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Larry Tye: Superman, the Archetypical Hero

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

 

One of my favourite bits of comics history published within the last few years was Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Larry Tye's history of the great superhero tells a thoroughly compelling and interesting tale of the hero's complicated history and difficult legacy. I had the chance to sit down with Larry and discuss his book. What follows is a fascinating discussion of the Man of Steel that will bring new information for even the most committed Superman fan.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I think the best place to start with would be for you to tell us a little bit about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. First of all, how they came to create Superman?

Larry Tye: I'm going to tell you a version of the story. Your readers are savvy and my guess is they know a lot about Jerry and Joe. What I want to do is tell you some of the new takes based on new documents that we found that we discuss in this book.

The main new document was 150-or-so-page memoir that Jerry Siegel wrote and never published. One of the few good silver linings out of this lawsuit that is going on between Jerry and Joe's heirs and Time Warner is that it's produced a million documents. If you are an old journalist like me, that set of documents is a treasure trove that you can't wait to plough through. So I want to give you my take on the Jerry and Joe story, which is a little bit different than maybe the conventional one that people have read.

We knew the part of the story that I find very compelling, which is that Jerry's always been interested in storytelling and fantasy. But that I think some of his notion of what his hero ought to look like is clarified on the wings of tragedy.

That tragedy was that his dad, Michael Siegel, owned a used clothing store in a relatively seedy part of Cleveland. One day, three guys come in, one of them tries on a suit and they walk out without paying. And Michael Siegel, who had a very week heart, on the spot, has a massive heart attack and dies.

Suddenly the youngest of his six kids, Jerry, is bereaved; his dad is gone and he is minus a hero and a role model and a mentor. But there's also a piece in understanding what that meant, what it means in understanding the story that we see in Jerry's memoir. That is a story in today's terms that we call a bullied kid, of a kid who described every day going out on the playground and having kids taunt him by saying, "Siegel, Siegel, birds of an eagle" and this was a classic, foolish, kids' taunt, but he wished that he could fly away and he wished more particularly that the girls hadn't seen what had happened and he was feeling like a bullied or repressed kid.

You had this kid who every night would go to bed with a pencil and paper and when he couldn't fly away in reality, he would fly away at night by dreaming up various heroes and anti-heroes.

Siegel developed a hero that he called The Super-Man. This was a guy who essentially was going to take over the world. He wasn't a good guy hero. He was a bad guy who'd do all the things that Jerry dreamed of doing, being able to fly away, having the power to defeat his adversaries.

So if you start out with that image of a bullied kid and then you have this kid who loses, at age 17, his father and his role model and suddenly the story of The Super-Man dropping the The, dropped the hyphen and dropped the bad guy and we have, in the first rendition of what Jerry wrote and what Joe Shuster, his buddy down the street, drew. We have a guy coming in to rescue a man who looks an awful lot like Michael Siegel, who is being robbed.

And really, the story of Superman is not the story of any profound notion of what a hero ought to look like. It's a story of a bereaved little boy who lost his hero and needed to dream up a new one.

The hero that he dreamed up happened to come at the perfect moment, a publisher's dream. You have a boy who has a compelling hero and you have a country that is mired in the Great Depression and contemplating going to war in Europe in World War II, and what a meshing: a kid needs a hero, a country needs a hero, they both get one at the same moment and we have a publishing success unlike anything ever seen in comic books.

CB: The irony of course is that the strip languished for 5 years before DC published it.

Tye: It did, and they leapt on to it partly because a guy named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided that he needed copy to fill his new comic books. We had comic books around for a while, but they were generally a reprinting of the stories out of newspaper strips. The Major wanted original copy and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave him original copy.

But the fact that it took five years also meant that it happened in a moment when we particularly needed a hero like the one they created. But it also happened at a moment when Major Nicholson had printed several of Siegel and Shuster's other stories and was telling them he was going to print The Super-Man or Superman now.

The problem was that the Major was going bankrupt. He was bought out by two sharks named Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz who recognized that Superman might be just the kind of thing they needed for developing Action Comics. The rest is history.

