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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #201

Now the time has come! At last, the other father of superhero comics gets his own entry! Also, I must point out things like the archive and the reader survey, in case anyone missed it and still wants to get their opinions in.

7/20/07

201. Jerry Siegel

Jerry Siegel 3.jpg

I covered Canadian native and fellow father of the superhero Joe Shuster back during Eh-pril. We all knew the day would have to come when his partner-in-Superman Jerry Siegel would receive his own entry. That day is today!

Jerome Siegel was born in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio, a city that tends to give rise to cool comic creators. Interested in science fiction, he launched Cosmic Stories, an early sci-fi “fanzine” in 1929. With buddy Joe Shuster, he broke into the comics industry, and together they created Slam Bradley, Dr. Occult, and a few other great little strips. They had a bigger idea, though, a better one. A super one, if you will.

Jerry had written a story called “Reign of the Superman,” featuring a villain with special powers, for one of his self-published sci-fi mags. Shuster provided drawings for it. This would spark an idea that would give rise to lightning in a bottle.

Jerry Siegel 1.jpg

Inspired by Samson, Hercules, Doc Savage, and a novel entitled Gladiator, Siegel and Shuster developed their idea of Superman, and began pitching him as a comic strip and being rejected again and again (“people will never believe this!”), the smartest editor who ever lived, Vin Sullivan, brought Superman to Action Comics. Shuster drew the pictures; Siegel wrote the words. Clark Kent was a mirror of Siegel’s own shy, bookish self. Superman was the perfect immigrant story, fitting due to Siegel’s parents heritage as Jewish immigrants. Superman was the golem, the protector of Jews, really, who fought against Hitler even if he fulfilled most of the Aryan qualifications.

Jerry Siegel 5.jpgJerry Siegel 6.jpg

Siegel’s father never saw his creative successes, having been murdered by a thief. It’s a horrific and tragic story. I think this big, inspirational four-color hero Siegel co-created serves to honor the memory of his dad. We were given Superman, a savior who looked out for the little guys, like the Siegels and the Shusters. It’s a nice thought, anyway.

Jerry Siegel would go on to co-create other DC characters like the Star-Spangled Kid and the Spectre, a murdered cop turned spirit of vengeance. He’s also responsible for Superboy, who, yes, is currently the subject of a legal battle between the Siegel family and DC. Jerry wrote quite a few Superboy stories as well as Legion of Super-Heroes tales, creating a host of bizarre characters (including my favorite Legionnaire of all, the magnificent Matter-Eater Lad) and filled the stories with beautifully mad ideas and plots. So yeah, I’d say Siegel was extremely influential in the tapestry of DC Comics.

Jerry Siegel 2.jpgJerry Siegel 4.jpg

I remember the day Jerry Siegel died (January 28, 1996), and I was pretty crushed. Honestly, having known nothing of him at the time, I still felt like I lost someone close to me, simply through Superman. We have Mr. Siegel to thank for almost seventy years of Superman, the hero who made comics comics, who launched the superhero meme for all time. It was as if Siegel and Shuster reached into the archetypal soup and pulled out the ultimate superhero right at the beginning. Really, that’s all you need to hear: Siegel and Shuster created Superman. The rest is history.

Thanks for everything, Jerry. You’ll be forever missed. Your name and most famous creation, however, are truly immortal.

For more on the inspirations for Superman, visit this cool Dial B for Blog piece. And for more on Siegel, Shuster, the beginnings of Superman, and several of the legal battles that followed, check this site.

24 Comments

Another great entry. It’s astonishing that, when you look through things like DC’s Showcase collections, Siegel is still there in the trenches writing good stories years after he created the best character in comics.

[quote]Interested in science fiction, he launched Cosmic Stories, an early sci-fi “fanzine” in 1929.[/quote]

Actually, wasn’t it the [i]sf[/i] fanzine? That’s remarkably significant in & of itself, Superman or no Superman.

Ah, well … so much for html.

Actually, I meant to type, “Wasn’t it the *first* sf fanzine?”

So much for posting shortly after waking up from an after-work night. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Jerry Siegel: one of the greatest imaginations in comics, but the guy just couldn’t catch a break.

Actually I think the reason Superman was rejected over and over, was (if you take a look at archives 1 and 2)
because the drawings were super crude and the stories super lame.

Was it Shuster or Seigel who worked for Marvel in the late 60’s-early 70’s when he had no job? I remember reading it once somewhere.

I meant Siegel.

Siegel did all sorts of odd jobs in later life. He worked on British comics for a while, writing the adventures of super-crook The Spider. The last thing I recall seeing by him was a story about a boy robot, drawn by Dave Sim, which appeared as a backup in Cerebus.

Siegel did all sorts of odd jobs in later life. He worked on British comics for a while, writing the adventures of super-crook The Spider. The last thing I recall seeing by him was a story about a boy robot, drawn by Dave Sim, which appeared as a backup in Cerebus.

Huh.

