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Superman is an American cultural icon. He is probably one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world. The Superman franchise is a multi-million dollar enterprise. Everything from comic books and movies to Halloween costumes and lunch boxes and everything in between carry the image of the “Man of Steel.” He’s even been immortalized in song in Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”:
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim.
And we mustn’t forget the line from Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” (1966): “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got a-nothin’ on me.” But we want to forget Neitzsche’s Übermensch-the “overman” or “superman”-which, as far as we know, Siegel and Schuster had never heard of or at least made no reference to. Superman was a confirmed Nazi hater. In the February 27, 1940 issue of Look, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster drew a special comic for the popular magazine on “How Superman Would End the War.”
We also want to forget the publicity around the “death of Superman” in January 1993. After months of build up, the death issue came wrapped in black plastic with the blood-red Superman logo emblazoned on the front. Collectors knew that a mint copy required that the bag remain unopened. This meant that if you wanted to read the issue, you needed to buy a second copy! Of course, Superman did not remain dead for long. You can’t kill a franchise!
The history of Superman has a number of twists and turns. The Superman character was conceived by Jerry Siegel in 1933. Along with his friend Joe Schuster, the two seventeen-year-olds from Cleveland, Ohio, developed the character in comic strip form. The Superman storyline is said to be an amalgamation of Voltaire’s 1752 tale Micromegas, about a visitor from another world, elements of comic hero Doc Savage, Philip Wylie’s 1930 Gladiator novel, and even the biblical story of Moses being placed in a basket to be saved from sure destruction. Of course, there are messianic overtones. Kal-El, the only son of Jor-El, is sent to a world in need of salvation. The following is from the movie trailer:
Even though you’ve been raised as a human being you’re not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you . . . my only son.
El is the Hebrew word for “God.” That would make Kal-El the son of Jor-El, the son of El or the son of God. (I’m just thinking out loud.) Did these two Jewish teenagers self-consciously model their superhero after biblical ideals of the transcendent becoming immanent, God becoming man? Siegel described Superman as “a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one.”
Siegel and Schuster had a difficult time selling their comic strip. It languished for nearly six years until it was finally published in comic book form in the first issue of Action Comics in June 1938. In 2003, a Baltimore man was offering $1 million for a near-mint copy of the ten-cent comic introducing the Superman character! There are only about four issues in this condition in existence.
Here’s the kicker. Siegel and Schuster were paid $130 for all the rights to the comic and character. For years, they sued DC (Detective Comics) to participate in the financial windfall of their beloved character, but with no success. It wasn’t until the first Superman movie came out that Siegel and Schuster were able to strike a deal with DC. They took their plight to the press. It was bad publicity that forced DC to sit down with the co-creators of Superman, who were by this time nearly 60 years old, to reach a financial settlement.