 

Action Comics

 

CB: So it really was the right strip, at the right time, with the right man owning the book.

Tye: The right guys producing the book and even more so, as the right guys; two old pornographers, Harry and Jack, who come along and decide they want to reach a kids market and decide that they're going to test out, in their early editions of Action, putting Superman on the cover along with other things. And after a dozen or so issues they realized that, "Gee, you know, every time that Superman was on the cover it sold off the racks much more quickly than anything else and that maybe this guy deserved his own comic."

CB: It was a huge blockbuster when Superman #1 came out. It sold out over 90% of the print run or something?

Tye: It did. If you sold anything over 60% or so of the print run, you were making a profit and when you sold 90%, you were making an extraordinary profit.

CB: That’s unheard of; that’s like getting Super Bowl ratings on TV. Of course Siegel and Shuster weren't the first to come up with great action characters; there were Doc Savage and Tarzan, all these other characters.

Tye: And Hercules and Samson and we can go back a long way, and we could come up to the more contemporary Doc Savage and Phantom and other characters and Philip Wylie's Hugo Danner. So you were about to ask me what made Superman different.

I think what Jerry and Joe did is partly what every writer does, in every genre - which is that they steal from people who come before. They wouldn't want to call it stealing. They'd say that they were building on or extracting certain crucial elements from other stories. But Jerry and Joe definitely had things that were different. They had things that, if you were to ask me what I think the biggest successful elements, made them not just plagiarisers but visionaries were, one of them was the idea of this love triangle.

When you can have a love triangle that only really involves two people and you can have the classic… there is a role for everybody: the girl who was chased by one guy but wanted to be chased by another guy, you had the boy who couldn't get the girl, the boy who could get the girl but didn't want the girl; you had everything right there in this brilliant love triangle.

You had the story of the foundling; Superman was this orphan character from the planet Krypton. We've seen with Little Orphan Annie and the foundling, the myth of Moses, we've seen lots of places in history where there were compelling orphans. What could be more compelling than an orphan coming from a foreign planet and suddenly finding himself on earth?

You had something that I think was really critical, which was, in most of the earlier and most of the subsequent superheroes, the real character was the human and the guy in disguise, dressed up as the superhero was the disguised character. Whether it was Spider-man, where the real guy was Peter Parker, with Batman we know that the real character was Bruce Wayne. What was spectacular about Superman was that the real character was Superman and his disguise, which I think was a way of him looking to be more human and understand and be compelling to humans, was Clark Kent.

You had a character that, I don't know what you were like as a kid but when I was growing up and there was a Superman, I didn't wear glasses but I was a classic shlubby Clark Kent but I wanted people to understand, I wanted particularly the girls to understand, if they were smart enough to look really deep within me they would see a superman there. What kid didn't think that?

So we had all these elements that are the perfect prototypes for what makes any kind of hero compelling and there drawn together in a unique way, with a guy who is so confident of his status as a superhero that he could wear his underpants on the outside and not be embarrassed.

CB: You brought up the love triangle. I love the story about how Lois Lane was brought in to be part of the cast.

Tye: With Lois Lane there are so many stories of who is the real Lois Lane model. The true story, I'm convinced, is one that Jerry and Joe told when Superman turned 50.

That is the story that it was a girl in Jerry's class at Glenville High School; in a poor section, an almost 95% Jewish section of Cleveland, there was a girl named Lois Amster that Jerry was in love with. He had a crush on her, and she never knew that he has a crush on her. He never was confident enough to tell her. She barely knew that she existed.

This woman, Lois Amster, finds out on her 50th high school reunion that she was in fact Jerry's role model. Lois Amster is alive today, in a nursing home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I interviewed her for this book. At my book party when the book came out, Lois's son was there representing Lois. She's an extraordinary woman. She said that she wished that she'd known that Jerry existed, not that she would have paid attention to him but at least had known who he was. That's one story of how Lois Lane came to be.

There's another story about the creation of Lois Lane, which is a story that's been told after the fact. I think it's because Jerry wanted to have harmony at home.

