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Happy 75th Birthday, Superman!

Published: June 25, 2011

Superman

Forget what you’ve read in the comics. Superman was not shot into space as an infant moments before his home planet exploded.

Instead, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio—specifically, in the halls of Glenville High School. And his parents were not Mr. and Mrs. Jor-L (original spelling), but Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The mythical Superman, as we all know, was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive (a dated figure of speech that reflects Superman’s age: 75 this month), and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (before his creators decided he could, in fact, fly.)

The real Superman was a “continuity”—a recurring comic-book character with superhuman powers to create revenue. According to a 1941 article in the Post, the Man of Steel had risen from a long-shot character created by two unknowns to the most popular hero of his time—and the fictional hero market during the Depression was fairly crowded.

No other cartoon character ever has been such an all-around success at the age of three. No other cartoon character ever has carried his creators to such an accomplishment as Siegel and Shuster enjoy at the age of twenty-six.

His noble profile confronts them in two magazines [as comics were called then] and 230 newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 25,000,000. That boy is growing rare who has no Superman dungarees in his wardrobe or no Superman Krypto-Raygun in his play chest.

When R. H. Macy & Co. staged a Superman exhibit in its New York store last Christmas, it took in $30,000 in thirty-cent admissions. Superman Day at the World’s Fair cracked all attendance records for any single children’s event, drawing 36,000 of them at ten cents a head.

Certificates, code cards, and buttons, setting them apart as members of the Superman Club of America, are proudly carried by some quarter of a million youngsters including Mickey Rooney, Spanky McFarland, Farina, a du Pont, a La Follette, Mayor La Guardia’s two children, and six Annapolis midshipmen.

Translations used to carry Superman all over Europe. But, banned wherever the swastika waves, he is now confined to the British Empire, the United States, Latin America (Super-hombre), Hawaii, and the Philippines.

Superman’s meteoric rise didn’t involve shooting a rocket-bound infant into space to eventually land on earth, but his existence was just as improbable given the two earthlings who invented him.

Co-creator Jerry Siegel was an extremely average student at Glenville High who worked to support his family.

At all leisure moments, however, he nurtured his ingrown soul on an undiluted diet of dime novels and comic strips, especially the Man-From-Mars category.

“It inspired me to devote myself henceforth to writing science fiction literature,” says Siegel, who often talks like that.

Presently he was devoting himself to it so wholeheartedly that it sometimes took two years to move him from one grade into the next.

One day in 1930, a classmate pointed Siegel toward another student with a similar interest in science fiction.

Siegel sought him out. ”I understand,” he said, “that you draw science fiction stuff.”

“Uh-huh,” Shuster admitted, his eyes blinking behind double-thick lenses.

[Soon] they were breathlessly discussing Buck Rogers, Tarzan of the Apes, and other exemplars of the contemporary comic strip.

By the noon recess the boys had formed a partnership which has progressed, unmarred by a single dispute, to this day.

For the next six years, Siegel and Shuster turned out several ideas, none of which took them far.

The partners brewed many a strong potion—Doctor Occult, a sort of astral Nick Carter who kept tangling with zombies, werewolves, and such; Henri Duval, a doughty musketeer in the image of D’Artagnan—but no editor hastened to press riches on them.

It was on a hot night in 1932 that Siegel got his best idea: a character who incorporated the strength of every fictional hero he knew. He worked through the night to write a complete story line.

As the dawn rose over Cleveland, Siegel, shirttail flying and script clutched in his fevered hands, raced through the empty streets to the Shuster home—one of the few violent exertions he has ever permitted himself—and roused his partner. Shuster took fire at once. Without pausing for either food or rest, they spent the rest of the day polishing off the first twelve Superman strips.

The idea was turned down by every syndicate and comic-magazine they contacted—sometimes two or three times—before a printer took a chance on these unknowns. By the third issue, Superman’s sales were up, up, and- well, you know the rest.

Unfortunately, the publisher required Siegel and Shuster to sign a release form giving him all rights to the character.

The partners, who by this time had abandoned hope that Superman would amount to much, mulled this over gloomily. Then Siegel shrugged, “Well, at least this way we’ll see him in print.” They signed the form.

For years afterward, the two struggled for a more equitable part of the Superman fortune. Yet they continued to produce Superman comics; even if they were disappointed in their business arrangement, they never lost faith in the character they created. Their readers rewarded their dedication with their own, creating such enraptured fans as this British boy observed by an American reporter.

Touring London’s bomb shelters during a heavy raid, he observed a cockney boy immersed in the pages of Superman. Neither the din of antiaircraft fire nor shells exploding nearby could distract his attention, and in his rapture he began squirming and jostling his neighbors. After a particularly violent detonation, his mother snatched the magazine out of his hands. “Give over,” she bawled, “and pay attention to the air raid.”

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  • Charles Neumann

    Nice article. The two creators did win a court case against the publisher many years later.

  • frank zieglar

    loved superman for years an still do (70 now) still got a lot old books…..But the new art work all look like barzzeo people no talent an every 3dr page is a full page picture, no comic racks any more no uncle scrooge /lulu/ mighty mouse/little audry/plastic man/rember Classics/all the cowboys/casper/so so meany great books!!!!gone like mllk on your front porch….a lad threw the paper from a bicycle??????a phone booth??? a mail box????The new age gotta love it!!!!an the new beat goes on……………In the words of Red Skelton GOD BLESS

  • William

    Good article. I write a column for local newspapers called Reel Memories so I was aware of most of the details. I’ve been a Superman fan since I was a kid. That’s nearly 70 years. Thanks again

    Anyone interested in my column can read it at http://www.wncsentinel.net.

  • john Rutter

    that was great, altho I knew this I enjoyed reading it again.

  • Ima Ryma

    Siegel and Shuster made the man -
    Superman of fortune and fame,
    Who turned to gold across time’s span,
    Action Comics best money game.
    Siegel and Shuster got cut out,
    Not being all that wise to biz.
    They’d have been billionaires, no doubt,
    If they’d been savvy – so sad ’tis.
    Now 900 issues in strip,
    Superman is gonna renounce
    American citizenship.
    That’ll give the profits a bounce.

    Superman will stay on the scene
    If he stays a money machine.

  • carol willer

    This was one of the most interesting pieces…..There is so very much that we simply cant imagine; how some of them come to fruition…..I am a subscriber to the Saturday Evening Post at this time and my family had aways had a subscription….Great magazine….Keep these kind of stories coming…..please….
    Peace, CW