Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster caught lightning in a bottle. One good idea turned their lives around. Then, it turned their lives upside down.
Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring HeroPublisher: Random House
Length: 432 pages
Author: Larry Tye
Publication date: 2012-06
Grant Morrison’s Supergods posits superheroes as modern day myths, icons dug up from the deepest parts of our cultural consciousness. It’s a nice idea (if a bit self-important, given Morrison’s status as a comic book writer) but it sounds more like an embarrassed intellectual’s high-minded justification for enjoying stories about men and women running around in funny costumes.
The old gods were instructive, used to teach morals about how we live our lives, and to explain how and why things like earthquakes happened. Comic book heroes like Superman have been used to impart lessons on values, specifically to children, but their primary function, aside from being vehicles for stories, is to serve the only real god: money.
Storytellers and fans alike imbue comic book characters with might and majesty, with the hopes and dreams of generations, but the guiding principle of the Superman industry is profit. That was true as much for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as much as it is for DC or Time Warner or whoever controls Superman in the future. Those two kids in Cleveland, poor, lonely, watching the world around them suffering through the Depression, sought to improve their lives the only way they knew how, and they caught lightning in a bottle. One good idea turned their lives around, at least for a moment. Then, it turned their lives upside down.
Larry Tye’s wonderful Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero asks us why we still care about a character created almost 75 years ago, and gives us plenty of answers. That we do care is an assumption the author makes without question. Other characters survive from that long-ago Golden Age -- Batman, Wonder Woman -- but Superman remains a cut above them all. It’s his simplicity, the template upon which all superhero stories are built, which has helped him endure, but Tye shows us that, from the very beginning, the Man of Steel’s bosses found ways of spreading his legacy across multiple media platforms and into the hearts and minds of people everywhere.
Siegel grew up lonely in Cleveland, a fan of pulp and science fiction. His father died from a heart attack after his shop was robbed and there was no hero to save him. Siegel published his own science fiction fanzine, one of the first in the country.
Shuster was an artist with poor eyesight, a condition which grew to be so bad over time that he was forced to lean in close to the page as he drew. Together they churned out adventures strips in the style of the day, but they continued to return to an powerful character who morphed from a villain to a hero to the hero.
After being rejected by a number of publishers, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, publishers of sleazy pulps, pornography and now comics, took a chance on the Clevelanders. Siegel and Shuster received $130 for Superman’s first appearance in 1938’s Action Comics.
It was a lot of money at the time, but nothing compared to the profits made in the wake of the character’s immediate success. “Jerry and Joe’s deal with the publishing house was for five years,” Tye writes. “Superman’s was forever.” It’s “...the original sin in the relationship between comic book creators and owners,” Tye writes, and he weaves the repercussions of this deal throughout the book. Despite their efforts, Siegel and Shuster never fully saw the full benefits of their creation.
It wasn’t until Superman: The Movie in 1978, 40 years after the character first appeared, that they were publicly credited with his creation. Now, years after their deaths, their heirs continue to fight to regain the copyright to the character. This motif makes the character’s real life saga feel like a comic book, that no matter how much time has passed very little has changed. Despite the success of the hundreds, even thousands of people involved with the character, this is a sad story at its core, a fact Tye handles beautifully.
That sadness extends beyond comics. The “Superman curse” has befallen many of the actors who’ve portrayed the Man of Steel on the big and small screens. Kirk Alyn, from the movie serials, was permanently typecast, though he claimed to relish the attention. George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, died under mysterious circumstance, though his death was officially ruled a suicide. Christopher Reeve, star of four feature films, was typecast and later paralyzed in a horse riding accident. These men embodied the character so completely that the events of their lives became inseparable from the exploits of the character. If it could happen to Superman, it could happen to us.
Tye also explores spiritual aspects of Superman in the chapter “A Matter of Faith”. Siegel and Shuster were both Jewish, and the children of immigrants, and their character inherited many aspects of their upbringing. Superman is also an obvious metaphor for Christ--he’s sent to Earth by his father to save people.
No matter how you read it, there’s something there more than just a man in tights. Whether the spark which caught fire to the imaginations of Siegel and Shuster was divinely inspired is anybody’s guess. It feels good to say it was, because it means we deserve Superman, we were meant to have him in our lives.