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.
201. Jerry Siegel
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.
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.
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.
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.