This Day in Jewish History

1914: Superman's Father Is Born, Only to Repudiate His Child

The first effort of high school buddies Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was a mad scientist. The ensuing Man of Steel was rather more benign, yet his disillusioned creators came to loathe him in the end.

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October 17, 1914, is the birthdate of Jerry Siegel, who together with partner Joe Shuster, created the Man of Steel: no, not Joseph Stalin – Superman.

Siegel and Shuster met at high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and teamed up on a number of projects, including one centered on a mad scientist (bald, of course) called “The Superman”. Then came a sleepless night in 1934, when Siegel, the writer in the team, had an inspiration.

Thus was born the rather more benign character who devoted his extraordinary powers to the benefit of humankind. It took them another four years before they found a publisher willing to help them tell their story.

'Girls would notice man leaping over building'

Jerome Siegel was born in Cleveland, the youngest of the six children of Mitchell Siegel and the former Sarah Fine. The family had emigrated from Lithuania after the birth of their first two children, daughters.

Mitchell owned a shop for men’s clothing accessories, and it was there that he died during a robbery in 1932, apparently of a heart attack.

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Several years ago, novelist Brad Meltzer wrote a novel based on his study of Jerry Siegel’s life, in which he suggested that the traumatic death of Siegel’s father was at least partly behind his invention of an immortal superhero.

“Think about it,” Meltzer told USA Today in 2008: “Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world's greatest hero. I'm sorry, but there's a story there."

In fact, Siegel’s first drawings for the evil version of The Superman were made only weeks after his father’s death.

Of course, there were also more prosaic forces at work behind the inspiration for Superman. As Siegel reported many years later, "I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed," he said. "It occurred to me: what if I had something going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?"

Siegel met Joe Shuster, who had been born in Toronto, Ontario, but who moved with his family to Cleveland at the age of 9 or 10, when the two were studying at Glenville High School there. Both were, by all accounts, shy and somewhat awkward, and they bonded easily. "When Joe and I first met, it was like the right chemicals coming together," Siegel later recounted.

As an avid reader of science fiction, Jerry Siegel produced his own fanzine, with original stories based on the literature he loved, called “Cosmic Stories,” in 1929. It was a new idea at the time, and he followed it up with similar projects in the coming years, including, in 1932, one created together with Shuster that included a story called “Reign of the Superman” – about the eponymous scientist bent on global domination.

Kal-El is born

They soon decided to turn Superman into a comic character and a force for good, after the concept came to Siegel lay tossing and turning in bed on a summer night in 1934. They were encouraged to submit their prototype for a Superman comic book to Consolidated Book Publishing. Unfortunately, the company promptly went out of business and a discouraged Shuster burnt the pages of that first comic book. Jerry Siegel was able to save only the cover from destruction.

It wasn’t until April 1938 (in a magazine cover-dated June) that Superman – born Kal-El on the planet of Krypton, sent into space as a baby by his parents when they learned that their world was doomed, and rescued by a childless couple in Kansas, where he is renamed Clark Kent – that Action Comics 1 appeared, marking the debut of the Superman that we know today. It was immediately successful, leading to the introduction of a self-titled Superman series the following year.

Shuster’s eyesight soon began to deteriorate, and by 1940, he had assembled a studio of artists who helped execute the artwork for the comic books and a newspaper comic strip that was launched in 1939.

Yet Superman couldn't save his creators

As has now been recounted many times, Siegel and Shuster signed a contract with National Allied Publications in which they sold the rights to their character for $130. By 1940, it was reported that their annual fees for their work were $75,000 each – a reasonable salary at the time, but a fraction of what “Superman” was worth.

In 1948, when their first 10-year contract expired, the pair sued National to regain ownership of the rights – and National fired them.

Thus began a legal odyssey for the two that dragged on for decades, until, finally, in 1975, and after press reports that both Siegel and Shuster were living at a near-poverty level, Warner Communications, by then the owner of DC Comics, agreed to pay them both an annual royalty of $20,000, plus supply them with health insurance. Warner also agreed to restore the men’s names to the Superman product, having removed their credit as creators back in 1948 when the ownership dispute began.

Nonetheless, the legal battle over the future of the copyright continued until earlier this year, when a Federal circuit court in California ruled that DC Comics would retain sole ownership of the rights.

By the early 1950s, Siegel and Shuster were no longer working together, and Siegel had taken a position as comics-art director for the publisher Ziff-Davis. For some years, he also returned to DC to write Superman stories -- without credit – but that ended when the legal battle heated up again in 1967.

By the time Siegel began receiving the small annual stipend from DC, he understandably told a reporter that he was fed up with his creation: "I can't stand to look at a Superman comic book. It makes my physically ill. I love Superman, and yet to me he has become an alien thing."

Over the years, Siegel did write for a number of other comic-book firms, including Marvel and Archie Comics. He also had a job as a clerk typist at one point. He and Shuster both ended up living in Los Angeles, several blocks from each other.

Shuster, completely blind by the end of his life, died in 1992.

Jerry Siegel died on January 28, 1996. He was survived by his wife, the former Joanne Carter, who had served as the model for Joe Shuster when he first drew Lois Lane, Clark Kent’s love interest. She and Siegel had become reacquainted a decade later in New York. By then both had been married and divorced. They married in 1948, and had a daughter, Laura. Jerry also was survived by a son, Michael, from his earlier marriage.