Superman—the first, most famous American superhero—turned 80 this year.
Most casual comic book fans can recite the character’s fictional origin story: As the planet Krypton approaches destruction, Jor-El and his wife, Lara, put their infant son, Kal-El, into a spaceship to save him. He rockets to Earth and is taken in by the kindly Kents. As he grows up, Kal-El, now known as Clark, develops strange powers, and he vows to use them for good.
But the story of the real-life origins of Superman—a character created out of friendship, persistence, and personal tragedy—is just as dramatic.
From Villain to Hero
When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, my dad would regale my brother and me with stories of Superman’s local origins: The two men who had concocted the comic book hero had grown up in the area.
As I became older, I realized I wanted to understand not only how, but why Superman was created. A 10-year research project ensued, and it culminated in my book “Super Boys.”
In the mid-1930s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two nerds with glasses who attended Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. They worked on the school newspaper, wrote stories, drew cartoons, and dreamed of being famous. Jerry was the writer; Joe was the artist. When they finally turned to making comics, a publisher named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson gave them their first break, commissioning them to create spy and adventure comics in his magazines “New Fun” and “Detective Comics.”
But Jerry and Joe had been working on something else: a story about a “Superman,” a villain with special mental powers, that Jerry had stolen from a different magazine. They self-published it in a pamphlet titled “Science Fiction.”
While “Science Fiction” only lasted for five issues, they liked the name of the character and continued to work on it. Before long, their new Superman was a good guy. Joe dressed him in a cape and trunks like those of the era’s popular bodybuilders, modeled the character’s speedy running abilities after Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, and gave him the bouncy spit-curl of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan. It was a mishmash of 1930s pop culture in gladiator boots.
When they were finally ready, they started pitching Superman to every newspaper syndicate and publisher they could find.
All of them rejected it, some of them several times. This continued for several years, but the duo never gave up.
When Superman finally saw print, it was through a process that is still not wholly clear. But the general consensus is that a publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who had acquired the major’s company, National Allied Publications (the predecessor to DC Comics), bought the first Superman story—and all the rights therein—for $130.
Was Jerry Trying to Create a Superdad?
The world was introduced to Superman in “Action Comics” No. 1, on April 18, 1938, with the Man of Steel appearing on the cover smashing a Hudson roadster. The inaugural issue cost 10 cents; in 2014, a copy in good condition sold for $3.2 million dollars.
When the comic became a runaway hit, Jerry and Joe regretted selling their rights to the character; they ended up leaving millions on the table. Though they worked on Superman comics for the next 10 years, they would never own the character they created, and for the rest of their lives repeatedly filed lawsuits in an effort to get him back.
But there is another more personal piece to the puzzle of Superman’s origins.
On June 2, 1932, Jerry’s father, Michel, was about to close his secondhand clothing store in Cleveland when some men walked in. Michel caught them trying to steal a suit, and ended up dying on the spot: not in a hail of gunfire, but from a heart attack.
Jerry was 17.
Some believe Jerry may have created Superman as a fantasy version of his own father, as someone who could instantly transform from a mild-mannered man into a hero capable of easily overpowering petty thieves. Indeed, some of the early Superman stories feature Jor-El out of breath (as Michel often was from heart disease) and show criminals who faint dead when confronted by Superman. As many victims of childhood trauma often do, Jerry may have used Superman to re-enact his father’s tragic death over and over in an attempt to somehow fix it.
In Superman’s never-ending battle of good versus evil, this same story is repeated again and again on the page, in cartoons, and in movies. It’s seen in kids who pretend to be Superman, tucking towels in at their neck and playing out battles in their backyards.
Why is Superman’s 80th birthday important? It isn’t just about celebrating a “funny book” about a guy who has heat vision and can fly. It’s about using fantasy to make sense of the world, plumbing personal tragedy to tell a story, and using art to envision a more just and safe society.