Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, Joe Shuster, Neal Adams, and Jerry Siegel shortly after their victory over DC Comics, which have Superman creators Shuster and Siegel financial assistance, medical benefits, and credit by name in every Superman comic. Credit: Courtesy of the David
S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
of Americans will flock to movie theaters this week to see “Man of Steel,” in
which Superman will once again be called upon to save the world from some menace.
But back in 1975, Superman’s Jewish creators found themselves broke, nearly
homeless, and desperately in need a hero of their own. It’s a story with the
pathos and drama of a comic book adventure—and it has a happy ending.
teenagers growing up in Cleveland’s mostly-Jewish Glenville neighborhood in the
1930s, writer Jerry Siegel and his artist friend Joe Shuster created Superman,
the mighty costumed hero who has been a fixture of American pop culture ever
later wrote that he and Shuster were influenced by a combination of “being
unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and
fear,” and “hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed
Jews in Nazi Germany.” The Superman character emerged from their “great urge to
help the downtrodden masses, somehow.”
historians have compared Superman’s origins to both the Jewish immigrant
experience and the biblical story of young Moses. With the planet Krypton on
the verge of destruction, desperate parents send their infant off in a rocket
ship to Earth, where heis raised by strangers—Jonathan and Martha Kent taking
the role of Pharoah’s daughter. Whether disguised as the Midwestern
newspaper reporter Clark Kent, or as an Egyptian prince whose Jewish roots are
hidden, our hero would prefer to quietly assimilate into his surroundings but
his outrage at injustice propels him into the role of rescuer.
realizing the fortune Superman would reap, Siegel and Shuster sold their first
13-page Superman comic strip, and the rights to the character to National
Periodicals (later known as DC Comics) for $130.
a few years, the character had branched out into movies, cartoons, a weekly
radio show and a daily newspaper comic strip. Siegel and Shuster took no steps
to reassert ownership of their creation. They were making a good living as the
full-time creative team on the Superman comic book and decided not to rock the
Click photo to download. Caption: Superman. Credit: DC Comics.
1941, Siegel pitched DC the idea of “Superboy,” a series based on their hero’s
adventures as an adolescent. DC turned down the proposal. But when Siegel and
Shuster returned from service in World War II, they were stunned to find DC
publishing a Superboy comic book, for which they received no credit or
royalties. They sued DC and won a $400,000 judgment.
it was a bittersweet victory. Most of the money was eaten up by their legal
expenses, and comic book publishers grew wary of hiring them. By the early
1970s, Siegel was working as a $7,000-a-year clerk and Shuster, who had been
working as a messenger but gave it up because he was losing his eyesight, was
boarding with relatives.