August 28, 2008, - 11:49 am
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:
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 ‚Äî 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.