A superhero from the shtetl

In creating Superman’s universe, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster found inspiration in their heartbreaks, failures and daily travails.

A superhero from the shtet (photo credit: DEBRIS 2008)
A superhero from the shtet
(photo credit: DEBRIS 2008)
Superman was  born light years away as the last scion of a learned elite on the dying planet of Krypton, with its two moons, scorching red sun and menagerie of fantastic creatures. Or so comic book lore has it.
In reality, he saw the light of day right here on Earth, during the Great Depression, in the Yiddishkeit milieu of a hardscrabble Jewish area of Cleveland, Ohio, with its Orthodox synagogues, kosher butchers and Yiddish theaters. Nor was his real father Jor- El, a wise Kryptonite scientist; it was Jerome (Jerry) Siegel and Joe Shuster, two shy, maladjusted Jewish kids who loved pulp fiction and comic strips.
Superman is the archetypal all-American hero – an orphaned immigrant (literally, an alien called Kal-El) who arrives from the ravages of his birthplace, embraces the American Dream, and remakes both his own destiny and that of his adopted homeland.
He’s also the quintessential comic book superhero, blazing a trail for Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, and all the rest of the ever-growing pantheon of angst-ridden and tortured souls with a penchant for vigilante- style justice and world-saving heroics.
Yet despite his impeccably Anglo-Saxon looks, the Man of Steel is profoundly Jewish – or so some Superman folklorists believe.
Like Moses, he’s saved from certain death by being sent to an unknown fate in a tiny spacecraft, a futuristic reed basket of sorts, to wind up in a foreign land where he’s adopted by kindly strangers and takes on a transformative role by becoming a messianic figure. And, as many Jews have felt compelled to do throughout the ages, Kal- El hides his real identity behind a carefully maintained public persona – Clark Kent, a mild-mannered journalist and brainy misfit with an Anglicized name.
“Clark Kent was Superman trying to assimilate,” insists Larry Tye, an American journalist and author, in his first-rate popular history, “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.” Superman, Tye argues, “was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to the US from his intergalactic shtetl and shedding his Jewish name.”
His very birth name, Kal-El, is reminiscent of biblical Hebrew and is routinely rendered by fans as “the voice of God.”
“The three legs of the Superman myth – truth, justice, and the American way – are straight out of the Mishna, [which explains that] ‘The world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace,’” Tye posits. “The explosion of Krypton conjures up images from the mystical Kabbalah, where the divine vessel was shattered and Jews were called on to perform tikkun ha-olam by repairing the vessel and the world.”
That may sound like exegetical overreach, but even the Nazis recognized the Man of Steel’s suspiciously Jewish cosmopolitanism.
In an article on April 25, 1940, the SS mouthpiece, Das Schwarze Korps, labeled Siegel a “crafty Israelite,” who was using Superman as a tool to corrupt American youth. Siegel, who said he had used the Bible’s Samson as a model for Superman, was pleased his creation had got under the Nazis’ skin.
Just as the granddaddy of superheroes is enjoying a renaissance in print and on screen, so has the picaresque true story of his two young creators come under renewed attention. Arriving hard on the heels of Tye’s history is Cleveland native and Case Western Reserve University teacher Brad Ricca’s “Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” an equally thorough biography.
Whereas Tye bestows on us a biographer’s keen-eyed account of the two precocious Jewish artists’ exploits, Ricca takes us on a minutely documented, imaginative, and at times fanciful, grand tour of their lives. Tye sticks to the facts. Ricca resorts to frequent bouts of poetic license in trying to bring Siegel and Shuster to life.
Both authors tread familiar ground. But after perusing reams of contemporary news reports and interviewing scores of insiders, they’ve dug up plenty of telling and delicious detail. Together, the two books make for an exhaustive, definitive history. And what a great story they have to tell.
Jerome Siegel was the youngest of six children of a hard-up Jewish immigrant, a tailor from Lithuania, who eked out a living with his secondhand clothing store in Cleveland’s predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Glenville. Siegel was a middling student and a bit of an outcast with a “giant-sized inferiority complex,” as he later recalled. But he loved telling stories. Like many a teen boy before and since, Siegel sought solace in an escapist fantasy world, in which an often- mocked bookish kid with a febrile imagination could come into his own.