You know what issue of Cerebus? I’m quite curious.

The Kirbydotter

July 21, 2007 at 10:40 am

To Tomer:

Jerry Siegel worked all over the place in the late 60s and early 70s. I think he did afew stories for Warren (Creepy and Eerie) and he definately worked at Marvel. I remember seeing his name on a few western… but maybe I’m getting mixted with Gardner Fox who was fired at the same time at DC with most of the stable of veteran writers when they tried to form a union.

I know Siegel did wrote some of the Human Torch solo stories in STRANGE TALES. I think he only 2 or 3 of them, about the time they introduced Plantman.

The Kirbydotter

July 21, 2007 at 10:45 am

Siegel and Shuster really got skrewed by DC.
Even after Neal Adams got DC to give them a small pension (they were both poor and in bad health by the time), they still never got what they deserved for creating the superheroes genre and pretty much made DC a multi-millions property.

Even if they had received a million dollars each in recognition, they would still have ended up at the poor end of a rotten deal.

I wrote a paper about him my junior year in English class, when we were assigned to write about an American author. My teacher got all bent out of shape that I wrote about a comic book writer, but I finally came out on top in that argument and got an A on the paper. I thank Mr. Siegel for helping me fight to get comics respected.

I still think the Siegel and Shuster Superman stories are the best ever written.

I hate to sound callous, Kirbydotter, but they didn’t sign a contract selling the rights to “create comics and make DC a multi-million dollar property.” They sold an untested character concept in a new medium and got a pretty good deal out of it–a lump sum of cash, and a job writing and drawing the series for the forseeable future.

Only later, after DC had aggressively marketed, promoted, and spun their original idea off into other media, did they begin to get the idea that they’d been “screwed”, and they’ve been claiming it ever since. But a lot of people worked on making Superman such an enduring character in so many media–sometimes, the people who develop a concept are just as important as the people who create it.

And, while DC might have been shamed into giving Siegel and Shuster a pension, they did do so, and they increased it over the years until it was a very fair sum of money to give two guys who hadn’t worked for DC for thirty years and had spent part of the subsequent period filing baseless lawsuits against the company.

MarkAndrew: the story was called “The Creation of Ricky” about Ricky Robot and is in issues #63 & 64 of Cerebus.

Rohan Williams

July 21, 2007 at 7:21 pm

“Actually I think the reason Superman was rejected over and over, was (if you take a look at archives 1 and 2)
because the drawings were super crude and the stories super lame.”
Really? That’s interesting, I haven’t heard that point of view before. Personally, I think the early stories have an energy and vitality that has been sorely lacking in a lot of Superman stories since then.

The Kirbydotter

July 22, 2007 at 7:35 am

John Seavey: “Only later, after DC had aggressively marketed, promoted, and spun their original idea off into other media, did they begin to get the idea that they’d been “screwed”, and they’ve been claiming it ever since.”

“Aggressively marketed”???
Really?

As soon as ACTION COMICS it the stands it was a hit.
They certainly didn’t have to “aggressively” market it!
It sold by itself! DC/National even asked other creators in their employ to run with the ideas and concepts of Siegel and Shuster and come up with other superheroes. Other companies followed. The movie and tv business came to DC, not the other way around.

You got to remember that Siegel and Shuster were pretty young and poor at the time they sold Superman, they had no idea that their ideas could mean big money. They didn’t have an agent and even less a lawyer they could never think to afford. DC were businessmen with lawyers on retainer.

The comic book medium was very new at the time. No one before them had ever created a character that sold comic books as Superman would. It was unthinkable to even consider that a comic book character could be made into a movie or serial. TV wasn’t even a medium back then.

If you wanted to make money doing comics in those days, you had to get into newspaper strips and syndicates, not comic books that were considered as poor substitutes with no future. That’s what Siegel and Shuster tried at first. To get a syndicate to buy their Superman strip. They didn’t get any syndicate interested. And the first issue of Action comics was made of pasted up strips.

Sure DC gave them a chance and a job. Superman was an overnight success as soon as it was published. BUT when the character was licensed to other mediums (syndicated strips, movie serials and later TV), Siegel and Shuster SHOULD have gotten their share of it. It is now customary for the creator of a character to get clauses regarding licensing and merchandising. Back then, it wasn’t even a concept! No body could even imagine such a thing, not even science fictions fans and creators like Siegel and Shuster.

I think the first pension Siegel and Shuster got was about $25 000 a year IIRC. Ridiculous for two invalids old men that had make DC make millions on their characters. They got this because, like you so well putted it, they were shamed into this, by a media campaign lead by Neal Adams. DC accepted reluctantly because it was just before the first big movie (The Salkins produced SUPERMAN THE MOVIE with Christopher Reeves) and they didn’t want to loose a multi-million investment on bad publicity and public outcry.

