ADVANCE REVIEW! Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero will go on sale Tuesday, June 12, 2012.
In the introduction to this book, author Larry Tye worries that he doesn’t have anything new to say about Superman. After almost 75 years of people writing Superman and writing about Superman, what can there be to add? Or, as Tye’s editor says, “There are 200 books about Superman. Why do we need 201?” And the fact is, Larry Tye doesn’t have anything new to say about Superman. What he has is a new way to say it.
Tye offers perspective. Because Tye is not a Superman fan. Oh, he has fond memories of the character like every other American who grew up on Super Friends and Christopher Reeve. But before starting Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero Tye had never even heard of the TV show Smallville. No, Tye picked Superman because Tye is a biographer of American heroes, like Satchel Paige and Robert Kennedy. And when looking for a new subject, he realized that America’s most enduring hero, whose influence has never waned, was a fictional character.
Superman at Fifty
Starting from an almost blank slate, Tye carefully collected and correlated 75 years of writing, then condensed it down into a single narrative. IF you don’t know much about Superman, there might be some surprises here. Tye talks about Superman’s Jewish origins and influences, using sources I recognize from the outstanding Superman at Fifty collection of essays. He talks about the supposed “Superman Curse” for actors in the various Superman live-action movies and TV shows who were forever typecast. He gives a background the various Superman reboots from the Silver Age, the Imaginary Stories era, to John Byrne’s ’80s revamp, to the modern New 52 series. (And yes, he gets things wrong. I could pick him apart on some details — Titano the Ape is not from Krypton nor part of the Superman family. Etc. etc. But that’s just petty.) It’s was all familiar to me, but Tye’s writing was lively and I didn’t mind revisiting it.
Some of his writing did voyage into the bombastic, and I think Tye exaggerates Superman’s popularity in certain eras. He talks so much about the Superman craze in the 1950s, which I found dubious enough that I asked my mother about it. No, she said, she barely knew who Superman was when she was a kid. For her and all of her friends it was Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse that kept them glued to the new-fangled TV sets, not George Reeves.
Most interesting in this book was in regards to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Unencumbered by the politics and emotion of a comic book fan, Tye makes some controversial statements that — I am guessing — he doesn’t even realize are controversial.
Siegel and Shuster
In this age of Creator’s Rights and the image of cold, faceless corporations stripping creators of their creations then throwing them penniless in the streets — in an age where Marvel comics sued the creator of the character Ghost Rider for copyright infringement for drawing a sketch of his own creation at a convention — Siegel and Shuster are the poster children of “creators done wrong.” According to the legend, DC Comics bought Superman lock, stock and barrel from Siegel and Shuster for $130 then left them to die penniless old men while the company raked in billions.
Donenfeld and Liebowitz
Tye paints an entirely different picture, and perhaps a more honest one. Yes, Tye says, Siegel and Shuster created Superman, but it was really thanks to publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz that we still know who Superman is today. Donenfeld and Liebowitz neither knew nor cared about comics, but they did know money and advertising, and together they created Superman Inc. that pushed the character beyond the pages of the comics and into eternity. They saw the potential in Siegel and Shuster’s creation, and they took that crude beginning and refined it into what we know today. It was something they wouldn’t have done if they didn’t own the character. They wouldn’t have made the effort if they hadn’t been able to reap the rewards.
Some of the most interesting quotes in the book come from old exchanges between the parties: “You have the germ of a great idea in Superman, but you need constant editorial supervision,” said Liebowitz. And even harsher, “as long as your ego tells you anything you do must be a preordained success, I would be interested in having you name one feature — outside of Superman — that you have developed which has enjoyed even a modicum of success.” Liebowitz also noted that of a surprise bonus check sent to Siegel, he “did not see fit to acknowledge it, though you did deposit it.“
And Siegel and Shuster hardly suffered. They were given better deals than any professionals in the industry at the time, and both Siegel and Shuster were effectively rich men when the comic was at its height. But both of them wanted more, and constant money-grubbing and lawsuits caused enough ill will that Donenfeld and Liebowitz cut them off entirely. Poor money management and extravagant spending in the good times led both Siegel and Shuster to squander their acquired fortunes.
That history isn’t going to sit well with some people. It was a hard pill for me to swallow, the idea that the corporation of DC Comics has more to do with the success of Superman than the original creators, but Tye makes the case so effectively, and with so little bias, that it is hard to deny.
I don’t think he intended it, but Tye forced me to reconsider some long-held truths about who made Superman. Liebowitz in particular, who lived to be 100 years old and guided Superman from that first issue to the Christopher Reeve film in the late ’70s and up until he retired in 1991, had far more to do with building the Superman we all know and love than probably anyone else. Yet he is always portrayed as the villain of the story, and Siegel and Shuster the poor victims. The story is obviously more complicated than that, as real life is no comic book and real people are not supermen.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to mag
azines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.