The other Lois Lane stories, and I won't bore you with long version of them, but one of them was that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster hired a young woman to come and be their model for Lois Lane. They put an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a woman named Joanne Siegel showing up on the doorstep -- what was her name before? Joanne Kovacs.

She can't believe these kids are so young and that it's actually two teenagers that have put the add in. They can't believe that a fellow teenager has shown up to look like Lois Lane but they become friends and they clearly use her a little bit as a physical model, but she can barely fill out a bathing suit, so they all say, "use your imagination."

Fast forward to something like 20 years later, at an event in New York, Jerry Siegel's divorced, or he's about to get divorced, he's at least separated, and he invites Joanne Siegel to come to this event. They fall in love and he ends up marrying her.

The story of how Lois Lane develops becomes that she was the inspiration for Lois. But they'd actually been drawing Lois Lane for a long time. They'd envisioned her before they met Joanne and she was clearly not their first notion of what Lois Lane would be like, whether she was a physical notion of what Lois ought to look like, maybe, maybe not.

But Joanne Siegel has a lawyer write to Lois Amster years later saying, "Don't you ever claim to be Lois again," sends her a sort of cease and desist letter, to which Lois Amster's two lawyer sons write back and say, "cease and desist your cease and desist." They reached a meeting of the minds that nobody talked about.

There were various other stories that I have in the book of various heroines over time that were Jerry's and Joe's models for Lois. I think with Lois and with Clark Kent and with Superman, all of these things were partly an outgrowth of heroes that they had watched over the years, partly an outgrowth of what they wanted to be themselves, and partly an outgrowth of what worked, and they tried different versions of all of this and shifted it.

I think Lois Lane was brilliant for a lot of reasons. One of which is, when you talk to young women of that era today many of them in my profession of journalism will tell you that that they were inspired by Lois. Here was a feisty, hard-edged, female role model and they didn't have a whole lot of those in those days.

 

Larry Tye Superman

 

A woman who was very helpful to me in writing this book was named Noel Neill. She was in the original movie serial and in all but the first season of the TV show playing Lois Lane. She said that when she was going around the country talking to college students that they would tell her how grateful they were that she gave them a wonderful role model.

CB: But Lois was an actual professional woman at a time when it was very rare.

Tye: Exactly.

CB: I’m curious about how the book takes on the controversial question of how much Jerry and Joe got paid for the characters.

Tye: It takes that on in a way that will probably… I have not talked to her since the book is out, but Jerry's daughter and all the defenders of Jerry and Joe won't like it and on the other hand I think Time Warner and the defenders of DC Comics won't like because it concludes that both sides had issues.

On the one hand Jerry and Joe sell the rights to Superman in perpetuity for the grand total to be divided between the two of them for $130 and you could say that that was the original sin of comic books. They were ripped off.

But on the other hand, they were trying desperately, as you said, for five years to sell their story. Harry bought their story and is his purchase an opportunity or a rip off? I think it was a little bit of both.

They got hired to continue to write Superman, they made salaries that in today's terms would look like hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They became famous. They got to live in New York as well as get a nice home in Cleveland, Ohio.

Part of what happened, part of what is original to this book is a look at the long correspondence that Jerry in particular had with Jack Liebowitz in particular over a course of 20-some years and that made them both look like the heroes and the villains part of the time.

My summation of the story is that they were both in the right and at fault at about equal measure and they should put it all behind them today. The idea that all these years later, with all the money to be made from Superman, they can't reach some settlement is strange. The character himself is threatened by their trying to pull him apart and each own different parts of him that the only people that have won in this thing are the lawyers. The lawyers have made enormous pay-outs, not just from the work that they've been doing on the case, but Jerry and Joe's lawyer will become rich when they reach any settlement and I think it's a shame.

CB: It should be legacy money. But it’s such an interesting question about who owns the IP of a popular character. A few years ago I interviewed Jerry Robinson who was the long-time assistant to…

Tye: One of my heroes and one of the guys who really helped me from the very beginning of this book.