Later, the pension was raised by new, more considerate administrations. My point was, DC was many years late into recognizing the major contribution of these two teenage boys to the success of a multi-million enterprise. Before Neal Adams took to crusading for them, Siegel and Shuster were living in poverty condition while a big company and their fat cat administrators got rich just managing the creations they got for pennies from two teenagers who didn’t know better.

I tend to go pretty much down the middle when it comes to the Siegel and Shuster’s troubles with DC (or the predecessor company). The truth is, while they sold the rights to the character for $130, DC let them set up a studio to do all the Superman work and were paying them quite handsomely. Siegel was by the early 40s a celebrity and connected to the character. His wedding made the gossip columns. If Siegel had just shut up he would have probably done as well as Bob Kane did from Batman.

Reading Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, I get the impression that Siegel was something of a hothead with a chip on his shoulder and I think that proved to be his downfall. He listened to people, mostly lawyers, who fed his discontent instead of telling him that DC held all the cards and would crush him like a bug, which they did.

But I disagree with John Seavey in that I do think that DC did still screw Siegel and Shuster. The success of the character was evident–and huge– within 18 months of Action Comics 1 going on the stands. It’s true that companies and corporations don’t have an obligation to their employees but I do think they might have offered something better than they did– some kind of profit participation or increased share in the character, much like United Press Syndicate did with Bill Waterson and Calvin and Hobbes years later. Instead, DC kept giving Siegel and Shuster a lot of empty promises and bum steers during those first few years. DC hardly acted as model corporate citizens in this affair. And Superman is the ultimate work for hire nightmare.

So I think it’s both: Siegel could have come out of the situation probably a whole lot better if he had been more agreeable and to a large extent was the architect of his own destruction, but DC probably could have shown more largesse as well.

I think one thing you’re missing from your profile Bill is that Siegel and Shuster might well be the first and finest example of ‘fans made good’. These are two kids in the height of the depression who were fans of pulp science fiction and comics, who created one of the first– if not the very first– science fiction fanzines. “Reign of the Superman” is hugely derivative of pulp writing like what came out in Astonishing Stories. Superman is in many ways a rip off (or riff off) of Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Doc Savage. They were from the very first generation of fandom and they wanted a way in to the mainstream to do what their idols did. That’s a very fannish trait. And like so many fans they were greeted with rejection every step of the way.

In short, they were the original geeks. We owe them a tremendous debt.

Actually I think the reason Superman was rejected over and over, was (if you take a look at archives 1 and 2)
because the drawings were super crude and the stories super lame.

Yes and no. I don’t know if I’d say the stories were ‘super lame’ but I do think if you compared the Superman storyline from Action 1 with contemporary comic strips like Flash Gordon or Brick Bradford (which is probably a more level playing field with Superman in terms of quality) and it isn’t anywhere near as proficient

I think the comic book medium ultimately served Superman better and I think Siegel’s writing worked better in that medium.

I think I come more down the middle than I do as well, Graeme…but since I’m always the first to speak up defending DC, I probably come off more pro-DC than I really am. I just think that there’s a trend, among comics fans, to stick up for their creators as an absolute–if a writer signed a contract, well, they didn’t realize what they were doing. If an artist wants rights back to a character, it’s entirely out of parental affection for the character they created, and the thought of base and filthy money doesn’t enter into their minds–only corporate entities would think of it in those terms.

The truth is, sometimes comics creators get greedy and short-sighted just like the companies that hire them. The difference tends to be that the big companies hire better lawyers. :)

“If Siegel had just shut up he would have probably done as well as Bob Kane did from Batman.”

It’s funny that you say that and then bring up ‘Men of Tomorrow'; IIRC, from that book, if Siegel had just shut up, neither he nor Bob Kane would’ve gotten *anything*… and without Bob Kane as precedent, I wonder where the fight for creators’ rights would be today?

If Siegel and Shuster hadn’t fought as hard as they did, we would’ve had at least 20-30 years of precedent of not paying any creators any dividends at all. (I imagine Stan Lee would’ve broken it for himself, in some way, but I still think we’d be worse off for it.)

The Kirbydotter

July 23, 2007 at 10:37 am

I read MEN OF TOMMORROW as well (great books!) and I too got the impression that Siegel was a hot head and probably panicked when he saw that Superman was a hot property and they had sold the rights for such a ridiculous sum. He probably lacked a good counsel and his lawyer might have steered him in the wrong direction/approach.

He certainly didn’t have the social skills and savvy of Bob Kane who actually did little work on his creation once it was a hit (he had a stable of ghosts) and kept all the spotlight on him (and most of the money), pushing co-creator Bill Finger in the shadows (and poverty), not giving him a byline eventhought Finger was the one who came up with most of the elements on Batman. Even the defining visual aspects were Finger’s! Bob Kane original idea for Batman was pretty much a clone of Superman with a red costume and a domino mask. Finger was the one to suggest the cowl, the darker look, the bat-gloves (inspired by the Black Bat from the pulps). Finger was the one who made him a detective character and created most classical bat-villains (inspired by Dick Tracy’s).

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