Behind the Cape: The Creation of Superman


It is no secret right now that super heroes are everywhere. The colorful characters once relegated as mere children’s entertainment can now be found in; comics, films, TV shows, video games, and a multitude of other places that their creators could only have dreamed of. It is amazing to think that one character led to the creation of an entirely new type of character and genre. The first superhero, Superman is one of the most recognizable figures in the world. The “S” logo is second only to the Christian cross in terms of recognizable logos; Egyptian-American scholar Dr. Nasser Momayezi once said that JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Superman were the only three Americans everybody in the world knew.  The Man of Steel celebrates his 75th anniversary this year with a new comics series by the dream team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee and a new movie with, Man of Steel. It is almost hard to think it all began with the wishful thinking of two unpopular teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio. In fact the story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created a modern day myth is just as compelling as a battle with any super villain. 

Jerry Siegel was the youngest child of an immigrant family from Eastern Europe. In a time where antisemitism was rampant, Siegel was siegelschusternever popular, which was made all the more difficult by his shyness. But despite his social setbacks he was able to make a connection that would change his life. While working on the student newspaper at Glenville High School Siegel met a young artist by the name of Joe Schuster. Schuster also came from a Jewish family from Eastern Europe, who had lived in Toronto Canada for many years before moving to Ohio. The two teenagers shared a passion for science fiction as well as a certain creative chemistry.

Wanting desperately to create their own science fiction adventures the duo began writing and illustrating their own tales of heroes and villains. Eventually Siegel and Schister created their own fanzine simply named, Science Fiction. By the third issue of the magazine the two created a comic strip which laid the foundation for what was to come in a tale called, “The Reign of the Reign_of_the_SupermanSuperman”. Rather than a blue and red clad crusader, this Superman was a bald megalomaniac with super powers. The idea failed to catch on with readers. The fanzine was enough to put them on the radar of publishers and the two began working for National Periodicals, the company which would become DC Comics. It was here Siegel and Schuster perfected their craft with swashbuckling adventure tales as well as their own creation a characters; Doctor Occult and the private investigator Slam Bradley. As they continued their work, they refused to let go of the idea of the Superman that they had created.

While the original Superman was a villain Siegel and Schuster realized that the title was a much better fit for a hero. Since neither one of them had very much money, Siegel and Schuster went into an upstairs room in Siegel’s home and tore the wallpaper off the wall to write and draw on because, paper was too expensive for them. Over the past several decades; scholars and fans alike have speculated on the influences the two drew upon when creating the Man of Steel. Both of them coming from families of East European immigrants, they must have found it horrifying that a maniacal despot was destroying their parents’ homeland, while their people, the Jews, were suffering the brunt of the Nazi war machine. Perhaps this is what they drew upon when they came up with the story of a man on another planet realizing his inevitable doom and sending off his only son. It is believed the Jewish heroes like; Moses and Samson served as the inspiration for Superman’s powers and abilities. But one thing is for sure; as they were formulating the early adventures of Superman, the Great Depression was in full swing. Millions were on the street and in poverty while crime and corruption was rampant, Siegel and Schuster knew firsthand the troubles that people were experiencing during this time and created the kind of hero the world of the 1930’s needed. When conducting research for his novelThe Book of Lies, best-selling author, Brad Meltzer discovered an event which hit Jerry Siegel on a very personal level and most assuredly affected his ideas when creating the hero. When he was a young man, his father was killed during the course of an armed robbery. It should be no surprise that his ideal hero was one that was impervious to bullets.

In the summer of 1938 people around the country who happened to see the debut issue of Action Comics were greeted with the image of a man in a blue and red circus performer suit lifting a car above his head while a group of gangsters fled in fear. I would venture to say no other comic cover since has had that same effect on fans. A weary nation instantly grew attached to the Man of Steel. They were not only enthralled at the idea of a fictional hero fighting the evils they saw everyday, but what set him apart was the idea of Clark Kent. Both Siegel and Schuster were considered the geeky kids at the school growing up, so it seemed only natural that they would make their hero a mild mannered man who could not get a date with the woman of his dreams. According to many sources Kent was modeled after Siegel himself and Lois Lane was modeled after a friend of theirs Joanne Kovacs. After working with each other as Schuster’s inspiration for Clark and Lois the two fell in love, and the man who created Superman eventually married the real life Lois Lane.

Superman led to a boom of super heroes who followed in the pages of the comics; Batman, the Flash, Captain America, Wonder Woman and many others soon followed. As the United States entered World War II, these costumed heroes jumped right into the fight. In a special issue of Look magazine Siegel and Schuster had Superman defeat Hitler and Stalin in a single day. This story was criticized by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, which I’m sure was taken by its creators as a compliment. Soon after the war the love of super heroes fell. Horror, science fiction, and romance comics soon became the preferred genre as all but; Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had faded away. One might believe this led to fame and riches for Siegel and Schuster, having created one of the few popular heroes still around. But the character had become the property of DC Comics and they no longer had any say over their own creation.

Jerry-Siegel-and-Joe-ShusterThe two continued to work in comics but failed to find any meaningful success. They both fell into poverty, and Schuster began having vision troubles which as you can imagine did no favors for the artist. He soon had to retire and live with relatives taking part time work as a courier when he was able. All along the Man of Steel thrived in; comics, toys, and even a TV show. During the 1970’s Warner Brothers was prepping a full fledged big budget Superman film. If things had stayed their course the duo would not see a dime from the Man of Steel’s biggest event to date, enter comic book legend, Neal Adams. Adams was a notorious crusader for comic book creators from earlier eras and he took up the case of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. In short the fact that the two men who built the super hero genre were now in poverty was an embarrassment to the powers that be. Siegel and Schuster were not opnly given royalties for their work but their by-line was restored to the Man of Steel.

It almost seems unbelievable that two social outcasts in Cleveland could change the world from the upstairs bedroom of an old house. But as the sign in front of the home now claims, they may not have been popular  but they “gave us something to believe in”.

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