In 1929, when he was just 15, Siegel began publishing, pseudonymously, typewritten booklets of his science-fiction stories with titles like “Cosmic Stories” and “Guests of the Earth,” and lots of exclamation marks for emphasis.
A year later, Siegel met Joe Shuster. The Canadian-born Jewish kid, who had relocated to Cleveland with his parents, set out to illustrate a comic strip about “Jerry the journalist” for another school’s newspaper. The budding illustrator, too, was born in 1914 and the son of a penniless Jewish tailor and immigrant, originally from the Netherlands.
The two young fans of Zorro, John Carter, Buck Rogers and the era’s other swashbuckling dime-novel heroes had a lot in common and they hit it off.
Shuster was severely shortsighted, but he loved to draw, which he did on scraps of wallpaper and meat wrap lain on a wooden slab that his mother, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine, used for kneading the halla bread for Shabbat in the Shusters’ small rented apartment. “Each boy saw himself in the other,” Ricca writes, and their shared love for “pulps cemented their friendship.”
They’d spend long hours each day discussing their favorite heroes and plotting their own.
Then, one day, like many great fictional protagonists, Superman was born out of tragedy and heartache. In early June 1932, Siegel’s father, Michel, died of a heart attack during a robbery of his haberdashery.
The three attackers escaped and were never caught. Inconsolable, Siegel sought to come to terms with his loss by inventing a crime-fighting hero who could have saved his father.
And so Superman sprung into being – a strapping, virtuous vigilante, one of whose first exploits was to save a middle-aged man from a robber. Rendered in Shuster’s blackand- white penciled drawings, Superman, as yet without his trademark costume, saw the light of day in early 1933, with the boys billing him as “[a] genius in intellect, a Hercules in strength, a nemesis to wrong-doers.”
Joe’s draftsman-like “simple lines and expressive faces,” writes Tye, “got across his message the same way Jerry’s craftsman- like words did – with joy, without flair.They were a well-matched pair.”
Shuster based Superman’s physiognomy on Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympicswimmer-turned-actor who played Tarzan on screen in the era’s blockbusters, and used “physical fitness magazines as a visual encyclopedia for Superman’s physique,” Ricca says. The “S” in the diamond-shaped crest on Superman’s chest didn’t, as commonly believed, stand for the newly minted hero’s name. Rather, in an inside joke, it referred to the shared first letter of Joe’s and Jerry’s last names.
Superman wasn't an instant hit. Faced by a string of rejections from publishers, Siegel and Shuster made ends meet by collecting empty milk bottles for resale to shops and hawking ice cream. Then, at long last, in June 1938, Superman appeared to the public as a tough-talking bruiser in a 13-page cover story in the first issue of the newly launched dime-a-copy Action Comics. “The elements that Siegel and Shuster adopted into this comic strip set the pace for virtually everything to come afterward,” Jim Steranko, a prominent graphic artist who was born that same year, has noted.
This early Superman was “a hell-raiser and an insurrectionist [who didn’t care] about laws or social niceties,” Tye explains.
“Half Huckleberry Finn, half Robin Hood, he had a technique as straightforward and a purpose as pure as those of his teenage truthand- justice-seeking creators.”
Siegel’s prose could be clunky, and Shuster’s drawings clumsy. But most young readers didn’t mind; they fell in love with Superman at first sight. By issue #16 a few months later, sales of the new magazine had risen to over 600,000 copies thanks to Superman’s ongoing adventures. Real-life heroes like baseball legend Joe DiMaggio became stalwart Superman buffs.
Within a few months, the Man of Steel had his own nationally syndicated daily newspaper strip and, a year later, his own serialized comic book. Soon, 30 million Americans were reading Superman stories regularly.
In time, Superman would conquer radio airwaves, television screens and the movies as well.
