In June of 1938 Action Comics #1 hit the stands with a rejected comic strip character called Superman on the front cover. Superman was created by two Cleveland teenagers named Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Joseph (Joe) Shuster was born on July 10th, 1914 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 4 months later on October 17th Jerome (Jerry) Siegel was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe’s family moved to Cleveland when he was 9. The two met in Glenville high school and created a fanzine called Science Fiction with a mimeograph machine. This fanzine also had stories from future celebrity writers Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. In the third issue, Siegel used the pseudonym Herbert S. Fine (a mix of his cousin’s name with his mother’s maiden name) and wrote a story titled Reign of the Superman. The main character was a villain with mental powers. They would later change the character to a physical powerhouse and a good guy.
To read the original evil version Superman story from the Science Fiction fanzine click here. (Source: Defunct Superman Thru the Ages website)
Joe and Jerry first tried to sell the Superman in 1933. They created a few different comic strip formats of Superman. Once a Chicago based Humor Publications was interested in publishing Superman. Jerry and Joe made a story, but at the last minute the publisher stopped doing comic books. In 1934 Jerry had tried working with other artists and former Buck Rogers ghost artist Russell Keaton took a try at developing Superman with Jerry. He had created 9 strips telling a story that Superman was from the future and went back in time as a toddler in a time machine. Bell syndicate was not interested and Keaton would go on to create a Flyin' Jenny comic strip that he wrote and drew until he died from melanoma at age 35. Joe Shuster worked part time jobs doing deliveries for a grocery store, selling ice-cream bars on the streets and carrying heavy boxes.
Jerry would then have trouble sleeping one summer night in 1934. As he tossed and turned because of the heat, he kept thinking more and more about a new Superman character. He would wake up with little bits of ideas and he would scribble them down on paper each time. By the time morning arrived Jerry had his character. He ran all 9.5 blocks to Joe Shuster's apartment and explained the new version of Superman. Joe also became excited and the two of them would start to work on a costume design for the character. Truth be told, Superman was a mishmash of what was already popular in pulps, sci-fi stories, comic strips and magazines.
There is one other serious inspiration for Superman. Siegel's father died of a heart attack during the course of a robbery of his second hand suit store in 1932. Jerry was already being put to work in the store and it appeared that he was going to end up working there after graduating high school. Without the shop, there was no longer family determined occupation for him and he was able to pursue his dream of writing. Some people think that Superman was also a replacement father figure for Jerry.
Thus the Superman that we know was created, the first original comic book character to have powers far beyond a normal human being. There were a variety of heroes in comic strips, pulps books and on radio but they couldn't lift a car over their heads and throw it at someone! Nor could they let bullets bounce off their chest or run faster than a train or leap over tall buildings in a single bound. To say the least, Superman was a fitting name. The Clark Kent guise was very much Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both were unpopular kids at school whom had crushes on pretty girls who ignored them. Jerry wore glasses and dreamed of being a reporter. Joe Shuster also wore glasses as he had eye problems.
Once again the two would go out and try to sell Superman. But the new version got rejected again and again. One editor who rejected some of Siegel's earlier work told him "What you got to do kid, is come up with a comic strip that is absolutely sensational." Upon seeing 4 weeks of Superman strips the same editor shook his head and replied "The trouble with this kid, is that it's too sensational. Nobody would believe it." Bell Syndicate told them, "We are in the market only for strips likely to have the most extra-ordinary appeal, and we do not feel Superman gets into this category." United Features said that Superman was "a rather immature piece of work." Other editors seemed interested in Superman, but would still reject Joe and Jerry's work. They often worried that they would go and do a watered down version of Superman. There were other times when Superman almost did get published but for some reason or another it didn't work out.
But Joe and Jerry were not worried. They had become comic book pro's getting low paying jobs doing work for publisher Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and The Comics Magazine. The Major was interested in publishing Superman but Joe and Jerry turned down his offer because they thought Superman should be in a better company, as the Major was having financial difficulties. One small newspaper wanted to Jerry to do a daily serial of action stories featuring Superman. But both Joe and Jerry turned this down as well because they felt prose stories wouldn't fully produce the excitement that Superman was supposed to bring. They felt only a comic strip/book style story would be the best for Superman.
