Tag Archives: Jerry Siegel
(Tyler Wenger, another vet from my spring term Superheroes course, reveals Superman’s biblical roots.)
One may find it hard to look at the red underwear-clad Man of Steel as anything more than a super-powered illustration on the pages of Action Comics and the light of the big screen. However, when ignoring the tights and cape and analyzing Siegel and Shuster’s character closely, Superman can be seen as more than Jerry Siegel’s brainchild, but as the savior of the imagination of this young Jewish writer. Superman, or Clark Kent, first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in June of 1938 right before World War II began in 1939, a time in which Jewish people needed a savior more than ever. In Superman Chronicles, vol. 1, a compilation of the earliest appearances of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman, a modern messiah. Though the caped crusader’s stories are extremely dramatized and embellished when compared to his robed counterpart, the parallels of defending the oppressed, possessing unequalled power, and ultimately ushering in peace remain strong. Yet Siegel’s messiah surpasses his notion of the biblical messiah, Jesus Christ, through Superman’s conquering and avenging salvation of men. While both characters fulfill the messianic prophecies, Superman embodies the man of action that the oppressed Jews await. Here we see the pen of Joe Shuster and the mind of Jerry Siegel produce a fictional messiah comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in mission and grander than His spiritual salvation through physical action.
Jesus Christ and Superman both play the role of messiah, or leader and savior of a group of oppressed people. While salvation through Jesus is spiritual and salvation through Superman is physical, the mission of saving the oppressed remains constant. One of many messianic prophesies in The Holy Bible claims that the Jewish people “will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them” (New American Standard Bible, Isa. 19.20). Christians believe that this “champion” of the oppressed Jews came in the form of Jesus to deliver men from sin and to pave the way to heaven in His blood. In Action Comics No.1 when Clark Kent first dons his red and blue, Siegel introduces him as: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (Siegel 4). Superman, like the prophesied messiah, is described as champion of the oppressed, but the deliverance he brings remains entirely physical and does not go beyond earthly oppression. In one of Superman’s earlier cases, he frees miners from the tyranny of a sadistic boss after which the newly enlightened boss, Blakely, asserts, “You can announce that henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated…” to which Kent replies, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one! (If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman!)” (Siegel 44). Superman caused Blakely to consider the abusive and dangerous conditions that he puts his workers through day in and day out, ultimately delivering them from their oppression. The Holy Bible proclaims: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (English Standard Version, Acts 10.38). Though biblical Jesus did free the oppressed from the grasp of the devil and sin, the Jewish belief is that this deliverance is meant more tangibly in freedom from their worldly oppression, which Christ did not bring in their eyes. Though deliverances by Superman such as the salvation of Blakely’s mine workers in Action Comics No. 3 meet the Jewish stipulation obliging physical salvation, Christians believe that their spiritual deliverance is more than enough to call Him the champion of the oppressed. Whether physically super or spiritually godly, both men succeed in fulfilling this prophecy in their own way.
Though not quite as defining as the act of salvation, one of the most universal, unquestioned aspects of a messiah figure is the possession of unrivaled power and dominion. Powerful is an understatement when talking about “Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons!” (Siegel 84). He is a warrior and a powerful leader, capable of overthrowing corrupt rulers and strong-arming the evil. To the defenseless Jewish people in Europe, and even to these Jewish artists in the United States, these qualities made Superman the perfect messiah. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Siegel references Sampson’s strength, represented biblically when “a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14.5-6). Having already granted enormous physical power upon one of His servants, the Jewish people expected God to send a messiah with even greater physical power to lead them in battle against their oppressors. Again, Jesus’s power comes in a less tangible medium than His bulletproof analog. Superman, however, was granted this physical prowess by his Jewish “fathers,” continuing to directly allude to the story of Samson when “with incredibly agile movement, he twists aside, seizes Leo by the scruff of his neck… ‘Wanna play, huh?’… And carries the ferocious carnivore back to its cage as though it were a harmless kitten!” (Siegel 95). Instead of physical power to fight a lion, the gospel characterizes Jesus with the power and strength of character of God. He is called “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1.23). As God on earth, Jesus is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18). The bible seems to define power as spiritual authority rather than the physical strength of Superman Chronicles. Given that Jesus did not decide to use His authority to physically free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors, instead choosing to defend men in spiritual warfare, it is not hard to see why some Jewish people of the time and in biblical times would prefer the tangible power shown by Superman. These passages do not only allude to Superman’s association with Old Testament prophecies, but they suggest that Siegel and Shuster considered these prophecies and stories during Superman’s conception, consciously creating a messiah figure.