The Man of Steel’s runaway success came courtesy of another unlikely pair, a real-life Laurel and Hardy duo: Jack Liebowitz, a lanky and aloof Ukrainian Jewish refugee who lived by his wits on the mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side; and his publishing partner, Harry Donenfeld, a squat, gregarious, wheeling-dealing Romanian Jew who had once faced trial for publishing risqué images of women in his magazines and was chummy with the mobster Frank Costello. “The partners, whose slicked-back hair and unctuous smiles made them look like the scoundrels in that first Superman story, were pros in printing and delivering magazines,” Tye notes.
They were also pros as smooth operators.
The two owners of DC Comics got the naïve young artists to sign over all the rights to their creation for the princely sum of $130.
Siegel and Shuster would continue to churn out Superman stories on a work-for-hire basis, helping fine-tune their hero and round out his biography, but it would be Donenfeld and Liebowitz, founders of legendary DC Comics, Inc., who would rake in the big bucks from Superman.
And big bucks there were. From 1940 onwards, “Supermania” took off and soared, like its protagonist: “Up, up and away!” In each medium, from radio shows to animated features to matinee serials to movie blockbusters, it was enterprising Jewish selfmade men – larger-than-life characters the lot of them – who engineered Superman’s fortunes, stamping their own visions of him irrevocably onto the character along the way.
There was Robert Maxwell Joffe, a can-do Jew from Brooklyn who created “The Adventures of Superman,” a hugely popular radio series in the 1940s where he turned the comic book hero into a crusader against the thuggish race-baiters of the Ku Klux Klan.
There was Alexander Salkind, an impish German Jewish Holocaust survivor, suspected embezzler and die-hard wheeler-dealer who brought Superman, played by Christopher Reeve, to the big screen in a lavish Warner Bros. production in 1978.
And, above all, there was Mort Weisinger, a gifted but mercurial Jew from the Bronx, who singlehandedly created a cohesive, if muddled, Superman mythology as a veteran editor of DC Comics while lording it over his underlings, including a disgruntled Siegel.
An inveterate schemer, Weisinger wasn’t above, in Tye’s telling, stealing “plot proposals from one writer and hand[ing] them to another, informing the first that it was a crappy idea and telling the second that it was Mort’s.”
Meanwhile, Jewish artists, many of them also the offspring of immigrants who had fled stifling Eastern European shtetls and persistent anti-Semitism, were at the forefront of America’s comics revolution. They were following close in the footsteps of Siegel and Shuster. The great Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), Siegel’s longtime friend, has, with his brilliant collaborator Jack Kirby (né Jacob Kurtzberg), given the world Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Thor. Kirby, with writer Joe Simon (né Hymie Simon), conceived Captain America.
Will (Shmuel) Eisner, a onetime vaudeville painter of Hungarian-Romanian Jewish descent from Brooklyn, conjured up The Spirit.
Bill Finger, the son of an Austrian Jew, brought forth Batman with cartoonist Bob Kane (né Kahn), the son of a Jewish engraver from Eastern Europe. Jerry Robinson, a Jewish teenager, cooked up Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, the most iconic super-villain of them all, drawing inspiration for the character from some of the era’s edgiest Jewish comedians.
“Aspiring[Jewish] writers and artists went into comics for the same reason bright Jewish doctors in the early 1900s practiced at hospitals like Beth Israel and Mount Sinai: It was the only option open to them,” Tye explains.
“Anti-Semitism barred Jews from advertising agencies… [so] they turned to the nascent comic book industry,” which, at the time, made for a fairly lowly profession with dim career prospects.
Many of them, including Siegel at first,wrote under gentile pennames to hide their ethnic origins. Yet even as they did so, they continued to draw heavily on the long tradition of Jewish fabulists and storytellers who had in turn drawn much of their inspiration from the tales of the Bible and whimsical Jewish folklore. “I write about the things I know. I know about Jews,” remarked Eisner, who went on to publish, in 2003, the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Fagin the Jew,” a subversive take on Dickens’s antihero by reinterpreting him as a product of Victorian prejudice.
