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Back in 1939, I suddenly discovered Superman, after investing a small coin in Action Comics. First thing I noticed was that Superman was written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jews surely! Two Jews had given America a hero who fought evil! I thought they must be rich.
Of course Superman was an immigrant too. He came from the planet Krypton, in a galaxy as far, far away as a Ukrainian shtetl, and had the uncanny agility to change his clothes in a telephone booth. But where did he leave his spectacles, shoes, socks, tie, suit, shirt and shorts? Where would he have changed today, in a world of mobile phones?
Sadly enough, Siegel and Shuster made nothing out of Superman. They lived in poverty, screwed by the superpowers of pulp fiction and the movies: their publisher, Detective Comics, held the claim to copyright.
The sad saga of Siegel and Shuster could well serve as the theme of Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics, one of two concurrent shows about American comics which opens at New York's Jewish Museum next month. The second and larger show is Masters of American Comics (a two-part exhibition at The Jewish Museum and The Newark Museum featuring nearly 600 exhibits).
If you are wondering what all this is doing at the Jewish Museum, the answer is simply that most of the 15 creators of America's fantasy heroes represented in the Superheroes show were of Jewish origin, first- and second-generation Americans trying to make a living in a new country still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. Superheroes is a show of over 70 works and artifacts from the golden age of comic books (1938 to 1950) and will be on view between September 15 and January 28.
The 15 artists and writers from this era include Shuster and Siegel and the three Batman masterminds Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the latter the guest curator of this show.
Robinson, an immensely likable and talented cartoonist who has visited Israel, is the founder of the successful Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, now run by his son Jens. Robinson joined the Batman team in 1939 and is credited with creating the infamous villain, the Joker, and naming the boy wonder, Robin. It was writer Finger who suggested the vital details of the Batman costume. Finger was fired by Detective Comics when he asked for medical insurance.
Other artists and writers in the Superheroes exhibition are Charles Biro, Will Eisner (who died last year), Lou Fine, Irwin Hasen, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Mort Meskin, Emanuel (Mac) Raboy, Fred Ray and Alex Schomburg.
In the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, these young artists and writers, immigrants or members of immigrant families, pioneered a boom in comic books. Keenly aware of their own cultural marginalization, they created characters who struggled to end injustices like the ones they were witnessing as Hitler went to war. Their vehicle of story-telling would become one of the most popular of all time. It flourishes today in Japan.
Superheroes then were characters whose alter-egos were ostensibly ordinary people, like the chap who left his clothing and spectacles in a telephone booth, the nerdy Clark Kent.
SIEGEL AND Shuster began working on Superman as early as 1934. He first appeared in Action Comics in 1938.
Joe and Jerry each received $130 ($10 a page), for the first issue and, fatally, for the rights to the character, which finished up in the hands of Detective Comics. Soon Superman made cover appearances as Action Comics sales doubled to reach 500,000. After a few early issues, Siegel and Shuster were paid $500 for each issue. Superman first appeared in a newspaper strip in 1939 but by 1941 he was in 300 of them and appeared in film cartoons made by Max Fleischer and Paramount.
By 1946 Joe and Jerry were getting paid close to $100,000 a year, but they saw DC make millions off their Superman character. After getting out of the army, they sued DC and lost not only the case but also their jobs. By the end of the '60s Siegel and his family were starving.
In 1975 the desperate pair made another attempt to sue DC for the rights to Superman. They were unsuccessful yet again, but an embarrassed DC decided to pay them a modest $35,000 a year each for the rest of their lives.
Joe Shuster died in 1992 just before his 78th birthday. Jerry Siegel died in 1996 in Los Angeles. He was 82.