August 28, 2008, - 11:49 am

What’s the Real Story Behind Superman?

By Debbie Schlussel
Superman was created by two great Jewish-Americans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They weren’t afraid–as many comicbook creators and artists are today–to make America’s enemies the villains. Comic books from their day feature Superman bravely fighting Nazis and proudly fighting for America and all that is good.
The conventional wisdom is that Siegel and Shuster were the stereotypical geeky Jewish kids of European immigrants, that they invented Superman to attract girls and create an escapist fantasy from their lives in Cleveland.
But, now, a new book, “The Book of Lies,” by novelist Brad Meltzer, claims the real reason they created bulletproof Superman was because Siegel’s father Mitchell was murdered in a robbery of his clothing store. Though Meltzer’s book is fiction (and the storyline and plto sound ridiculous), that part of the book is based on truth. Interesting:

supermanamericanflag.jpg

On the night of June 2, 1932, the world’s first superhero was born ‚Äî not on the mythical planet of Krypton but from a little-known tragedy on the streets of Cleveland.
It was Thursday night, about 8:10 p.m., and Mitchell Siegel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was in his secondhand clothing store on the near East Side. According to a police report, three men entered. One asked to see a suit of clothes and walked out without paying for it. In the commotion of the robbery, Siegel, 60, fell to the ground and died.
The police report mentions a gunshot being heard. But the coroner, the police and Siegel’s wife said Siegel died of a heart attack. No one was ever arrested.
What happened next has exploded some of the longest-held beliefs about the origins of Superman and the two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who invented America’s best-known comic-book hero.
Past accounts suggest Siegel and Shuster, both 17, awkward and unpopular in high school, invented the meek Clark Kent and his powerful alter-ego, Superman, to attract girls and rise above their humble Cleveland beginnings.
But now it appears that the origin might have been more profound ‚Äî that it was the death of Jerry Siegel’s father that pushed the devastated teen to come up with the idea of a “Superman” to right all wrongs.

The rest of the book, though, is fiction. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction because I think it eventually becomes part of the conventional wisdom of real history. But, given that Superman is pop culture and not real history, in this case I don’t think it’s as objectionable.
The article on the crime that created Superman is an interesting read. It contains possible evidence that Siegel wrote letters to the editor of his hometown newspaper as “Lex Luthor” and the story about how the two creators sold Superman for only $130 and led relatively working-class lives thereafter.

The rest of the saga of Siegel and Shuster is better known, but no less tragic. It wasn’t until 1938 that the familiar red-and-blue-garbed Superman appeared on the cover of Action Comics No. 1. The creators got a check for $130. In return, DC Comics acquired rights to the character “forever.”
Siegel and Shuster bristled as Superman grew in popularity — on radio, in wartime cartoons and serials in the 1940s. They went to court several times, winning settlements but never rights to the character. By the 1970s, Siegel had been working as a mail clerk for $7,000 a year, and Shuster was almost blind. . . .
In a landmark settlement [in the late '70s], DC Comics agreed to pay the two men $20,000 a year for life. More important, friends say, DC agreed to add “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” on all printed and filmed material in the future.

The Crime That Created Superman” is an entertaining, quick read. Check it out.

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17 Responses

Superman was in the…”The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”
Freedom is worth fighting for…. too bad Democrats don’t get it.

GOLDENMIKE4393 on August 28, 2008 at 12:17 pm

[Superman was created by two great Jewish-Americans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.]
I just want to add a few notable facts here:
Joe Shuster was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to the US when he was 10. The city of Metropolis was based on Toronto and the Daily Planet which was first called the Daily Star was based on the Toronto Star for which Shuster was a paperboy.
[Freedom is worth fighting for.... too bad Democrats don't get it.
Posted by: GOLDENMIKE4393]
Obama is the new Superman. Get used to it!
[NB: MORE LIKE LEX LUTHOR. OR AMERICA'S KRYPTONITE. DS]

Norman Blitzer on August 28, 2008 at 12:27 pm

What were the terms of the agreement selling the rights?
I am curious as to the grounds upon which Jerry and Joe sued.
And, what was the liability theory that led to the settlement of $20,000 per year for life?

GOLDENMIKE4393 on August 28, 2008 at 12:28 pm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman
Litigation was Copy Right issue-based. See Wikipedia link. Also, the men were to participate and supply material (under paid). It wasn’t “sour grapes” for $130.

GOLDENMIKE4393 on August 28, 2008 at 12:37 pm

To Norman Blitzer:
Unfortunately, YoMama fails to appreciate that Islam has declared war against Western Civilization and it’s kill or be killed. To the victor go our children.
Meanwhile, YoMama will get millions of Americans killed on our own soil from dirty suitcase bombs. Radiation poisoning is a slow painful death.