Apart from Samson, a prime inspiration for latter-day superheroes was the Golem, a powerful creature of clay who would emerge periodically to defend downtrodden and beleaguered Jews. Other models were closer to home. One was Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart, a Polish-Jewish blacksmith turned vaudeville strongman. Billed tellingly for a 1923 show in Cleveland as the “Superman,” Breitbart performed extraordinary feats like holding up automobiles filled with passengers and holding back a pair of bolting horses, one with each hand. Another was Joseph Greenstein, a diminutive, muscle-bound Polish Jew who achieved fame in the circus as “The Mighty Atom” and was legendary for his exploits, which included roughing up a group of Nazi sympathizers in New York over their sign that said “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.”
By the 1970s, as many as four out of five leading comic book writers in the US were Jewish, according to Tye. It was a succession of Jewish writers, too, who would gradually take over from Siegel in crafting Superman adventures. Yet while the authorship of stories might change, Siegel’s original vision would remain intact – a squeakyclean all-American hero for all ages and for all time.
More than anything, it’s the childlike play-pretend aspect of Superman’s character that helps make him perennially fascinating – that and an almost Shakespearean depth to him that can yield ever newer insights to inventive and inquisitive minds.
Through the biographies of Siegel and Shuster, and the stories they told of Superman, reality and fiction came to intermingle and overlap in invitingly intricate combinations, titillating comic book aficionados for generations. Fans and historians alike have been poring over Man of Steel trivia and apocrypha with the fervor of Talmudic exegetes, parsing, deconstructing, scrutinizing, and theorizing.
They’ve uncovered that Superman’s archnemesis, Alexander “Lex” Luthor, owed his name (and perhaps smugly callous nature) to one A.L. Luther, who wrote a letter to crime-ridden Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper after Michel Siegel’s death, urging locals not to pursue vigilante justice against criminals.
In creating Superman’s universe, Siegel and Shuster had also reached into themselves, finding inspiration in their heartbreaks, failures and daily travails. Their hero’s klutzy alter ego, Clark Kent, was modeled on Siegel himself – both in his demeanor and appearance. Siegel even posed for Shuster when he drew Clark. Clark’s elusive love interest, Lois Lane, was named after a girl, Lois Amster, who Siegel had a crush on in school. Lane was, Siegel said later, “gaga over super-powered Superman” but not so much over his “meek, mild” Clark. Unlike Siegel and Clark, Superman would always get the girl.
And, in yet another twist to the story, so too, in the end, would Siegel. Lois would one day marry him – or rather, Joanne (originally Jolán) Kovács, who lent her looks to the comic book heroine, would. A coy 18-yearold daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Joanne answered a newspaper ad in 1935 by Shuster and Siegel to sit as an artist’s model, which she did in a borrowed, ill-fitting bathing suit, while Shuster filled her out to make the slender teen better resemble Superman’s curvaceous squeeze. After a decade-long unhappy marriage to another teenage sweetheart called Bella, Siegel bumped into Joanne again at a cartoonists’ costume ball in New York in 1948. A few months later they were married.
By then, Superman was a global icon and inexhaustible cash cow, but through the years Siegel would remain penniless and battle with depression. In 1975 he told the press that the “money-mad monsters” at DC Comics “choked my happiness [and] strangled my career.” Shuster, the more upbeat and stoical of the two, wasn’t faring much better, either. Suffering from poor eyesight and living in a grubby flat in Queens, he made a living drawing semi-pornographic images and taking on odd jobs as a janitor and a messenger boy. The same year, after media reports exposed their plight, they received annuities of $20,000 (later raised to $30,000) from Warner Bros., which now owned DC Comics.
Though disillusioned, the aging boy wonders continued toiling away on comics in relative obscurity and remained fast friends till the end, living out their final years near each other in Los Angeles. Shuster, who died in 1992, and Siegel, who did so four years later, couldn’t beat the odds.
But in the end, they still won. In Superman, the dynamic duo of “Super Boys” lives forever.
In his last interview, a few months before his death, Shuster told a reporter: “There aren’t many people who can honestly say they’ll be leaving behind something as important as Superman. But Siegel and I can, and that’s a good feeling. We’re very, very happy and proud and pleased.”