April 27, 2018

A German refugee child reads a Superman comic book, circa 1942. Credit: Marjory Collins / Library of Congress

Superman has been around for 80 years. His comic book just released its thousandth issue. Movies featuring him have made billions of dollars at the box office. All told, he’s one of the most successful and popular characters in American fiction. And that success started in 1938 with two teenagers from Cleveland. To explore Superman’s origins, and his legacy, we talked with Brad Ricca, author of the book Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster - the Creators of Superman.

Three Takeaways

  • The teenage creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were deeply inspired by the culture around them when they created the character. “I like to think of it as Superman is the Frankenstein’s monster of 30’s American pop culture,” Ricca says.  Clark Kent behaves a little like silent film star Harold Lloyd; the Superman costume takes inspiration from Polish strongmen who were popular at the time; some of Superman’s physical qualities were influenced by Olympian (and Clevelander) Jesse Owens; and even his hair was inspired by Tarzan.
  • Shortly after Superman debuted in comic books, he was a nationwide smash. But his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, didn’t see any royalties. They had sold the rights to Superman for $130 dollars to the company that would become DC Comics. Eventually, when the original 1975 Superman movie came out, a destitute Jerry Siegel sent letters to newspapers across the country telling fans not to see the film.
  • Why has Superman lasted so long? Ricca believes that the character speaks to the human experience. Specifically the feeling of having a secret identity, and feeling that, if only the world could see how competent and special you really were, everyone would respect you.

More Listening:

  • Brad Ricca talks about a huge problem that confronted Superman almost immediately after his comic book debut: World War II.

More Reading: 

  • The New Yorker looks more deeply into exactly how Siegel and Shuster weren’t fairly compensated for the creation of Superman.
  • Take a peek into Superman’s 1000th issue.
  • The New York Times has a timeline of important moments in Superman history.

comic books, Superman, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Brad Ricca

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