Episode 147: Siegel and Shuster, the Authors of Superman

Since I’ve been talking so much about Superman I think it’s important to go to authorial roots and talk about the men responsible for bringing an iconic character to our lives.

In the 1930s, writer Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and artist Joseph “Joe” Shuster, came together to make a character that could be a larger than life hero. Comic books had just become commonplace and authors were trying to find the next big thing that would make sure their periodicals would jump off the newsstands. Siegel and Shuster pitched their concept of “Superman” to different comic book companies until Action Comics decided to a chance and have him be on the cover of their first issue[1]. Superman made his debut among other characters like Zatara the Sorcerer and he was far from being the first superhero in comics or any other medium but he soon became the symbol for the term. Of course, in the early days his powers and backstory where far more limited than what they currently are. Perhaps the biggest aspect that even many fans are not aware of is the fact Superman originally did not possess the ability to fly.

Originally, all of Superman’s powers were centered entirely on his extraordinary strength. The introduction for the old serials in cartoons and radio famously gave the opening lines of, “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, it’s Superman!” All of these traits were based on his muscles. Many times, Siegel and Shuster would take advantage of their character’s superior leaping ability to have him jump and do heroic feats mid-air. However, Superman would always fall back to Earth and thus he would have to hop constantly to take on aerial challenges. Both authors found creative ways to circumvent the issue of gravity but ultimately decided that Superman would develop the ability to fly. The narrative introduction of said power stated it as him having gained greater control over his abilities. Siegel and Shuster had now established that their character was dynamic and evolving not just in personality but in more direct physical capacities; an authorial performance that would become a staple of comic book storytelling for many other heroes. That history would become problematic once a spinoff of Superman’s main narrative came in the form of Superboy; which detailed the hero’s past as a young boy fighting crime with many powers, including flight. Of course that title was developed by DC, without Siegel and Shuster, as will be explained shortly.

As the years went on, super heroes had become commonplace and became an essential subset of comic books. Detective Comics Inc. published Action Comics (who had Superman) and Detective Comics (who had Batman) and later merged with National Comics, the resulting company being DC Comics, though it did not officially have that name until 1977.With so many popular characters under the same publication house, the potential for crossovers of characters between individual stories had escalated exponentially. You see, since characters are the legal property of their creators according to copyright law (and at the very least authorial integrity) then an author cannot use another author’s intellectual property without a legal response. Even if the authors themselves could agree to it, their respective publishing houses might voice their objections, and put a stop to the process. However, with the creation of DC, major legal hurdles were bypassed and the possibility of Superman and Batman joining forces with other heroes not only became a possibility, it would soon become a reality. Crossovers in the form of cameos (brief appearances in another character’s storyline) and team ups (wherein story lines from both titles’ installments would merge and have characters freely appear) led to the creation of another comic book entirely where the heroes would be working together from the start. In 1941, World’s Finest Comics hit the shelves and it showed Superman alongside Batman and Robin as a team that would go on many adventures to save the day, mostly from evil Nazis. Later on, Wonder Woman joined the team and inclusion of other heroes would later influence the creation of another title with multiple characters from other DC comic books, The Justice Society of America. However, few if any of the original authors of these titles were the writers and artists behind these conglomerations of characters.

Siegel and Shuster would continue to be the main writer and artist of Superman for many years but only in its main incarnation of installments of Action Comics. They would do the authorial performances regarding the serialization of the story but the concept of authorship concerning Superman and most forms of comics had changed. You see, as part of the contract to develop and publish Superman through DC, Siegel and Shuster sold the rights and ownership of the character to the company. They would remain developing the stories for the character as part of their ten year contract but it was DC and its executives who would have creative control and ownership of the characters from thereon out. This leads to what I call a corporate model of authorship, wherein the company employs various writers and artists to complete authorial performances regarding the publication of the story but ultimately it is the corporation itself that decides the direction of the narrative and has the mantle (though not the outright title) of the author.

Siegel and Shuster would continue to work for DC through the length of their contracts but continued to be quite vocal about not liking their deal of selling off their prized character. Before their time had expired, they tried to sue their employers over the rights to Superman. Both of the original authors of Superman eventually decided to seek employment elsewhere and stopped trying to sue after they were given a settlement by DC so that they would not sue again. The court had already decided that DC had the rights to the character, which they could appeal, but decided to take DCs offer. However, their names as creators of Superman would be erased from future publications. In the mid-1970s, Siegel and Shuster decided to protest DC in a very public manner. Investigations from journalists covering the case brought to light that both men were leaving in deep poverty. Fans of Superman took their side as they witnessed that their desire was more based on subsistence than greed. In the end, DC decided to take action outside of the original court rulings. The company gave Siegel and Shuster a stipend and health benefits to help them get back on their feet. Both men accepted this olive branch and ceased any further legal action[2]. DC also decided that the phrase “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” be in every Superman story from thereon out regardless of its medium of publication. This recognition by DC of the original authorship of the Superman work alongside caring for the real life initial authors shows the creators of the character still have a historical and emotional authorial connection to the text long after other writers and artists have continued the serialization of the narrative.

[1] You can read Superman’s first adventure here http://www.reading-room.net/Action1/Action1Cover.html

[2] Interestingly enough, Siegel’s widow and daughter went into an extended legal battle with DC and Time Warner over copyright issues regarding Superman and ownership of Superboy for most of the 2000s.

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