The reason for all of this birthday media ballyhoo (besides the fact that there’s a new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” playing in a gazillion theaters) is that Action Comics No. 1, the comic book in which Superman made his debut, was cover-dated June 1938. But even that date is false, since the magazine itself went on sale in late April.
The character of Superman, that strange visitor from another planet with abilities far beyond those of mortal men, the enduring creation of two very young, and very poor, men from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (both were born in 1914), was originally dreamed up, scripted and drawn, according to Siegel, during the summer of 1934, although it’s possible his memory was faulty and it may have happened a year or two later.
Prior to the first issue of Action Comics, and prior to that original iconic image of Superman easily hoisting a bright-green sedan over his head, Superman himself, while very much “alive,” existed only in the hopes and dreams of his two creators and in a series of stamped manila envelopes in which the first comic strips were sent out repeatedly to the major newspaper syndicates.
Siegel and Shuster created Superman with the express aim of landing him on the comics pages of hundreds of daily and Sunday newspapers, in the company of “Blondie” and “Dick Tracy” and “Flash Gordon.” That’s where the money was. That’s where the fame was. And that’s where the respect was.
But despite Siegel and Shuster’s enormous faith in the character, nobody was interested. The original drawings, dramatizing Superman’s famous origin and first exploits, kept coming back to Cleveland, progressively more soiled and dog-eared, and usually accompanied by brutally contemptuous letters of rejection.
Eventually the strips found their way to the shabby Manhattan offices of National Allied Publishing. The company had been founded just a few years earlier by a former cavalry officer and a prolific writer of pulp adventure fiction named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson.
“Major” Wheeler-Nicholson published comic books, a medium in its infancy during the Depression and one viewed with emphatic contempt by almost everyone in America above the age of 12.
Around the same time Siegel and Shuster were contacted by National’s editor, Vincent Sullivan, with an offer to publish their badly shopworn Superman material, Wheeler-Nicholson, in dire financial straits, was forced to take on a partner, Harry Donenfeld, a loudmouthed Damon Runyonesque character with underworld connections and an earned reputation as a soft-core pornographer.
By the time Action Comics No. 1 was printed and distributed, Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted from his own company (which, for the rest of his life, he refused to talk about, even to his family), and Donenfeld along with his dapper “accountant” Jack Liebowitz were in full possession of National Allied Publishing, later renamed DC Comics.
All rights in perpetuity to Superman — the character, the copyright, and the trademark — had been purchased from Siegel and Shuster for $130.
Let us all just pause here for a moment to sigh.
The all-too-American story of Siegel and Shuster’s perniciously bad contract and the long slide of their alternately enraged and melancholy lives (Shuster died in 1992, Siegel in 1996) has been told often, most recently in Brad Ricca’s just-published joint biography “Super Boys,” and I don’t wish to add anything further here about that audacious, soul-killing unfairness. I want to celebrate the golden fruit of their partnership, and the greatness, and the meaningfulness, of their creation.
When, a few years back, I wrote and published a book-length essay about Superman, I titled it “Our Hero” because — well, because that’s what he is.
Throughout his long career in comics and radio, television, and motion pictures, and no matter who has written his stories or drawn them, or directed the movies, or acted the role, Superman has incorporated and demonstrated — authenticated, too — those core values and ideals of selflessness, service, tolerance, loyalty, ingenuity, and tenacity that we still profess (we all still do, don’t we?) to mutually cherish, and he’s done it far better and more consistently than any other iconic American champion.
This orphan, this immigrant, this illegal immigrant (there was no passport, no visa, tucked inside that tiny rocket ship from the planet Krypton) has never, not in seven-plus decades, done what he’s done with any expectation of recompense or celebrity.
He’s done it all — plug erupting volcanoes, catch falling airliners, divert raging floods, pummel to pebbles enormous meteors hurtling toward earth, and saved his adopted species from the rampages of thousands of gaudily costumed criminals and terrorists — and he’s done it all simply because he’s wanted to, because it’s in his nature to care deeply for the common good, for the good of all.
In the early years, in the years when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster shaped his adventures, Superman contended with, and blocked, corrupt politicians and lobbyists, venal munitions dealers, cynical manufacturers of unsafe automobiles, greedy exploiters of mine workers and factory workers, and the tormentors of ordinary working men and women driven to the brink of despair and suicide by the seemingly untouchable forces of Big Money.
But even though his social activism was toned down later, by corporate fiat, Superman has continued to practice philanthropy, not for the tax deduction but for the satisfaction of helping others in need. Period.
And I feel sure he’d be mortified and embarrassed by any offers of a lifetime achievement award.
It still rankles me (and I’m not alone) that while their magnificent creation has earned billions of dollars, billions, since 1938, those two imaginative high school friends from Cleveland lived out their last years in tiny apartments surviving on the puny annual stipends they finally, and begrudgingly, wrested from DC Comics (now DC Entertainment, a Warner Bros. subsidiary).
But their legacy is what matters finally, and it’s a glorious one. Superman is the embodiment of our best selves, our most democratic and empathic selves, our most generous, honest, and fairest selves.
So happy birthday, Kal-El, however old you are. And thanks a million.
Tom De Haven is the author of 18 books, including the Derby Dugan Trilogy and a novel about the Man of Steel, “It’s Superman!” He’s a professor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.