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Superman Co-Creator Jerry Siegel Dies

Comic legend "was as good and noble a creature as his creation, Superman"

Most of today's fans know him as only a name on the splash page of every Superman story.  Most fans have probably never read even one of the hundreds of comic book stories he wrote.  But it's probably a safe bet that not one of them would be a comic book fan today if it weren't for Jerry Siegel. 

Together with boyhood friend Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel created Superman, and through Superman, created an industry.  As Neal Adams put it, "For all that we occasionally try to push super heroes aside or replace them, it's the genre they invented with Superman that is the foundation of our business."  Adams, now with Continuity Associates, worked on the character in the 1960s and led the battle to gain recognition for Siegel and Shuster in the 1970s. 

Siegel was born in Cleveland in 1917 and met the Canadian-born Shuster in high school there.  They came up with the idea for Superman and had it developed before they graduated in 1934.  Then came four tough years of trying to sell their inspiration to the newspaper syndicates, the then-big time for comics.  They were repeatedly rejected.  Current Superman writer Roger Stern has been researching the history of the newspaper version of Superman for the introduction to a collection of the strips.  "Jerry saved a lot of his old correspondence with the syndicates that turned down Superman," he said.  "This is from an editor at United Features: 'It's an immature piece of work, attractive because of its freshness and naiveté, but this is likely to wear off after the feature runs for a while.' "

In the meantime, they had begun producing work for the fledgling Detective Comics, Inc., predecessor to today's DC Comics, with their most prominent creation being Slam Bradley in Detective Comics.  Finally, in early 1938, Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman to DC for a reported $130, as well as a contract to supply the publisher with material.  The first story, cobbled together by repasting the newspaper strip samples, appeared in Action Comics #1. 

Superman rapidly became the comic book business' first real hit.  By 1940, only a year and a half after its first appearance, Superman was being printed in three different comics: Action Comics, Superman and World's Finest Comics.  In addition, there was a popular radio serial and, by 1941, a series of animated cartoons from Max Fleischer and Paramount. 

The success of the character isn't hard to understand, according to former Superman writer Elliot S.  Maggin.  "Jerry Siegel understood mythic structure in his gut; it was written into the hard-wiring of his brain," Maggin said.  "There was something very natural in the way he told stories.  I would sit and read them, study them, and try to figure out what he was doing.  The best stories I wrote were the ones most like his."

The Siegel/Shuster team was well compensated for its work, by the standards of the time, but the two didn't own their creation.  That initial small payment had included all rights.  In 1945, while Siegel and Shuster were in military service, DC spun off the Superboy series in More Fun Comics, without compensating the creators of the Man of Steel.  On their return, Siegel and Shuster successfully sued for a piece of Superboy, reportedly getting $100,000, but it soured relations with DC and, in 1948, DC refused to renew their contract and took their creator credit off the feature. 

Sadly, the separation of Siegel and Shuster from their creation has, over the years, become almost more important than the creation itself.  "His works have almost been overshadowed by the magnitude of the injustice done to him and to Joe Shuster," said comics writer/artist and theorist Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics.  "He created an entire branch of American literature; however it may have been hijacked, that legacy is still with us."

In the ensuing 10 years, Siegel and Shuster struggled, briefly producing a syndicated strip called "Funnyman," but continuing to fight for the rights to Superman.  Finally, Siegel and his family hit the end of their rope.  "His wife, Joanne, went to Jack Liebowitz at DC and told him how bad things were, asking, 'Do you really want to see in the newspaper-Creator of Superman Starves to Death?' " reports comics writer and historian Mark Evanier.  "So they called him in and gave him some work, stipulating that he would get no credit and no special privileges.  He wrote Superman stuff from '58 until about '64, including the original 'Death of Superman' and 'Superman's Return to Krypton.'  He apparently made some comments at one point about wanting to be treated better, and-bang-he was gone."

In 1978, as publicity was gearing up for the first big-screen Superman film, Neal Adams and a number of other prominent comics creators began a campaign to get Siegel and Shuster the recognition they deserved and some kind of financial compensation.  Under pressure from new corporate parent Warner Communications, DC relented: Siegel and Shuster's creator credit was restored to the Superman feature and each man was granted a yearly stipend, originally reported to be $20,000 per year each, and reportedly much higher by the time of their deaths.  (Shuster died in 1992.) "The fact that his creator credit is on everything now is important.  That had to give him a sense of satisfaction," said writer/artist Jerry Ordway, who contributed to the revamp of the Man of Steel in the 1980s. 

"Despite all the raw deals they may have gotten over the years, there's no way they could ever really be adequately paid for what they did; that amount of money doesn't exist in the world," added Roger Stern.  "They gave us Superman, they gave us a legend."

Through it all, Siegel apparently remained unfazed by his fame.  "He was one of the most modest, humble men, who had no reason to be, that I've ever met," said Mark Evanier.  "He was one of nature's true gentle creatures.  Jerry was as good and as noble a creature as his creation, Superman," according to Siegel's friend, writer and comics fan Harlan Ellison

The man largely responsible for the current version of Superman, John Byrne, echoed many of the creators when he said, "I owe my career to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  What more is there to say?"  Current Man of Steel scribe Dan Jurgens had similar thoughts: "For Jerry Siegel, who gave us so much, I feel a debt I can't begin to describe.  I say that as a reader who enjoyed the fruits of his work and as a professional who was proud to work in his shadow."

A surprisingly emotional tribute came from J.  Michael Straczynski, creator of television's "Babylon 5" and a major Superman collector.  "When I was a kid, Superman was It.  Because of that singular character-invulnerable, unstoppable, whose single goal was to find the right thing and do it-I decided that I could do anything I set my mind to doing.  Truth, justice and the American way.  And to this day, my only agenda is to try and find the right thing, as best as I am able to perceive the right, and do it.  Because when you're a kid you're young and foolish enough to believe there is a Right Thing.  And you don't lie, you don't sell out your friends, you put yourself on the line, and anybody who wants to hurt your friends has to go through you first. 

"These are the lessons learned by a kid; they are tempered with time, but they still shape the adult," he continued.  "And now the man who created Superman is gone, and somebody ought to say something, however silly or indulgent or maudlin it might be seen by others.  Because it's the right thing to do."

  • Patrick Daniel O'Neill

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