Finally, the biblical Jesus and comic book Superman differ greatest in the nature of the peace reached through their actions. While both saviors usher in peace, the dichotomy of the spiritual repercussions of Jesus’s actions and the physical actions of Superman continues to appear. The Old Testament verse promises that the messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2.4). In biblical times, people believed that this promised peace between the Romans and the Jews, among other nations, and this would give them their salvation and deliverance. Though Superman uses a vast amount of violence, he is constantly fighting for peace. In one of the Man of Steel’s most broad—and possibly his most destructive—rescues, he attempts to save the slums when he discovers that “‘the government rebuilds destroyed areas with modern cheap-rental apartments, eh?’ Building after building crashes before his attack! ‘Then here’s a job for it! – When I finish, this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” (Siegel 109). This passage acts as the perfect image of the messiah figure riding into battle to create peace among his people through completely active, violent, and destructive means. While Superman, or rather his writer Jerry Siegel, seems to prefer this method of justice, comic book readers can discover examples of peace through diplomacy. In Action Comics No. 2, he even settles a war between nations by bringing the opposing war-lords together and explaining: “‘Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! – Why not shake hands and make up?’ And so, due to the conciliatory efforts of Superman, the war is halted” (Siegel 30). Shuster draws Superman as a logical, supportive mentor, helping men to choose peace themselves rather than forcing it upon them. In the same way Jesus, King of the Jews, sought to bring His people to spiritual and eternal peace through His defeat of death in the form of resurrection. He points back to the prophecy in Isaiah by reassuring His disciples that “I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). This promise does not assure that God’s people will live life on Earth in utter peace and harmony, at least by the society’s definition, but rather looks to the peace granted by admission to the eternal paradise of heaven. However, Jesus does additionally promise peace on Earth in the form of the Holy Spirit, referred to the Spirit directly as “Peace” in reciting: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you” (John 14.27). Though this peace is more physical than that spoken of in the passage above, it remains a spiritual peace in that it perpetuates as an inner peace despite the trials and tribulations of life. The peace brought by Superman does not deal with the spiritual or how people deal with situations, but focuses entirely on eliminating as many tribulations as possible; therefore, Superman’s goal of peace is yet to be realized. Regardless of the completion of his goal, the physical and spiritual missions perpetuated by Superman and God-as-man yield sufficient peace to bestow both heroes with the title of a messianic peace-bringer.
While Siegel found inspiration for the last son of Krypton in the only begotten Son of God, the two differ in one very distinct way: Jesus is the spiritual savior of eternal life while Superman is the physical savior of life on earth. In their defense of the weak, their strength in battle, and their strides towards peace, it is fitting to call Superman the Messiah of the twentieth century, at least in the fictional comic book world. With Nazi Germany attempting to enslave and oppress the Jewish people, the physical salvation of Superman would understandably sound more appealing to some than a spiritual salvation, just as it may have to the Jews of biblical times under the heel of the Roman empire. Just as the Christian messiah reshaped the religion of those Jews who accepted His teachings, “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!” (Siegel 16)… at least in the comic books and in the minds of his avid readers.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print.
Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 2007. Print.
Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York, NY: DC, 2006, Print.
(Tyler Wenger is an upcoming sophomore at Washington and Lee University from Franklin, TN. He is a pre-med student planning on majoring in Neuroscience and he has been both a Christian and a die-hard Superman fan for his entire life.)
There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.
Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.
I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?
But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”
There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.
Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”
Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:
“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.
“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .
“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—
“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.
“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”
That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.
But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.
Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.
By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.
So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.
I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.
I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.
On the radio.
That’s the short answer.
Before DC handed over its biggest commodity to the Mutual Broadcasting System, press agent Duke Ducovny teamed-up with pulp writer Bob Maxwell to give the Man of Steel a radio make-over. Their revisions included a Krypton located on the other side of our sun and a full-grown Kryptonian stepping out of his rocket ship. They also dreamed up “Up, Up and Away!” and the swooshing audio effect that accompanied it. Technically, he was only leaping “into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound,” but when MBS writer George Ludlam took over the scripts, he kept the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” shtick. Listeners weren’t picturing a glorified high jumper. The Superman in their radio cabinets was flying.