Still working for McClure Syndicate, Max Charlie Gaines and his assistant Sheldon Mayer saw a comic strip submission. The young Sheldon Mayer was very enthusiastic about the strip even though the Syndicate was not. Charlie still had to keep those presses rolling and was offering a cheap deal to Donenfeld if he would print more comics using his printer. Donenfeld at first didn’t accept it because he didn’t have enough material to print. The two made a deal of doing more comics if Gaines would go out and find stuff to print. With the encouragement of Sheldon Mayer, Gaines would send over the Superman submission to National Allied Publications. Editor Vin Sullivan used it not because they thought the strip was anything special, but because it was different and they needed something, anything for the new comic book as it was close to deadline. The series was called Action Comics.
To make Superman's comic book debut, the comic strip submission was cut up and re-pasted to make a 13 page story. Certain panels were left out but were later included in Superman #1. In this issue the Superman story ends on a cliff hanger, which demonstrates perfectly the strength of newsstand distribution. It's perfect for serial entertainment as the material is available for a limited amount of time, then a newer issue comes out and the previous issue(s) are scarce. Because the stories ended on a cliff hanger, readers would make sure to buy the next issue when it came available (if they were interested). This also changed the focus of newsstand comics in general. Until now, comics on the newsstands were mainly aimed at adult readers. Publishers did already recognize that kids were buying the books as well and they were slowly replacing humor strips with adventure strips as that’s what the kids liked. With the success of Superman publishers realized there was a lot more money to be made by making original, exciting adventure stories for kids.
Among the things that made Superman popular was his fight for social justice, rather than law and order. The Superman of late 1930's had no qualms about doing all sorts of illegal things in order to right what he felt were wrongs. This included getting confessions out of crooked politicians by threatening to injure or kill them, kidnapping and forcing weapon makers into fighting on the front lines of a war and trapping a Mining Company owner and his rich friends in an unsafe mine that his employees worked in. Some people would criticize Superman and superheroes in general because of these types of stories, saying they taught "might makes right" and were fascist.
As time wore on Superman changed. He went from not wanting to get involved within WWII to attacking the Nazi and Japanese Armies himself. What also changed was his focus from social justice to law and order, or perhaps the better slogan is Truth, Justice and the American Way. Regardless, Superman became a world wide icon representing all that is good and decent in people and a belief that good is stronger and will eventually win over evil. Superman inspired many other superheroes and the superhero genre, which became the driving force of the industry for most of it's existence. Today Superman is one of the 10 most recognized 'people' on the face of the planet. He has been in several movies, cartoons and TV series and will undoubtedly be in many more as the years go by.
It should be known that Siegel and Shuster did not share in the wealth generated by Superman. The two had sold the rights to the characters along with the first story for 10 dollars a page. Siegel did ask for increases in page rates and did get them, but they still were only getting very small portion of the income Superman was generating. A 1941 magazine article in the Saturday Nights Evening Post went into detail about how the money was being distributed. It reported that in 1940 The Superman Shop got $75,000 dollars. $16,000 of which went to pay the staff and other expenses, leaving $59,000 to split between the two creators. Meanwhile Harry Donenfeld was bragging to reporters his pay from Superman was around $500,000. The article writer believed it to be half that, Liebowitz would only admit that it was over $100,000. Superman Inc., the company set up for Superman licensing made 1.5 million dollars that year. There was no mention on how much DC co-owner Jack Liebowitz was getting paid.
During a court case over Superman's copyright, DC revealed how much it paid Siegel and Shuster. For the comic books they received $195,196.64 over 122 months (December 1st 1937 to March 1947). Very roughly that was $1,742.83 per month & $20,913.93 per year split between them. This includes Siegel's non-Superman related work like The Spectre, Slam Bradley and other stories. Some of Joe Shuster's half would go towards hiring assistant artists to help him and it is likely that both sides paid towards the shop when it was running (rent, utilities, etc..). For the Superman newspaper strip they received $205,998.21 over 88 months (December 19th 1939 to March 1947). Very roughly $2,340.89 per month & $28,090.67 per year. Exactly how much the owners paid themselves and how much profit was left over was not revealed.
During WWII Siegel was drafted, Shuster was not accepted due to his bad eyesight. Prior to the split the creators had set up a comic "shop" producing the complete Superman Comics for DC. Among the artists to work in the shop was Wayne Boring who would later take over the title. When Jerry left to go to war DC convinced Shuster to let DC do the work internally. When Siegel came back he found the shop dissolved and a Superboy character on the stands. Siegel tried to reinstate his comic shop but DC refused to relinquish control over the creation of comics. Another bone of contention was Superboy. This was a character Siegel created and proposed prior to the war, but it was rejected by DC. Now DC was publishing Superboy stories (done by somebody else) with no royalties coming back to them. Siegel also couldn't help but notice all the Superman merchandise out there but very little money from it.
