The Birth of Superman
We have become so saturated by superheroes, however, that sometimes we forget that they have not always been around. The first superhero was Superman, for instance, and his appearance in Action Comics #1 occurred in June 1938, a scant 75 years ago. More importantly, we often forget that somebody had to invent that first superhero and imbue within him the characteristics that have served as the blueprint for every superhero that has arrived on the scene ever since.
In the case of Superman, it wasn’t just one person who brought the character to life but two—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a pair of twentysomethings from Cleveland, Ohio, who unknowingly changed the world with nothing more than their imagination.
There are as many myths surrounding the creation of Superman as there are superhero origin stories. Another Cleveland resident, Brad Ricca, thus decided to finally set the record straight with his thoroughly researched Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (St. Martin’s Press, 2013). The well-known anecdotes are contained within the pages of the biography, from how Siegel and Shuster were paid a mere $130 for their creation, were shut out from receiving any additional royalties and later fired from publishing company DC Comics before spending the rest of their lives in obscurity and on the edge of poverty.
It was only in the late 1970s, with the pending release of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, that they were fully recognized for their feat, and guaranteed that their names would be forever attached to the Man of Steel.
While the tale is indeed tragic, Brad Ricca spends a considerable amount of time in the early part of Super Boys exploring the high school years of both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and how the culture of the 1930s had a direct influence on the creation of Superman. Unlike the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece and Rome, the superhero didn’t spring from a “shared collective consciousness” as espoused by Joseph Campbell but was instead a “conglomeration of various pieces of the cultural atmosphere,” to use the words of Brad Ricca.
Jerry Siegel, for instance, was enthralled by the science fiction pulps that first appeared in the 1920s and was determined to become a writer within the genre. Although his stories were regularly rejected by the pulps, Siegel kept trying to break into the field, and even briefly self-published his own magazine filled with narratives that he had written.
None of those early compositions were especially original and instead borrowed liberally from the themes and structures of other writers, which was basically the norm back in the day. His continued attempts, as well as immersion into the stories contained within the pages of the national pulps, introduced him to a number of tropes, however, many of which were incorporated into Superman. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars, for instance, had a particular hold on the young Jerry Siegel.
The narrative revolves around a Civil War soldier named John Carter who suddenly finds himself transplanted onto Mars. “Because of the lesser Martian gravity, Carter is able to leap thirty feet into the air, making him an ideal, albeit alien, superpowered hero,” Brad Ricca observes in Super Boys. “But it was the weight of the story itself that got Jerry—the planet was in turmoil and Carter was the only one who could save his weird, adopted world.”
Another story read by a teenage Jerry Siegel was “The Superman of Dr. Jukes” by Francis Flagg, published in 1931 by Wonder Stories. The narrative revolves around a hit man for the Chicago mob who is injected with a secret formula that gives him super strength as part of a government experiment. Brad Ricca speculates that Siegel unconsciously used both the title and storyline for his own short work of fiction, “The Reign of the Super-Man.”
This particular “super-man,” however, was more of a supervillain, the subject of another experiment that gives him telepathic powers and the desire to rule the world. Although much different than the later Superman that Jerry Siegel would create with Joe Shuster, Ricca remarks that “this story, juvenile as it may be, contains not just a name, but every single element of the superhero character that was beginning to wake.”
The superhero in question, meanwhile, fully awakened on the morning of June 19, 1933. It was after a restless night that saw Jerry Siegel drift off to sleep for short periods of time, then get out of bed to make notes about the dreams that had been filling his head. When dawn finally arrived, Siegel took off to the home of his friend and fellow high school student Joe Shuster, spreading the notes across a dining room table and talking so fast that his words were incoherent and difficult to understand. Contained within those notes and Siegel’s ramblings, however, were the seeds of what would later become Superman.
Brad Ricca theorizes that the Sunday, June 18, 1933, newspaper had a lot to do with Jerry Siegel’s restlessness and formed the catalyst for the dreams that served as the basis of Superman. The front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for instance, contained an article on hometown hero Jesse Owens, who had just set multiple track-and-field records to officially become the “fastest human” alive.
Further within the newspaper was a syndicated column which revealed that the voice behind the popular radio serial The Shadow was actually a “short and grey haired” actor named Fred Readick. The gist of the article, as Ricca explains, was that a heroic character often “appears different from how (and who) he really is” in reality. The rest of the Plain Dealer, meanwhile, was filled with the usual stories of rampant crime, mayhem and murder that dominated the news cycle of any given day in the 1930s.
“That particular newspaper, on that particular night, showed how many of these topics were available in the air for the dreamer who was looking for them,” Brad Ricca writes in Super Boys. “Feats of strength, secret identities, alien worlds, and unbelievable human suffering all across the globe. But what that night really did was change Jerry’s stance on ‘Reign of the Super-Man.’ He may have taken parts of the story from the earlier Francis Flagg tale, but Jerry was now at the point where he could steal and develop ideas from himself. And all of it was there in ‘Reign’—the one man as two, the powers, the importance of goodness over greed, and the realization that a hero would be a much better choice than a villain.”
Like Jerry Siegel, artist Joe Shuster was also influenced by the culture of the 1930s, and over the years that followed the night of June 18, 1933, the two of them drew upon their personal experiences to fine tune their creation. An area of particular fascination for the teenage Shuster were the Eastern European strongmen who would tour the country, performing such “super strength” feats as pounding railroad spikes into the ground with their hands and bending iron bars into different shapes.
One of these carnival acts belonged to Joseph Greenstein, nicknamed the Mighty Atom, who was once shot in his hometown of Galveston, Texas. Instead of killing Greenstein, however, the bullet merely bounced off of him, leaving the Might Atom unharmed as well as a living legend amongst his fellow strongmen.
Strongmen like Joseph Greenstein made an impression on Joe Shuster, and even played a key role in the development of Superman. While Brad Ricca points out that “the features of the original costume are rooted in Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, who wore full sci-fi space suits with emblems on their chests,” he adds that “the tights are a mixture of the strongman’s outfit and the attire of wrestlers and boxers, who frequently wore tights with shorts, often differently colored, on the outside.”
The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology may have sprouted from the darkened corners of mankind’s collective consciousness, but the mythology of their contemporary equivalents evolved from the imaginations of two twentysomethings from Cleveland and was influenced by the darkened days of the Great Depression and the 1930s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may never have reaped the financial bounty their creation spawned over the decades that followed but they are modern day Homers nonetheless—and the story of Superman is The Iliad and The Odyssey for the Twentieth Century and beyond.