Because the lives of these two creators are so entwined, I have decided to do both their biographies in one swoop.
Joe Shuster was born on July 10th, 1914 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 4 months later Jerry Siegel was born in Cleveland, Ohio as Jerome Siegel on October 17th, 1914.
Jerry grew up loving science fiction, he always knew he wanted to be a science fiction writer. Jerry would write and submit some stories to Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories. The stories were rejected, but Jerry did not give up. If they would publish them, he'd publish them. In 1929 Jerry would create a fanzine called Cosmic
Stories for his type written rejected stories. Today Cosmic Stories is recognized as the very first sci-fi fanzine.
Joe Shusters family would move to Cleveland, Ohio when he was 9. He would meet and befriend Jerry Siegel around 1931. Both of them would go to the same Glenville High School, and they both had the same love of science fiction stories, either as novels or comic strips. They would enjoy such strips as Little Nemo, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, John Carter of Mars, and The Shadow. They would also have a love of movies, regardless if they were A or B class.
It was shortly after the two met, they began working together. The two would produce another sci-fi fanzine called Science Fiction. Joe Shuster was the Art editor, while Jerry was an editor too. They published Science Fiction with a mimeograph at their high school. 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 cousins name with his mothers maiden name) and wrote a story titled "Reign of the Superman", in it was a villain with super powers.
Jerry would later read a book called Gladiator written by Philip Wylie. This book had a character that had super strength, was able to leap 40 feet, and could let bullets bounce off his chest. This along with other fictional characters would inspire a new Superman. Those other characters were Doc Savage (sometimes advertised as Superman Doc Savage), Hercules, and Samson.
Joe and Jerry first tried to sell the Superman in 1933. They created a few different comic strip formats of Superman (even a cartoon version). Once a Chicago publisher was interested in the character but didn't follow through. Joe was extremely heart broken over this and tore up and burned all of his Superman artwork, vowing not do Superman again until he had the time to re-worked the character properly. The only original artwork left was the cover, it was saved by Jerry Siegel. During the rejection periods, Joe had to work 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 bit's of ideas and he would scribble them down on paper each time. By the time morning arrived Jerry had his character. He ran all 12 blocks to Joe Shuster 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.
The new Superman would be one from a planet dying from old age. He was put into a rocket ship and sent away to earth for his continued survival. He would land on earth and a passing motorist that found the sleeping baby put him into an orphanage. With a physical structure millions of years more advanced than our own, the attendants of the orphanage noticed the baby's great strength. When the baby grew up, he became Superman. This origin would slightly change over time.
He would also become Clark Kent, a shy introverted man who was usually ignored by women. Jerry says he was telegraphing himself into Clark Kent. Like Clark, Jerry was shy and introverted. He wore glasses, and was interested in writing science fiction. He admired women from afar, but they in return didn't even notice him. Joe also shared these traits so the feelings were mutual. Jerry also decided to add a attractive, gutsy lady reporter named Lois Lane. She would add romance to the comic by falling in love with Superman, but would spurn Clark Kent not knowing that they were the same person.
Then Jerry and Joe would work out a costume and appearance for Superman. Jerry would suggest putting an S in a triangle on Supermans chest. He would also suggest adding a cape to add the visual effect when Superman ran, jumped, and battled the bad guys. Joe would come up with the rest of the costume, and Supermans physical look.
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 Siegels 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." 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 a bunch of comics for publisher Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson. 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. One small newspaper wanted to Jerry to do a daily serial action stories of Superman. But both Joe and Jerry turned this down as well because they felt written stories wouldn't fully produce the excitement that Superman was supposed to bring. They felt only a comic book style story would be the best for Superman.
During these years Joe and Jerry did work of comics such as, New Fun, Spy, Slam Bradly, Henri Duval, Radio Squad, and Federal Men. In New Fun #6, The duo would create a Dr. Occult, who was a magician
with a "Gravity Rod" that allowed him to do many spectacular things. Dr. Occult first appeared in 1935, New Fun #6. But the two did still try to sell Superman and got back nasty replies from some editors. 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."
Tip Top Comics wanted to try Superman but they were turned into a newspaper by United Features Syndicate, and they felt readers would soon be bored of Superman. Some newspaper editors did try to help Joe and Jerry by spreading around their Superman work. McNaught Syndicate was one of them, and because M.C. Gaines was needed more comics to produce they sent Superman to him. Max Gaines didn't like Superman, but his editor Sheldon Mayor did. Sheldon tried to get Superman published in his Popular Comics magazine, but Max wouldn't agree with it. Despite that his boss opinions, Sheldon Mayor still liked Superman, and wouldn't give up on him. In fact he stalled giving the Superman stories back to Jerry and Joe so he could convince someone else to publish it.
It was around this time that Max Gaines had bought two color presses, he wanted to find a way to keep them running so he went to Harry Donnenfeld (who just bought out Major Malcolm Nicholson Wheeler to become the sole owner) of Detective Comics and offered to print his comics for a cheap price. Donnenfeld had first rejected Max's offer because Detective Comics didn't have enough comics to print. Max then said he'd find Donnenfeld more comics to print, if he would use his printers. Donnenfeld agreed.
