects. That includes the big blowout in one of the local arts districts for the premiere of the movie Man of Steel, which was the tentpole of a general celebration of Superman’s 75th birthday.
And it includes Super Boys, the fullest telling to date of the life stories of Siegel and Schuster, by Brad Ricca, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, which just so happens to be in – duh! – Cleveland. While the story of Superman has been oft-told, the emphasis has always been more on the creation, and its various incarnations, than the creators. Ricca reverses that focus, digging deeply into the creators’ histories, creative processes, and their lives after Superman took to the skies. In the process, he reveals that Superman’s story is, in many ways, a typical Cleveland story.
For starters, Cleveland is a city of immigrants, and both Siegel and Schuster came from eastern European families – Siegel was born in Cleveland to Lithuanian immigrants, Schuster’s family came from Russia by way of Canada, where Joe was born. They met at Glenville High School, and quickly discovered they shared an interest in pulp comics and science fiction stories – not to mention low-ranking status on the school’s social totem pole.
As they cranked out content for school publications (Jerry was the wordsmith, Joe the artist) and tried to latch on to a national comics publisher, the seeds of Superman’s character were being sown. In 1932, they produced a comic, “The Reign of the Super-Man”, in the third and final issue of a pulp magazine they started. Other comics artists were dropping the word “superman”, or at least the notion of a man with superior powers, into ideas; Siegel and Schuster, once they had their basic idea, synthesized those outside influences as they refined their character. The track-and-field exploits of their fellow Clevelander, Jesse Owens, (his four-gold medal performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was also recognized on that sheet of 1930’s stamps), indirectly inspired Schuster’s rendering of Superman at top speed. And they found their muse for Lois Lane from an ad an aspiring model had placed in a Cleveland newspaper (the ad ran only one day, as fortune would have it).
Cleveland is a proud city with a worthy pedigree, but even in its heyday it looked up to New York City. So did Siegel and Schuster, as they pitched publisher after publisher in the publishing mecca. Finally, they caught a break, the biggest break imaginable. The twists and turns of the industry opened a door for the duo at Detective Comics, Inc., which was aligned with a newspaper publisher. The company bought the rights to the now-fully fleshed Superman story, for the princely sum of $130.00. Siegel got Schuster to take the deal, convinced that money from print syndication of a Superman comic strip was only a matter of time.
It was, but Siegel and Schuster never saw a whole lot of it. Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 is one of those holy grail moments in American pop culture, right up there with the publication of On the Road and the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The character took off, and Siegel and Schuster became so busy they hired artists to help with the workload. But they never made any real money from Superman; as the character’s owner reaped royalties left and right, its creators only got a relatively small slice of the pie. Further, references to Superman’s Cleveland roots were excised away; Clark Kent originally wrote for the fictitious Cleveland Evening News, but that and all other Cleveland references were replaced for national consumption, thus the everywhere-and-nowhere of Metropolis.
Ricca spends the back half of Super Boys recounting their lives after Superman’s ascent into superstardom. It wasn’t much pretty. Their attempt to create a Superman prequel ended badly, with them winning a pyrrhic victory in court against their publisher, but essentially losing all ties to the Superman franchise in the process. Siegel hung on in the comics game for a while, writing stories but never striking gold again. Schuster became something of a recluse, taking work illustrating stories in pulp magazines.
Meanwhile, their boyhood creation continued going up, up and away, reaching a whole new audience through TV. And in the process, a legion of corporate higher-ups not named Siegel or Schuster has spent the better part of these 75 years cashing checks faster than a speeding bullet.
Only hard-core comics buffs knew the history of Superman’s creation – and, of course, the corporate owner, known by the ‘70s as DC Comics. They felt pressure to do right by Siegel and Schuster in advance of getting a blockbuster Superman movie off the ground. The creators and their families seized on this opportunity, and Ricca walks us through the Byzantine negotiations between a shifting cast of characters. It would end with Siegel and Schuster each receiving a yearly check – a pittance compared to the money everyone else had made from their labor – and, at last, worldwide acknowledgment that they, two misfit kids from Cleveland, were the ones responsible for the greatest superhero of them all.
(Actually, legal battles between the creators’ heirs and Superman’s corporate owners over copyright ownership would continue through the ‘00s. Ricca’s flowing, impressionistic tone, while powerful in describing the creators’ early years, doesn’t help the reader make sense of all the legal maneuverings.)
The story of Siegel and Schuster is part of comics lore, and has been recounted in various histories of both the industry and Superman itself. Super Boys, as the first book wholly devoted to Superman’s creators, is mostly an appropriately thorough and thrilling read. The biggest revelation – at least to those whose knowledge of comics history is a little light – is the extent to which Siegel and Schuster invested the early Superman stories with their own inspirations and motivations.
It’s easy to argue that much of their story is archetypical – two nobodies working in their bedrooms on a project that would change the world, grinding on through rejection after rejection, then finally striking paydirt, only to get shafted in the process, and spending the rest of their lives fighting to reclaim their due. But the fact is, it happened in Cleveland. All of the formative experiences that led Siegel and Schuster to create Superman happened to them while they were growing up.
That includes the good – Joe’s winning poster design for a local high school football championship game. And that includes the bad – the murder of Jerry’s father, a neighborhood shopkeeper, and how the truth about the chain of events didn’t come out for years (Ricca speculates heavily that the nature of the crime had a profound effect on Siegel’s envisioning of his superhero).
For all his essential Clevelandness, though, Superman hasn’t been just a Cleveland thing ever since he arrived. The very existence of Man of Steel attests to the hold this character has on our imagination. Now 75 years on, somebody out there still thinks there’s a buck and a point to be made by going back to the well of kryptonite one more time. It’s an indication of how much Superman now belongs to the world, to all of us, and how he hasn’t belonged solely to his creators, at least in an emotional sense, for a very long time.
Various places have tributes to Superman, but none bigger than Metropolis, Illinois, a small town in the southern part of the state. By dint of sharing a name with the fictional burg and using that connection to beat the rest of the country to the punch, they’ve cornered the market on Superman celebrations. That’s what they call it, in fact: this year was the 35th Annual Superman Celebration. They had Margot Kidder from the movies and Michael Rosenbaum from the Smallville TV show among the featured guests. Not only is there a statue of Superman in the center of the town, there’s also one of Noel Neill as Lois Lane from the original TV show The Adventures of Superman.
It’s easy to see why Metropolis would be able to gain renown by celebrating Superman. Any town that put its heart, some money and a little elbow grease into it would probably do well with such a project. The character’s durability and appeal is unparalleled. His essential decency hasn’t really changed in all the twists and turns interpreters have put him through. He still represents a yearning for truth, justice and the American way. And yes, he still symbolizes the hero we’d all like to be if only we had enough kryptonite to overcome our insecurities.
But there is no way Metropolis, or anyplace else, can lay claim to any of Superman’s DNA. Super Boys reminds us for the ages that the values we still find compelling about him were instilled at birth, not by his parents on Krypton or the Kents in Kansas, but by two guys from a metropolis known as Cleveland with talent and moxie who kept at it, swung for the fences, and connected beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Whether or not Cleveland ever chooses to go all in on making hay of its status as Superman’s birthplace remains to be seen. But the story is a fantastic, bittersweet tale, told at last in Super Boys with passion and drama. It should not be anything less than a source of massive civic pride that a character created on the East Side of town became one of the most beloved characters the world has ever known.
Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Superman still rocks. He came from Cleveland, after all, and like the song says, Cleveland rocks.