But the comic book Superman remained comparatively earthbound. Though you can see why Ducovny and Maxwell made the imaginative leap. After his one-page origin, Joe Shuster’s first Action Comics panel shows his hero sailing over houses, with Jerry Siegel’s ambiguous caption: “A tireless figure races thru the night.”
The guy certainly looks like he’s flying. A few issues later, when he “launches himself out and down” from a skyscraper to save a suicidal jumper, Superman grabs him inches above the sidewalk. Which is to say, the creators had no problem breaking other laws of physics.
Yet they kept their hero stubbornly gravity-minded while the MBS incarnation was headed up, up and away. Six months after the radio debut, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman still “plummets earthward like a leaden weight.” But they didn’t ignore the airwaves entirely. “Seizing the sides of his cape, Superman navigates it like a sail so that he swoops out of sight in a giant curve before onlookers can quite understand what is happening!”
So why not just give in and let the guy fly?
Here’s the long answer.
Superman started flying out of Siegel and Shuster’s hands the moment they made him.
The two twenty-three-year-olds signed over all rights before the first 12-page feature hit newsstands. Has any company ever made a bigger return on a $130 investment? DC Comics, part of its boss’ mob-connected shell game of publishing companies in 1937, earned $2.6 million in 1941. Even the physical check they wrote Siegel and Shuster surged more than a tenfold in value when it was auctioned for $160,000 earlier this year.
So what did Superman’s creators get?
Their page rate leapt from $10 to $15. When DC signed Superman for a newspaper deal, the pair got a 50% royalty cut. But the 1940 radio show? The 1941 cartoon? The 1942 novel? The 1944 Superboy comic? The 1948 film serial? The decade of toys and kid clothes? And after they sued and lost in 1948, DC cut them off completely.
Superman was literally a corporation. Superman, Inc. DC hired their press agent to steer their Man of Money. Which is why Ducovny hired Maxwell, not Siegel, to write the first radio adaptation. Superman’s creators lost more than royalties. Creative control vanished as soon as DC figured out Superman was driving Action Comics sales.
And Siegel saw it all coming. AC #6, a phony manager hires a fake Superman and starts signing merchandise deals for breakfast cereals, cars, and gas stations. “I have a contract from him giving me sole commercial rights to his name!” This is the same month Siegel’s bosses nixed his idea for a new title about Superman’s boyhood. They’d wait till he was drafted and forget to pay him for it.
In 1940, Siegel tried to shake up his storylines by allowing Clark to reveal his secret identity to Lois. His bosses nixed that too. The next month, Clark parrots his creators’ marching orders: “With Lois more friendly, I’m tempted to forget my identity as Superman—but of course I must go on as I have!”
Next thing Perry White and Jimmy Olen—characters from the radio show—are showing up in Action Comics too. And it’s another MBS scripter, George Lowther, penning the novel DC contracted with Random House. Siegel didn’t get a credit, let alone a royalty check. When he shipped out in 1943, other writers took control of his comic books too.
Joe Shuster, half blind with a degenerative eye disease, had been employing a studio of co-artists for years. Soon they were jumping ship and taking their paychecks directly from DC. That 1940 issue with Superman using his cape like a sail? It was one of the last that looks like Shuster drew it himself. He and Jerry lost their uberoffspring faster than a speeding bullet.
Of course they didn’t want him to fly.
The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.
Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation. One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.
My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.
Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.
My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.
Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too. Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.
Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”
Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas. Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”
Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.
Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.
In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”
Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.
I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.
One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:
“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”
It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?
[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]
A “super hero” is a “superhero” is a “super-hero.” It’s a trademarked term. Marvel and DC have owned it jointly since 1979. They argued that consumers associate the word with their products, and so any other company marketing a character as a superhero would be exploiting them.
That may have been true in 1979. Charlton Comics (they dropped out of the superhero comic book market in the late 70’s) called their superpowered do-gooders “Action Heroes.” It seems considerably less true after the emergence of other major comic book publishers, such as Dark Horse in 1986 and Image in 1992. Only in a legalistic sense are Hellboy, Spawn, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist (Dark Horse published the comic book version) not superheroes.
