Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Mensch of Steel

June 7, 2013 11:02 am 2 comments

Superman.

With the newest Superman film, “Man of Steel,” set for release, it seems only fitting to look back at the two men who created the world’s most famous superhero.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived twelve blocks apart from each other in Cleveland. The pair collaborated on stories for their high school newspaper and shared a passion for science fiction and pulp comics. It was the 1930s, and comic book publishing was in its infancy. Like many young Jews with artistic aspirations, Siegel and Shuster yearned to break into this fledgling industry. Comic book publishers actively hired Jews, who were largely excluded from more “legitimate” illustration work.

The 1930s were also quite likely the most anti-Semitic period in American history. Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities, including Siegel and Shuster’s hometown. Radio superstar Father Charles E. Coughlin of the pro-fascist Christian Front was one of the nation’s most powerful men. And Ivy League colleges kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.

So Siegel and Shuster began submitting treatments under the pseudonym Bernard J. Kenton, just to be on the safe side. Throughout the Great Depression, the two boys scraped together every penny they could just to cover postage. Shuster sketched on cheap brown wrapping paper.

From these humble beginnings, Siegel and Shuster carved out a character that became an American icon. (Like Siegel and Shuster, the early comic book creators were almost all Jewish, and as children of immigrants they spent their lives trying to escape the second-class mentality forced on them by the outside world. Their fight for truth, justice, and the American Way is portrayed by the superheroes they created.)

Many years later, Jerry Siegel recalled the birth of Superman:

“The story would begin with you as a child on far-off planet Krypton. Like the others of that world, you had super-powers. The child’s scientist-father was mocked and denounced by the Science Council. They did not believe his claim that Krypton would soon explode from internal stresses. Convinced that his prediction was valid, the boy’s father had been constructing a model rocket ship. As the planet began to perish, the baby’s parents knew its end was close. There was not space enough for three people in the small model craft. They put the baby into it.”

The idea of for this new superhero came to them in 1934. It would take another four years before Superman would be transformed from a feverish dream to a full-fledged hero. In 1938, Detective Comics, Inc., was looking for a character to launch its new magazine, Action Comics. They paid young Siegel and Shuster $130 for the first thirteen pages of Superman. Action Comics #1 came out in June of that year.

Superman’s original name on Krypton reveals biblical underpinnings. Superman is named Kal-El and his father Jor-El. The suffix “El” is one of the ancient names for God, used throughout the Bible. It is also found in the names of great prophets like Samuel and Daniel and angels such as Michael and Gavriel. We may never know whether Siegel and Shuster were aware of these precise Hebrew translations; nevertheless, the name could not be more apt.

Like the biblical Moses, Superman is discovered and raised in a foreign culture. Baby Moses is found by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised in the royal palace. Superman is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a Midwestern cornfield and given the name Clark. From the onset, both Batya and the Kents realize that these foundling boys are extraordinary. Superman leads a double life as the stuttering, spectacle-wearing reporter whose true identity no one suspects. In the same way, for his own safety, Moses kept his Israelite roots hidden for a time.

While Superman may have stood the test of time, the lives of his creators were not as triumphant. While DC Comics was making millions, they weren’t sharing the wealth. The two men were paid a salary, but their initial payment back in 1938 had included all rights. They had sold their percentage of a goldmine for $130 and were eventually fired from their own creation.

Lawsuits followed, none successful. Siegel and Shuster tried and failed to create new characters. Their names were familiar only to comic book aficionados. Then rumors began to circulate in the early 1970s that a big budget Superman movie was in the works. DC Comics received $3 million for the rights to film Superman. Once again, Siegel and Shuster were left out of the equation.

This time, the two men tried a new approach. They bypassed their lawyers and went straight to the media. Newspapers across the world picked up the story of Siegel and Shuster, the poor boys who made DC Comics rich and were now penniless and forgotten. That Shuster was going blind added to the story’s poignancy.

Legally, DC Comics owed Siegel and Shuster nothing, but bad publicity was costing the company dearly. A financial settlement was reached and the names “Siegel and Shuster” appeared in Superman comics once more. Joe Shuster died in 1992 at age 78; Jerry Siegel passed away in 1996 at age 81.

As Siegel and Shuster’s iconic creation returns to the screen to save the world in a post-recession age of uncertainty and political tension, we need the Man of Steel more than ever.

About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known best-selling author whose first book, “Up, Up and Oy Vey!” received the Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He was recently voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”

2 Comments

  • Something else Noticed

    When I was younger, I always wondered what was with the cape? It doesn’t add any capability and I would think it would get in the way. But recently I have been attending Orthodox morning services, and noticed when the style of wearing the tallit with the ends folded up on the shoulders and hanging mostly down the back is nearly the same look as the super hero cape. It came to me when the Rabbi actually spun around to do something and the tallit gadol actually flared around dramatically as if he were a super hero. I then wondered if the likes of Siegel and Schuster and Stan Lee used this imagery from there Jewish background to gives these “caped crusaders”.

  • Dennis Rogness

    Nice article,but sad that it is another case of corporate greed and the worthy being screwed.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Actor Zachary Levi said casting directors have denied him roles for being “too Jewish,” despite the fact that he is not a Jew, the New York Daily News‘ Confidenti@l reported on Wednesday. “I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look,” he said. “My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I’m like dying here!” The Thor star clarified that he is Welsh, and that Levi is actually his middle name, while his real last name is Pugh. He said he […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad. The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Rapper B.o.B’s New Song Invoking Antisemitism, Holocaust Denial Has Jewish Group ‘Deeply Troubled’

    Rapper B.o.B’s New Song Invoking Antisemitism, Holocaust Denial Has Jewish Group ‘Deeply Troubled’

    A Jewish human rights organization expressed concern on Wednesday over a new song by a popular US rapper that includes lyrics promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories and cites a Holocaust denier, The Algemeiner has learned. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was responding to Tuesday’s release of B.o.B’s “Flatline,” the lyrics of which include: “But before you try to curve it, do your research on David Irving; Stalin was way worse than Hitler, That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a Kippa.” Irving is a historian who has questioned […]

    Read more →