In 1946 had hired an attorney and sued DC Comics for the rights of Superman and Superboy. Albert Zugsmith was a friend of Siegel's and he would help speak on their behalf. Siegel and Shuster were fired from DC at this time as well. By 1948 the trial was done and the creators lost on the Superman rights, but won on Superboy. After which they agreed to a settlement of $94,000 with DC for the rights of Superboy and all other Superman rights. Most of the money went to their lawyer and some likely to Zugsmith who used it to produce a string of popular B-movies in the 1950's. Due to the lawsuit, DC removed Siegel and Shuster's names from the comic books. Even though the characters still continued to make lots of money, none of it would go to the creators.
The two of them would continue to work in comic books/strips and worked together again. They created a Funnyman character, but it wasn't successful. Siegel would continue to write scripts for other publishers and would eventually become the Comic Art Director for the Ziff-Davis company in the 50's. Joe Shuster would quit comics altogether as his eye site grew so bad he became legally blind. Siegel would still try and work but would be struggling financially the whole time. A popular rumor was that Siegel once threatened to dress up in a Superman costume and commit suicide by jumping from the Grand Central Palace building. Joe Shuster at one time worked for a delivery service had to deliver something to a company in the same building as DC office. A DC employee saw him in the hallway and noticed his he was wearing shabby clothes. Word spread through the DC staff very quickly about the fate of Superman's co-creator. The next day DC asked him to come in. Shuster had his hopes up that they might have some pity for him and work out a settlement. Instead he was given 100 dollars, told to buy an overcoat and not to come around the building again. In 1954 Joe had drawn some underground type comics titled Nights of Horror, Hollywood Detective & Rod Rule. He also did some work for Continental magazine. These were comics featuring characters that were the spitting images of Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen among others being tied up and tortured in various state of undress. In the early 60's Joe also drew some girly cartoons under the name Josh.
By the late 50's Jerry Siegel and his family were broke, their economic status had gotten so bad that Siegel’s wife Joanne visited Jack Liebowitz at DC and told them how bad things were. She asked him "Do you really want to see in the newspaper - Creator of Superman Starves to Death?" Jack Liebowitz did not so DC gave Siegel some writing assignments between 1958 and 1966. But it was under certain conditions, Jerry would receive no credit or special privileges for his work. During that period he created some good Superman stories for that period.
When the time came for the copyright renewal, Siegel's own lawyers ignored his case and wouldn't return his calls. Under the original copyright laws, DC would own the Superman copyright for 28 years, apply to extend it for another 28 years and then the character would go into public domain. I should note this doesn't apply to Superman related trademarks (name, costume, etc.). DC owns them outright and will continue to own them for as long as Superman is used in some manner. The original sale was done in 1938, add 28 years later (1966) Siegel and Shuster made another attempt to regain copyright ownership of Superman. They argued their settlement was only for the first 28 years and now that the Superman/Boy copyright was up for renewal, they believed they had the right to renew it under their names.
Prior to the copyright challenge, Siegel knew he'd be fired again so he made sure he had other work to fall back on. Not surprisingly, DC fired Siegel for trying to get copyright ownership of Superman again. He was already working at Marvel writing the new Human Torch stories under the name Joe Carter. He would also land work at Archie doing their re launched superhero line. By the late 60's both of these jobs dried up for him. He sold a couple of stories to Jim Warren for his black and white comic magazines and worked briefly for Marvel again as a proof reader. Eventually he gave up on the comic industry and moved to Los Angeles. There he worked for Western Printing doing some uncredited writing. He did get some work writing Disney Comics that were translated to Italian and sold in Europe, but it wasn't enough to cover his bills and medical expenses. Jerry would get a job in the civil service as a mail clerk.
From the 1966 to the mid 70s the creators fought DC in court over Superman. They lost the first trial, appealed it and lost again. They were considering appealing it to the Supreme Court, but didn't when DC lawyers told him there could be a settlement for them if they dropped the case. They dropped the appeal in 1975 and then heard nothing for 6 months. Angry that there was no settlement forthcoming and the legal case stopped Jerry then went to the media to spread their story. He had hoped to cause DC bad publicity and shame them into sharing the wealth that came from the Superman character. He wrote a 10 page rant about how Jack Liebowitz lied and screwed him out of millions of dollars, reprinting excerpts of letters between the two of them where Liebowitz assured Jerry and Joe that he would take care of them and look after their rights.