GOLDENMIKE4393 on August 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm

GLAD SOMEONE got it right, Goldenmike.
Americaís most famous superhero was created by Jewish Canadian, Joe Shuster.
Joe was the artist of the Siegel and Shuster dynamic duo. Jerry Siegel was the story guy. For instance, he convinced Joe to make Superman a do-gooder, since initially Joe ìconceptedî Superman as a villain.
They were certainly co-creators of ìSupesî but not both Americans, although Joe naturalized later. Joeís cousin was Frank Shuster, you knowÖof the famous Canadian comedy team, Wayne and Shuster.
Before you check out, “The Crime That Created Superman” check out the links below to understand some additional facts behind that Superman character.
So hereís the Canadian Heritage Minute, about Joe Shuster and Superman: http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?id=10206
Hereís Joe talking about himself (and yes, Toronto was the backdrop for Metropolis, not Cleveland!)
http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20060628/superman_returns_cdn_060628/20060628?hub=Entertainment

The Canadien on August 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm

That is interesting information. I’ll have to check it out. There’s no doubt that Jewish Americans were responsible for a really disproportionate number of superheros in the late 30s and 40s, including Batman, although not Wonder Woman.
Although I am a huge fan of Golden & Silver Age comics including Superman, there is a little bit of a downside, in that the DC comics have always had a leftist tilt. In the first issues, Superman battled corrupt mine owners, and other capitalist villains. In the 50s it was more subtle; anti-Communist, but little digs at Eisenhower. For instance in an imaginary story in the late 50s, Clark Kent marries Lois, they live in a fancy suburb, and an ugly neighbor brags that her husband meets with the President (Eisenhower at the time). Lois wonders to herself what the neighbor would think if she knew Lois’s husband met with leaders all over the universe. Unthinkable dialogue while Kennedy was President. In the 60s, continuous adulation of Kennedy, and by the late 60s, some heroes like Green Arrow were out-and-out radical. Downhill from there.
Another unpleasant characteristic of DC comics starting in the late 40s was monthly full-page comic strips associated with a Social Workers’ organization, hammering on the then-equivalent of PC themes, brotherhood, respect for this or that group, living according to good behavioral and social norms, etc. The Jewish background may have played a role in these monthly ads.
Siegel and Shuster were screwed financially, no doubt about it.

c f on August 28, 2008 at 2:45 pm

Debbie: there is a great new graphic novel writer named Bosch Fawstin. He’s an ex-Muslim an author of “Pigman”. His relatives are radical Muslims, and he despises everything they represent:
http://www.boschfawstin.com/
His role model is, of course, Stan Lee. Stan Lee has a new work involving an anti-radical Islamic hero. Unfortunately, even Stan Lee can’t get it published.

sonomaca on August 28, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Here are some “Pigman” images:
http://www.cafepress.com/fawstin

sonomaca on August 28, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Here’s Fawstin’s blog:
http://fawstin.blogspot.com/2008/05/answering-sowdie-skullduggery.html

sonomaca on August 28, 2008 at 7:36 pm

One correction: the story isn’t new, it was unearthed by Gerard Jones in his book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book.

Hector on August 28, 2008 at 10:51 pm

While I do appreciate the mention of my work, sonomaca made some wrong claims:
I’m a writer/artist, a cartoonist, not just a writer. And while I do appreciate Stan Lee’s place in comic book history, he’s not my role model, and he actually dismissed the very Idea of a comic book taking on Islam’s Jihad, so he’s not working on one. You likely mistook Stan Lee for Frank Miller, who Was working on a Batman vs al Qaeda comic book which Miller now says will not be a Batman story anymore.
I Do come from a Muslim background and have left Islam, but my relatives are not ‘radical Muslims’, though some are more serioues about the faith than others.
For the record.

Bosch Fawstin on August 28, 2008 at 11:29 pm

My bad (really bad). I had heard you interviewed awhile back, and time must have clouded my recollection of the facts. Have you sent Debbie a copy of your book for review (or your new one, Infidel, pre-publication)? Have you had trouble getting your work published by major houses?

sonomaca on August 29, 2008 at 9:22 am

sonomoca, no problem, just wanted to make sure it got out as it is. I’m currently awaiting the final decision of a publisher I’ve interested. And I did correspond with Debbie regarding making a mention of my work on her site and she agreed, but for whatever reason, I haven’t seen a mention of it here.

Bosch Fawstin on August 30, 2008 at 1:16 am

What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious know-how concerning
unexpected emotions.

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