My professional expertise is in literary analysis not law, but I do not expect Chevron and Gulf would have much luck barring other oil companies from using “gas station” on the grounds that Chevron and Gulf were the first to open ones. The term is used too generically now. Of course Marvel and DC can’t control generic use of “superhero” either. Other companies can call their characters “superheroes” within a text, just not in a title or an advertisement.
So someone tell me: Is Nostalgia Ventures following or breaking trademark law with the phrase “THE FIRST SUPERHERO” on the cover of their Doc Savage reprints? (This sounds like a job for those guys over at the “Law and the Multiverse” blog.)
Some dictionaries trace “superhero” to the early 60’s, fueling Marvel and DC’s claim since their Silver Age characters reinvented the genre then. But the word goes back much further. Popular wisdom has it originating shortly after 1938: since Superman established the hero type, imitations were dubbed “superheroes.” It’s a reasonable claim. Except that Joe Shuster used the term himself while sketching early drafts, describing Superman as “THE GREATEST SUPER-HERO OF ALL TIME!” years before he saw publication.
Pulp publishers Street and Smith advertised Doc Savage as a “SUPERMAN!” but in house they were referring to the Shadow and other mystery men as “superheroes” as early as 1932. Future DC publisher Harry Donnefeld launched Super-Detective magazine in 1934, but the prefix had been popular for at least a decade. Bruce Graeme opens his 1925 novel Blackshirt with a complaint: “A super-criminal—bah! It is all tommy-rot, this ‘super’ business.
The first published use of “super-hero” appears in Alan Bott’s 1917 Airman Outings. It was a complaint then too. Bott was objecting that members of Parliament were exaggerating the powers of British fighter pilots by calling them “the super-heroes of the war.”
The prefix had been circulating in variations on “ubermensch” for over a decade. Nietzsche made the word famous (or infamous), but he borrowed “ubermenschen” from Goethe’s Faust. The first English translator of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra named his ubermensch “beyond-man.” The second went with “superman.” But he was only following George Barnard Shaw. His play Man and Superman introduced the word to English in 1903. And “super-heroes” soon followed.
So conventional wisdom is right. If you subtract 35 years and forget that it’s a different superman (Shaw had Don Juan in mind). By the time Jerry Siegel attached it to his hero, the word was everywhere. Type it into The New York Times archives, and you’ll find hundreds of listings.
Superman appeared most regularly on sports pages. While Jack Dempsy insisted that “It will take a superman to beat” boxer Tom Heeney, football stars Red Grange and Frank Johavac were both declared “Superman.” Babe Ruth was a “Baseball Superman,” as was Giants pitcher Red Ruffing, and golfer Cecil Leitch was a “superwoman of the links.”
Other Supermen leapt from the arts pages: dancer Michel Fokine was a “Superman of the toe,” actor Robert Loraine a “Superman of the Stage,” Stravinsky a “Superman of Jazz,” Schoenberg another musical “Superman,” and singer Enrico Caruso had the “lungs . . . of a superman.”
According to book reviews, any person worthy of a biography was by definition a superman: Napoleon, Charles II, Garibaldi, Genghis Khan, Cromwell. Ben Franklin was honored as a “Super-man” on his 217th birthday. Among living politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mussolini were all repeatedly called or compared to supermen.
By 1938 the word was generic for any kind of excellence. Jerry Siegel wasn’t even the first author to apply it to a pulp hero. The honor goes to Edgar Rice Burrough, whose Tarzan is called a “superman” in his 1912 debut.
Using the word for a name today would be the modern equivalent of calling a character “Genius” or “Epitome.”
Or, better still, “Superhero.”
I doubt Marvel and DC’s lawyers mentioned any of this when presenting their trademark case. “Superhero” is the definition of a generic term. Their companies briefly capitalized on it, but they did not coin it, and its exclusive association with their products was temporary. It wasn’t the case for the thirty years before Action Comics #1, and it hasn’t been the case for the last thirty years either.
Michael Chabon is a nice guy. I made sure I knew how to pronounce his name (“Cha” as in Shea Stadium, “bon” as in Jovi) before having dinner with him. And about ten other faculty members and university students before his lecture across campus. He sat opposite me, as a way of avoiding the more central seat he probably should have taken. He’s a little shy, but less soft-spoken behind a podium.
I asked him about his script for Spider-Man 2 (in my defense, McSweeney’s had recently posted it), but he said, and then repeated twice, that his only interest in screenwriting was the family health benefits he received through the writer’s guild.