Among the other topics covered was their legal challenges, DC suing for other companies for plagiarizing Superman, Superboy being taken from him, having the Superman work taken away from his studio while he was serving during WWII and DC's refusal to give it back, definitions of the word "Gyp" and "highbinder" as it relates to "LIEbowitz", his feeling that DC was internally plagiarizing Superman by doing other superheroes, how Edgard Rice Burroughs (Tarzan creator) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes creator) benefited financially from their creations and how he and legally blind Joe Shuster - now at the age of 61 - had not. He printed up 1,000 copies and sent them to people working in the media. On the cover page he wrote:
"The publishers of SUPERMAN comic books, National Periodical Publications, killed my days, murdered my nights, choked my happiness, strangled my career. I consider National’s executives economic murderers, money-mad monsters.
He also cursed the movie saying:
"I, Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of SUPERMAN, put a curse on the SUPERMAN movie! I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal SUPERMAN fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds SUPERMAN, will avoid the movie like a plague."
You can read the entire letter on Michael Canton's website (Adobe Acrobat Reader required).
At the time there was lots of publicity about how much was being spent on a new Superman movie. The movie studio had reportedly paid $3,000,000.00 for the rights. Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame was doing the screenplay. There were rumors that Francis Ford Coppola might direct it, but Richard Donner was selected instead. Marlon Brando was being paid $3.7 million (plus 11.3% of the gross) for his small roll in the movie. Among the names being thrown around for Superman character was Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson and Kris Kristofferson. Clearly many millions of dollars were being spent on the Superman movie, why couldn't some of it go to the creators of Superman?
Siegel's letter get a small bit of media attention at first. Along the way the letter had made it's way to Neal Adams, who was a very popular artist in the comic book industry. Neal was also known for helping out fellow freelance artists and writers get raises and contracts and so forth. Neal owned a commercial art studio on the side that made him more money than the comic book work did. During the 70s sales were really down for comic books and for a change the publishers needed Neal Adams, not the other way around. Upon hearing the plight of Siegel and Shuster he contacted them and asked to become their spokesperson/representative. They agreed and Adams took 4 months off from his work in order to get them some form of compensation from Warner Communications/DC Comics. Among the things he did was make the rounds to various talk shows, one of them being Tom Snyder's The Tomorrow Show.
Behind the Scenes - This looks like a job for... Batman?
Years later Neal Adams would run into Tom Snyder who's show was in re-runs. Neal asked Tom why they never re-ran the show where Neal, Jerry & Joe talked about their battle with DC/Warner Communications. Tom said he looked for that show himself, but it mysteriously went missing from their archives. Neal does not believe that particular shows disappearance was a coincidence.
Golden Age creator Jerry Robinson saw them on TV and immediately set out to help them. At the time Robinson was the President of the National Cartoonist Society. He had already been using the Society's charity fund to help out Joe Shuster, who was legally blind and living off Welfare. Jerry got the Cartoonists Society, the Screen Cartoonists Guild and The Writers Guild of America to give public support to the Superman Creators. He also got his celebrity friends Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut to support them as well. Then more support came from the literary and journalistic communities. Much of this support came in the form of a letter. Neal Adams was not very impressed with the letter of support and made a very passionate 10 minute speech to them saying so. Among the people to overhear that speech was the President of the International Press Association. He got in touch with Neal afterwards and helped him set up a well attended press conference.
The media began running the Siegel's and Shuster's story more and more. They became the poster child of the little guy getting screwed over by the big, heartless, greedy corporation. Neal Adams did some negotiating with high level people at DC Comics, specifically getting them on DC's health plan to cover Siegel's and Shuster's medical bills. Jerry Robinson handled the negotiations on the Warner Communications end. The stress of the negotiations and media coverage was hard on Siegel's health as he had previously suffered a stroke and had a heart condition. He had left New York to go home telling the two to take whatever deal they could get and finish it.
According to Neal Adams, a particular somebody at DC comics did not want Siegel and Shuster to receive a creator credit within the Superman comic books. They specifically asked Neal if the creator credit would be a deal breaker, suggesting in tone that demanding it could kill any potential deal. Both Neal and Robinson strongly believed the duo should get their credit back but also knew Siegel was desperate to get any deal and be done with it. Jerry Robinson continued to negotiate with top executives at Warner Brothers and pressed hard on getting the two creator credits on Superman books, media and merchandise. Late that night he managed to get it done.
