The bright cover of a new comic book published in June 1938 featured a startling image: A stern fellow wearing a blue bodysuit, a red cape and a yellow crest with the letter S on his chest is slamming the front bumper of a Hudson into the side of a hill. No one on Earth had yet been introduced to Krypton’s most famous son; the scene’s onlookers are fleeing from Superman in terror.
From the first issue of Action Comics, Superman was a hit. In the years following this debut appearance, he quickly got his own comic book, newspaper strip and radio show. Seventy-five years later, the world still knows the story of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and his powerful alter ego. Another Hollywood reboot of the Superman movie franchise, “Man of Steel,” hit the silver screen in June, this one starring Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner. British actor Henry Cavill donned the red cape.
Even as their character went on to reshape comic books and American pop culture, the two young sci-fi aficionados who created Superman spent most of their lives in obscurity. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are names known mainly to comic book fans, and theirs is a cautionary tale. The two invested many years developing Superman and his fictional universe — and then quickly sold their ownership rights, for $130, to the first company to make a solid offer. As Superman became a beloved national icon, it was the publishers who got rich, not his creators.
Brad Ricca, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University, argues that Superman was the first caped crusader of his kind, but he allows that other comic creators would have probably come up with the concept of a superpowered hero. What made Superman unique and intriguing among readers may have been Clark Kent’s crush on his newspaper colleague Lois Lane. It’s a crush that seems modeled after Siegel’s experiences at his high school paper.
As Ricca identifies such pieces of the puzzle behind Superman’s creation, “Super Boys” seems as definitive a work as may be possible. Even so, it’s a tough read. One doesn’t have to be a comics fan to sense that there is no upbeat ending to this tale. Over the years, Superman’s career soars ever upward, both with and without his creators. The two friends try to come up with other characters that will resonate with the public, but they fail. The two pursue legal remedies that trudge along in the courts for years, with little success.
Other writers and artists are eventually brought on to create Superman’s comic book adventures, but his creators don’t seem entirely happy about their character’s financial success, even in the early days. Ricca suggests, but can’t entirely prove, that Siegel’s invention of kryptonite as Superman’s weakness, in 1940, was a way to kill off a character that he had already grown to resent.
Ricca focuses tightly on Siegel and Shuster, though there are enticing glimpses of other comics pioneers, such as Li’l Abner creator Al Capp and Batman creator Bob Kane, who are better able to fight or negotiate for money and copyright power. It’s a different path for Siegel and Shuster. After Superman, Shuster finds himself illustrating underground porn magazines at one point to pay the bills. An embittered and broke Siegel resorts to writing cranky letters to the FBI, in the hopes that the agency will go after the publisher that outmaneuvered him.
The FBI ignores him, but another angry letter from Siegel does find an audience, however. In the 1970s, when he hears that a Hollywood movie featuring the Superman character is in development, he issues a public “curse” on the film, encouraging fans to boycott it. After a resulting flurry of sympathetic news articles, the two are given a pension of $30,000 a year from DC Comics’ parent, Warner Communications, the company that owns the rights to Superman. It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that there is for Siegel and Shuster.
Shuster died in 1992, Siegel in 1996. Not only did Superman outlive them, so did some of the legal battles. Heirs of both families have pursued the hope of regaining ownership rights over the Man of Steel, with few signs that the courts will budge in their favor. In recent years, meanwhile, wealthy comics collectors have thrown around larger sums of money than Siegel and Shuster ever saw. The famous $130 check that bought Superman away from his creators itself fetched $160,000. In a separate auction, a copy of that first issue of Action Comics sold for more than $2 million.
The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — the Creators of Superman
By Brad Ricca
St. Martin’s. 423 pp. $27.99