A year ago, within the confines of his Spider-Man-adorned office in Beverly Hills, Stan Lee emphasized to me that back during the rise of comics’ Golden Age, many creators were woefully naive about negotiating their rights in a 10-cents-a-book business. And last summer, virtuoso Batman artist Jerry Robinson told me — several months before his death — that illustrators at the 1930s dawn of comic books had no idea how much their original art might one day be worth.
Understanding that innocence within a nascent industry helps the reader appreciate the behind-the-scenes world of “Superman,” Larry Tye’s wide-ranging survey of the Man of Steel. For there is poignancy beneath the pop culture, and the Man of Tomorrow is best understood through the prism of yester-century.
In this regard, Tye — a former Boston Globe journalist who writes with Lois Lane-like passion and moxie — does his homework well. The best origin story pulsing through “Superman” is not the one about the Krypton-to-Kansas alien baby, but the one about the superhero’s all-too-mortal, sometimes star-crossed creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
These teenaged friends from 1930s Cleveland were the kind of real-life fantasy-conjurers who informed Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”: two Jewish boys who identified with the Outsider and dreamed of making him mighty.
With Jerry and Joe as the book’s trusty true-north, Tye is free to lead us like a reliable docent, his flights of narrative fancy always anchored in his easy authority. He ably illustrates why Superman became an instant hit with post-Depression American audiences, how Supes’s omnipotence inspired various religious and ethnic groups to claim him as their own, and how this superhero has been significantly reshaped over more than seven decades by men like publishing bosses Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld (who bought the rights to Superman for $130), DC Comics editors Mort Weisinger and John Byrne, and such Hollywood figures as actors George Reeves and Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner.
Tye devotes much of the latter half of the book to how Superman has been brought to the screen. But even then, it’s the Jerry and Joe story that resonates most. Both men routinely fell on hard times, but Donner’s first “Superman” movie not only launched the big-budget Hollywood superhero flick that is still with us today, but also helped Siegel and Shuster refill their coffers. (Also interesting: Tales of how Jerry’s wife, Joanne — who first posed for Lois Lane as a hired teenager — angled to guilt the film studio into ponying up money for the creators, prior to her death last year.)
Tye’s “Superman,” true to the hero himself, appears with impeccable timing: An image of the crucial $412 check that the DC Comics predecessor first cut for Siegel and Shuster in the late ’30s resurfaced on the Internet this year, reminding fans what a pittance the pair originally got (the resultant legal battles continue today). And the release of the billion-dollar-grossing Disney/Marvel film “The Avengers” in May resuscitated the fight over comic book-related fairness, business ethics and creators’ rights.
Robinson proved to be a key friend to Siegel and Shuster. He knew what it was to be a teenager who suddenly finds himself drawing one of the nation’s bestselling superheroes, your every pencil stroke helping to define an American icon. And he also knew, better than most, that the Golden Age didn’t leave its creators much gold unless they were very, very savvy.
“Superman” is at its best when not bounding or leaping or speeding, but rather simply drawing on the origin story of Jerry and Joe. In its textured telling of rising, falling and rising again, it shares a story as American as Superman himself.
Cavna is a cartoonist and reporter who writes The Post’s comics blog, Comic Riffs, at washingtonpost.com/comicriffs.
The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero
By Larry Tye
Random House. 409 pp. $27