CB: Wonderful man to talk to. Although we didn’t discuss it explicitly, one of the things that came out in our conversations is that he takes a lot of pride in having created Robin and the Joker. He made no royalties by creating those characters, but what their creation gave him was an opportunity to live the life he wanted to live, not be that financial legacy themselves.

Tye: And he could have sued them and instead he realized that he had a career made out of this. He's a good example.

CB: But it’s a difficult question because on the other hand, as someone who works in writing frequently, I feel the need to want to own your own ideas, especially something that became as popular as this. There’s a lot of buzz in the industry right now about Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead because he owns the IP for it, he himself is making a huge amount of money from the series.

Tye: It's true and in the case of Superman, I know that DC and Time Warner want desperately to settle this. The kind of money that they're talking about has got to be something, the sad thing is that Joanne Siegel died in the middle of the lawsuit and so she's not going to see the money. Laura, the one daughter, the one child, in not especially well and if this drags on any longer it will become a travesty in tragedy.

CB: It sounds like there’s not a lot of movement on either side. So how did the settlement in 1977 or '78 come about?

Tye: That settlement came about because there it came at a particular moment. On one hand, Superman was soaring. We had the first Christopher Reeve movie in 1978. Warner Brothers and DC desperately wanted to do something on the one hand good for Jerry and Joe and on the other hand good for them and take away the bad publicity.

Jerry and Joe were raising a stink – Jerry particularly – so they reached an agreement so that Jerry and Joe were getting even more annuities, an even more favorable settlement. They got one-time payments, they got their annual payment kicked up, they got all their medical expenses taken care of, and they lived a pretty good life in the end.

They could have been rich if a lawsuit like the one now had been settled but they lived with all the money they needed and both sides had an incentive that that one reached a settlement.

CB: Was it true at the time that Joe was working as a security guard and was almost blind and had health problems?

Tye: It was true. It is and he actually was drawing some pornography. He drew characters with whips and chains, shockingly like Lois and Jimmy in Superman. So it was very sad, the state that they had both fallen into. The good news is, they lived the last years quite well.

 

 

CB: You’ve obviously done a lot of journalism work. We comics fans often tend to be very fixated on our little space in the comics industry. Do you feel like Siegel and Shuster were treated better or worse than people who have been in similar circumstances in other industries?

Tye: I think that they were treated comparably to people in other mediums. They were ripped off when it was easy to rip them off, they were paid off when public relations and other things said, "Let's do pay-offs," and I think the comics industry was seeing the same thing play out in other industries like TV.

The family of the creators of Lassie were in the world of popular culture and in the world of trade market copyright law, the same kinds of things being played out all over the place. The thing that makes it more interesting for people in the comics, or that part of popular culture world and in the broader world, is that this is about Superman and it shouldn't be happening to the all-time hero.

CB: So do you have a favourite story in the book that you want to share with us?

Tye: Yeah, my favorite story is, of all the things that I learned about Superman that I never knew beforehand, the most interesting and fun to me is that Superman was Jewish.

The Christians claim him as the perfect Christ, or God sends his son to earth to make humanity than it thought it could be, Buddhists think he's the ultimate Zen character. Agnostics and atheists think that he is the secular messiah. But from his name of the planet Krypton, Kal-El, which means in Hebrew a vessel of god, to the fact that he came down like Moses in the Exodus story and was rescued by two gentiles named Martha and John Kent, who realize that he has extraordinary powers, to the idea that any character, any human that has a name that ends in the world man is either a superhero, or a Jew, or both.

I love that idea. I think Jerry and Joe and the largely Jewish group of writers who came afterwards, I think through in these little hints felt this way, too. And so I like to think that Superman was a Jew.

But I love the idea that he's also such a hero that we all want to claim him and can figure out a good reason. Somebody wrote an entire book on Superman and the New Testament and how Superman is a Christian symbol. So we can say whatever with him because he is a fantasy character, but he has also lasted 74 years because he has all the elements we talked about in the beginning and I'm convinces that, if the lawyers and the heirs and the owners don't screw things up, he'll be around for another 74 years.  

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