I didn’t ask him about his article, “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,” a handout I photocopy for students in my Superheroes course. I was, thankfully, not yet drafting my secret history of the genre, so his smile did not tighten the way my wife’s used to before she imposed a five-minute limit on any conversational gambit involving muscle-stretched spandex.
Michael will forgive me if I sometimes imagine I’m still in conversation with him. He tells me in the New Yorker: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”
It’s a pithy summary of conventional wisdom, one I took on faith when I sketched my first timeline. Aside from the Shadow and a few other pulp heroes of the 30’s, there’s just Zorro a decade earlier, and the Scarlet Pimpernel a decade and half before that.
I wasn’t expecting an answer (from anyone, let alone my imaginary Michael) when I asked about the gaps. I assumed I’d never heard of any roaring twenties superheroes because the roaring twenties were roaring through other genres. Same for the fifteen years between Baroness Orczy’s flowery Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Z-slashing imitation.
Actually, Michael, the first three decades of the century were awash with masked and superpowered do-gooders. My latest rough count: forty. The number doubles with the horde of “mystery men” who crawl from under The Shadow’s cloak plus the Pimpernel’s garden of predecessors, some known, others lost in the mulch of crumbled penny-dreadfuls.
Eighty. About the number who attended Chabon’s lecture. Not a stadium crowd, but the Beatles couldn’t have filled Shea when they started either. Jerry Siegel and Jim Shuster may be comic book’s Lennon and McCartney, but their Superman was Elvis. He rose so high in his genre because his genre was already there to applaud him.
That’s the story I’m writing. Not a tight little screenplay, but a sprawling mini-series with a dozen subplots and a cast of hundreds. If there’s a superhero writer’s guild, I want the family health benefits too.
C) a planet opposite Earth on the other side of the sun.
(Sorry, “Krypton” is not an option.)
If you went with “B” (a good multiple choice technique since test-makers have an unconscious tendency to “hide” correct answers), you apparently have read Jack Williamson’s 1929 short story “The Girl from Mars.” Superman creator Jerry Siegel read it in high school. The “Lost Planet” of Mars, like Krypton, explodes, but not before its scientists save their race by launching unborn offspring to Earth. Siegel must have skipped over the bit about fertilization and gestation, but one of the adopted Martians “was brought up by a farmer,” providing a seed for Superman’s origin.
If you went with “C,” you’re a radio fan. When Allen Ducovny and Robert Joffe Maxwell adapted the star of Action Comics for a radio serial in 1940, they located Superman’s home planet in our own solar system, but hid it from Earth’s view. Siegel jettisoned artificial insemination, but the radio team tossed out childhood too. Their Superman steps out of his rocket fully grown.
If you went with “A,” you’re with me. After Joe Shuster burnt the first draft of Superman, Siegel approached comic strip artist Russell Keaton to illustrate a rewrite. The script resembles what would become Action Comics #1, only instead of Krypton exploding, Earth “was in its last days, dying” as “the last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine” and launched it to “the primitive year, 1935, A.D.” The child’s “physical structure was millions of years advanced.” The Man of Tomorrow was literally the man of tomorrow.
He was also literally “superman,” Nietzsche’s vision of mankind’s evolutionary future. What Nazi Germany was marching toward. Siegel co-opted eugenics, the product of an explicitly pro-Aryan, anti-Semitic pseudo-science nurtured in the U.S. and championed in Germany, and turned it against itself. After Keaton drew sample strips, Clark becomes the adoptive son of Sam and Molly Kent who realize they have a “duty to train him . . . so that he will use his super strength to help those in need of assistance.”
The genetic child of the German future would be nurtured by the loving parents of the American present.
Take that, Ubermensch.
When we streamed X-Men: First Class in our living room the other night, we roped our fourteen-year-old daughter into watching too. My wife promised cute guys. So it’s not surprising that Madeleine noticed first:
“Wait, are they gay?”
She meant Magneto and Professor X and, wow, was she right.
In retrospect, their first meeting (a passionate underwater hug) should have been a clue. I didn’t see it till the shot of Chuck and Eric nuzzled shoulder to shoulder in the strip joint bed. Madeleine got it when they were gazing at each other across a chessboard with the, um, Empire State Building in the background. Apparently Wolverine smelled it too. When the two ubermutants saddle up to him in a bar, he spells it out: “Go fuck yourself.”