So DC at this time was trying to start up an Action Funnies comic, but didn't have enough stories for the comic. As agreed, Max Gaines went looking around for something for Donnenfeld to use, and that's when Sheldon stepped up and said "Well, there's Superman", Max replied that "it was better than nothing" and sent it over. Max got Jerry's okay to send over Superman and other stories to DC for possible publishing. DC's editor Vin Sullivan told Jerry that they were picking Superman over everything else. They asked the duo to re-write some of the story, and gave them 3 weeks
to complete a 13 page story. It was published in May (with a June cover date) of 1938 in Action Comics #1.
For their work, Joe and Jerry received a $130 check ($10 a page), which was for the first issue and for the rights to the character. The beginning of the story was cut because Harry Donnenfeld needed to save some space. The full story was published when Superman got his own comic book a year later. There is also a story that Harry Donnenfelds accountant, Victor Fox came in to work at 10:00 AM, saw the sales figures for Action Comics #1, he quit his job at 11:00 AM, spent the noon hour finding some office space to rent, and by 2 PM he was interviewing people to do superhero comics for him. Victor Fox later went on to create Wonder Comics, with Wonderman in it. He was sued by DC for plagiarism. In fact the guy making the comic (Will Eisner) went into court testifying that Victor Fox specifically instructed him to plagiarize Action Comics #1.
Meanwhile Harry Donnenfeld didn't know what kind of hit he had on his hands. From issues 2 to 6, Superman didn't appear on the cover on Action Comics, despite his stories being inside the comic. It was issues #7-10, #13, #15, and #17 that Superman appeared on the cover. DC starting making Supermans cover appearances regular from issue #19 and on, after they were told people were looking for the comic with Superman in it. Action Comics sales eventually doubled the average 250,000 to reach 500,000. But after these few early issues, Siegel and Shuster were paid $500 for each issue.
Money would later on be a big problem for the two creators.
Superman also made it to the newspaper strips. On January 16 1939, Superman first appeared in a newspaper, by 1941 he was in 300 of them! Superman was also regularly in three different comics, Action Comics, Superman, and Worlds finest Comics. He also got his own cartoons from Max Fleischer and Paramount.
By 1941 Joe and Jerry were paid $75,000 each for their work on Superman. But when they sold DC the Superman story back in 1938, they also sold DC the copyright to the character. This was normal business practice for those times. By 1946 Joe and Jerry were getting paid close to 100,000 a year, but they saw DC make millions off of the Superman character. They felt they were not getting their fair share of the profits from Superman, and decided to sue DC for the rights of the character. The two creators also served in the military, and upon coming back they saw a Superboy appearing in More Fun Comics, but they did not get any compensation for the character.
In 1946, Joe and Jerry would hire attorney Albert Zugsmith (who later produced 1950's B-movies in Hollywood) to take DC to court for the rights of Superman and Superboy. The two spent all their money through legal fees by 1948, and finally settled out of court for $200,000. But this was not for the rights of Superman, it was only royalties for the character
Superboy. Joe and Jerry also in the deal had to swear off any claim to the Superman character, or any other Superman related character. The two creators names would show up in Superman movies, cartoons, and TV shows as Supermans creators, but not in the comic books. DC had removed their by-line as creators after the court case was settled out. For many decades it was only a small group of fans and professionals in the comic industry who knew who the Superman creators were.
The two of them would also lose their jobs in 1947 because of this legal battle. Siegel would continue to write scripts for other publisher, and would eventually become the Comic Art Director for the Ziff-Davis company in the 50's. The two of them would briefly give comic strips another try with a Funnyman character. But it wasn't successful. Afterwards Joe Shuster would quit comics altogether.
Jerry Siegel and his family were broke, their economic status had gotten so bad that Siegels 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 in 1958. At a price, Jerry would receive no credit or special privileges for his work. But sometime in 1964 Jerry made a comment about wanting to be treated better, and he was immediately fired for it.
In the late 60's and early 70's Siegel and Shuster were once again the focus of public attention through comic conventions. They would then go back into court in 1975 for another attempt to sue DC for the rights to Superman. The court decided that the two were not owed any money, but DC did decide to pay the two a "pension" of sorts. They received $35,000 a year for the rest of their lives. Jerry and Joe also got credit for their Superman creation. They got this with the help of then DC Publisher/Editor in Chief Carmine Infantino and many other big name creative people, who persuaded DC to give the creators something. While DC didn't have to pay anything, it is still a small sum considering the 10's or possibly 100's millions that DC made off of Superman in movie, cartoons, comics, and merchandise deals. DC also
made Superman related money from copyright infringement lawsuits against other companies, the most famous of these was their out of court settlement with Fawcett Comics.
Sadly, both these creators have passed away. Joe Shuster died in 1992 just before his 78th birthday. DC did not recognize his passing. But 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. Today, DC does recognize Jerry and Joe as creators inside Superman comic books. Through Superman, both of these great men will live on forever.