In all the two creators got their legal bills paid, medical coverage and a $20,000 a year pension that was indexed for cost of living increases. The pension would also continue to be paid out to the families heirs. They also got $10,000 each up front to cover their immediate financial needs. Plus they got creator credits on all comic books and film versions of Superman. The deal was announced to the public on December 23rd, 1975 via Walter Cronkite on CBS news. Jerry Robinson had a party at his place on that night with a number of supporters in attendance. When the news came on the TV there was a loud roar of approval and tears of joy.
Shuster would move to LA to be closer to the Siegel family. In mid 70's Siegel and Shuster were invited to comic book conventions where they were met fans that thanked them for their work. From the mid 80's to the mid 90's DC and in particular Superman began to prosper more and more. The top editor and publisher was Paul Levitz, a fan that worked his way up the corporate ladder and he did what he could to get the creators a piece of the new money. Jerry tried to continue writing but was only willing to sign the most generous of contracts. He got a bit of work with the independent publishers in the 80s but he eventually decided to retire.
Joe Shuster died on July 30th, 1992, just before his 78th birthday. Aside from creating Superman what's truly amazing about Joe was the quality of his artwork despite the eye problems that had plagued him throughout his career. Jerry Siegel died on January 28th, 1996 in Los Angeles. He was 82. In 1997 Jerry’s widow Joanne Siegel and their daughter Laura Siegel Larson filed legal papers to get Siegel's half of the Superman, Superboy and Spectre copyrights transferred back to them. This is possible due to the changes made in copyright law with the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension act. On April 16, 1999 those copyrights were transferred back to Siegel's descendants. DC Comics, now owned by Time Warner, has filed legal appeals and is fought the copyright transfer. As of this writing Time Warner/DC Comics was successful in getting a previously negotiated settlement reinstated which put the copyright back into DC Comics/Time Warner ownership, despite that the Siegel family were unhappy with the details in the actual contract and did not sign it. Joe Shuster's surviving nephew Mark Warren Peavy also attempted to get their half of the copyright restored to them. Again Time Warner/DC Comics was successful in getting a previously negotiated settlement with Joe's sister Jean Shuster Peavy (Mark's mother) to cover all of the Shuster family members. Siegel and Shuster's lawyer Marc Toberoff is still appealing the respective cases. DC Comics is still publishing Superman books as usual.
The pieces of Superman.
Like virtually all creative works, they come from a mix of influences. Here are some of the influences behind Superman.
And yes, both Jerry and Joe were Jews.
It should be noted that Philip Wylie did think about suing for plagiarism in regards to Superman being similar to his Gladiator character. He had decided against it when he found out the creators were making very little money from the character. For his own protection, Jerry insisted he never read the book. Sometimes his own stories on how he created Superman changed to protect himself legally. Over the years there have been some easily discredited scam artists insisting they had something to do with the creation of Superman.
Behind the Scenes - Who was Lois Lane?
Lois Lane was based on two people. Jerry initially based her on Lois Amster, a woman Jerry had a crush on in high school. They apparently did date once and in 1998 she would tell the news how meek and boring Jerry was. Joe Shuster based Lois Lane physically on a woman named Joanne Carter. She was a young model Joe hired, specifically for Lois Lane. Joanne was very happy to model for Lois as she wanted to become a reporter when she was younger and like Jerry and Joe, worked for her school newspaper. Joe and Joanne discovered they had many similar interests and would date briefly. The two remained friends and would write to each other over the years. She would encourage Joe to keep drawing when he thought about giving up. Joanne and Jerry Siegel met briefly while she was modeling for Lois but they would meet again in a costumed party in 1948. The two would fall in love and be married a few months later. Clark Kent got his Lois Lane after all.
Action Comics was a smash hit but DC didn’t realize why. Donenfeld personally didn’t like the cover of Superman holding a car in Action Comics #1. He was really worried that it was too much and it wouldn’t sell. It was for that reason Superman didn’t appear on the cover for the next 5 issues. But sales were going up and nobody knew why. Donenfeld then had a survey conducted to find out why people were buying Action Comics. He learned people were asking for the comic with Superman in it. It was issues #7-10, #13, #15, and #17 that Superman appeared on the cover to test that theory. Once they were sure it was Superman kids were clamoring for DC starting making Superman's cover appearances regular from issue #19 and on. This was one month after a 1 shot Superman comic book was put together - it sold 900,000 via three print runs. The 1 shot turned into a regular series. Action Comics sales eventually doubled the average circulation of 250,000 to reach 500,000.