Oh, I think they are.
Even without the gay rights subtext (when Charles accidentally outs Hank McCoy, the mutant tells his C.I.A. employer: “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”), the air was already thick with bromance.
Before the release, actor James McAvoy (Charles) promised a “kind of love story, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which, really, was a love story between two men.” The difference is that Redford (or was Newman “Butch”?) got a sappy love montage riding a bicycle with his very heterosexual love interest. 1969 was not a year to come out of the Brokeback closet.
Charles and Erik pay some minimal attention to women (Charles has a couple of lazy pick-up lines, and Erik solidifies Mystique’s allegiance with an off-camera consummation), but their real passion is for each other. Erik cradling the crippled Charles in his arms says it all. “I want you by my side.”
Once they break up, both instantly sublimate into new and wholly heterosexual channels. Charles and his C.I.A. contact were Platonic before he pecks her on the lips and strips her memory (the ultimate rufie?). Erik is more blatant when he springs the comically underdressed Emma Frost from a C.I.A. holding tank.
“Where’s your telepath friend?” she asks.
“Gone. Left a bit of a gap in my life if I’m to be honest. I was rather hoping you would fill it.”
The last actor to play Magneto would have gone further. For his third and last X-Men movie, Ian McKellen wanted the camera to discover him and Patrick Stewart (a sexier, albeit balder Charles than McAvoy’s) in the throes of a sex scene. Bryan Singer might have gone along with it (both he and McKellen are gay), which could also explain why Fox handed control of X-Men: The Last Stand to a different director.
But Charles and Erik are not the first superpowered frenemies with benefits. It was the subtext of the arch rival since its comic book conception.
Superman faced down his first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, back in 1939. Like Professor X, Ultra is a bald, wheelchair-bound super-genius. Creator Jerry Siegel retconned him into the first dozen Action Comics as the secret mastermind behind all those garden variety crimes Superman so effortlessly ended. The Man of Steel needed an opponent on his own playing field.
As McAvoy says about Magneto and Professor X: “This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too.”
Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger exploited the same, not-so-subtle sexual subtext with Catwoman. Simply “The Cat” in her first 1940 appearance, she attempts to seduce Batman after he captures her: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me! You and I TOGETHER!” (Robin is conveniently looking away during the embrace.)
Though tempted, Batman refuses. But he also lets his favorite feline escape. “Lovely girl! What eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime.” (We can discuss Robin’s jealous reaction elsewhere.)
Siegel understood the subtext too. Perhaps too well. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife Marguerite, Lois Lane is the one antagonist always on the verge of discovering Superman’s secret. But Superman had an even bigger breasted threat.
After Ultra’s first four appearances (and second apparent death) the original comic book nemesis returned. As a woman. Superman recognizes his arch rival in the “blazing eyes” of screen star Delores Winters.
“You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look—as you can see, I’m very much alive!”
And very much female in that tight, red, spaghetti-strap dress Joe Shuster sketches for her/him. How is such a villainous transformation possible!
“My assistants, finding my body, revived me . . . and following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”
From all the bodies on the planet, Ultra chooses to become a famously gorgeous film actress. That’s not a metaphor. The guy is transsexual.
Superman continues to call the post-operative Ultra/Delores “he,” but even when Shuster draws Delores’ body in trousers, she’s still all woman. In Ultra’s next (and last adventure), the villain(ess) even uses his feminine wiles to seduce an atomic scientist (“The fool!”).
The gender bender proved too much for Siegel and/or his DC editors. Veiled homosexuality is one thing. An explicitly transgendered supervillain is another. The solution? A not-yet-bald Lex Luthor replaces Ultra in the next episode.
And so the bromance continues . . .
Tags: Charles Xavier, first transexual supervillain, frenemies with benefits, gay supervillains, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Jerry Siegel, Magneto, Patrick Stewart, Profesor x, Superman, Ultra Humanite, X-Men:First Class
Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead. Superman writers Grant Morrison and George Pérez killed Clark Kent’s adoptive parents for the latest history-altering DC reboot. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Kent (unlike Spider-Man’s immortal Aunt May) are no newcomers to the afterlife.
Before the first DC reboot in 1986, the Kents were strictly flashback characters for Superboy stories. Before writer-artist John Byrne resurrected them, the elderly couple had always passed quietly away before Clark assumed the adult role of Superman.
In fact, they dropped dead specifically to spur their orphaned son to greatness:
“The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created — Superman!”
My parents achieved a similar goal through less melodramatic means: they sent me to college (the alien planet my daughter will launch toward in four years).
For Batman, Bob Kane replaced the Kents’ flower-strewn gravesite with murdered-before-his-eyes corpses, but the narrative logic is the same. Apparently dead parents are very motivating. Plus it’s hard to be a hero when Dad’s king of the castle and Mom’s still packing your lunches.
It’s a crusty old plot (for starters check out Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Spring-Heeled Jack). So belated kudos to Byrne for breaking it. Even if it did mean the Kents’ Metropolis visits got a bit too regular.
The doting Eddie Jones and K. Callan embodied them in the mid-nineties Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and when Annette O’Toole and John Schneider assumed their Smallville roles in 2000, they couldn’t even bother being “elderly” anymore.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are up next (Superman: Man of Steel began shooting in August). I’m rooting for director Zack Snyder to team-up with Pérez Morrison and knock them off early. Or at least (please) Costner.
Glenn Ford dutifully died of a heart attack out in his field of dreams back in the 1978 Superman. Scriptwriter and Godfather author Mario Puzo gave Mr. Kent an offer he couldn’t refuse, but not Phyllis Thaxter. She lived on to be reincarnated by Eva Marie Saint in the 2006 Superman Returns. The original widowed Mrs. Kent awards go to Frances Morris in the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV and Virginia Carroll in the 1948 Superman film serial that launched the TV show.
Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the necessity of only killing father figures (consider Spider-Man again and his Uncle Ben), but during Superman’s first decade neither of the Kents was a target of narrative manslaughter. In fact, neither of them particularly existed.
When Superman first appeared on TV in the early 40’s as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon, the Kryptonian had never been adopted by any Smallville couple. He grew up in an orphanage after being plucked from his rocket ship by an unnamed motorist.
The Fleischers weren’t the first to cut that particular narrative corner. When Superman had premiered on the radio a year earlier, he stepped full-grown from his capsule, no Kents in sight then either.
Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel didn’t pen Superman’s radio and cartoon incarnations, but he was no fan of Clark’s foster parents himself. When he and Joe Shuster flew their Man of Steel to daily newspaper syndication in 1939, they replaced them with that same orphan asylum and passing motorist.
The Kents didn’t exist for the first year of Action Comics either. They were shoe-horned in for Superman No. 1, a reprint of previous adventures with a few pages of new, editor-mandated material. The first comic book reboot. Clark’s institutionalized childhood was swapped for “the love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents.” The passing motorist was now named Mr. Kent who, after dumping that alien baby at the orphanage, returns with his wife to reclaim him (“We couldn’t get that sweet child of our mind”).
The Kents were never Siegel’s idea anyway. When Joe Shuster flung the rejected first draft of Superman into the fire, Siegel begged Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton to replace his partner. Keaton also replaced Siegel’s scripts. There are no Kents in his 1934 summary. They debuted in Keaton’s unpublished sample strips, a fleshed-out version of the adoption story Siegel recycled and condensed for Superman No. 1.
Jerry Siegel’s own origin story is closer to Bruce Wayne’s. His father died in an armed robbery in 1932. Jerry was 18. Was it less painful to pretend that his father had never existed? I’m 45. I don’t want to imagine the stories I’ll tell myself after my parents’ deaths.
Siegel continued to live with his widowed mother to became the permanent baby of the family, trapped at home under her protective wing while he watched his siblings fly off. He dreamed up Superman a year later. Would he have preferred the accelerated adulthood of orphanage life over such loving guidance? Probably not. But Superman was a daydream. An escape. A superhero doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.
Probably George Pérez and Grant Morrison don’t either, but they’re working under the firm and loving guidance of their editors. DC, like Siegel, wants to snip the apron strings early and send their Superman flying solo.
So rest in peace Jonathan and Martha. See you at the next rewrite.
Tags: Annette O’Toole, Diane Lane, Eddie Jones, Eva Marie Saint, Frances Morris, George Pérez, Glenn Ford, Jerry Siegel, John Schneider, Jonathan Kent, K. Callan, Kevin Costner, Mario Puzo, Martha Kent, Phyllis Thaxter, Russell Keaton, Superman, Virginia Carroll