Jerome Siegel Essay - Critical Essays

Siegel, Jerome


Jerome Siegel 1914– Joe Shuster 1914–

Siegel—American comic strip and comic book writer.

Shuster—Canadian-born American comic strip and comic book illustrator.

Siegel and Shuster are the creators of Superman, perhaps the most well-known and popular comic book character. Superman is an archetypal hero, combining the strength of Hercules with the nobility of Galahad; an alien, he uses highly developed attributes such as strength, hearing, invulnerability, flight, and x-ray vision to protect the American people from war, crime, and injustice. In order to maintain his privacy, Superman poses as timid newspaper reporter Clark Kent, reassuming his true identity when his rescuing talents are needed. The problems in maintaining this dual identity are complicated by Superman's relationship with Lois Lane, another reporter who adores Superman but dislikes Clark. This situation is felt to be both the crux of the Superman story and the element that has kept it interesting for over forty years.

Young people have been Superman's most enthusiastic fans; it has been noted that the story typifies adolescent daydreams of imaginary triumphs. Superman's creators were teenagers themselves when they developed the character, forming their partnership as high school students with a mutual interest in science fiction. They began publishing fan magazines on the subject filled with artwork and book reviews; one of the issues contained a review of Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator, on which Siegel and Shuster based the character of Superman. The strip was peddled unsuccessfully to newspaper syndicates and comic book publishers for five years. In 1936 the team began working for New Fun Comics Inc., which later became National Periodicals, doing cops and robbers and adventure strips. In June, 1938, the first Superman episode appeared in Action Comics.

Superman comics were immediately successful. The story of how the infant Superman came to earth, sent by his father in a rocket ship before their planet Krypton was destroyed, has achieved the status of a myth or legend for Superman fans. Initially Siegel and Shuster concentrated their strips on Superman's amazing physical attributes as he fought local criminals. World War II provided a wide range of villains: Superman became a symbol of courage and patriotism as he battled the Nazis and Japanese. Later, Superman reflected scientific and technological advancements as his own capabilities and those of his adversaries increased. Throughout his development, Superman's moral outlook has been consistent: Siegel developed a clear division between good and evil that is still the basis for superhero comics; he also gave Superman a strong social consciousness and a sense of humor which has been described as his most appealing feature. The writers who succeeded Siegel have been criticized for deemphasizing Superman's essential simplicity in favor of more sophisticated characters and plots. Siegel and Shuster were themselves censured for the smugness of their comic's righteous attitude and for creating prejudice in their young readers against the ethnic and political villains depicted in the strips. Some educators and psychologists in the 1940s and 1950s felt that reading Superman led young people to negative, even criminal, behavior; now, however, these comics are felt to be acceptable influences due to Superman's high ideals of justice and morality. As concepts of masculinity, patriotism, and heroism changed, Superman's popularity became less universal. The comics have had a steady following, however, and the character of Superman attracted a new audience when the first of a planned series of Superman films was released in 1978.

After Siegel and Shuster left National, they split up their team to freelance. Siegel created cartoons such as Funnyman and Reggie Van Twerp, but none of them achieved the long-term success of Superman. Shuster went to Hollywood to work on animated films, but his output dwindled as his vision failed. Both men, however, are recognized as being among the most important contributors to the comic book genre. Superman has gone beyond the confines of the comic strip into international acceptance and has become an integral part of popular culture.

Slater Brown

It was only two years ago that Superman was first revealed to the youth of this country…. But the response which greeted his appearance was so enthusiastic and so immediate that already Superman has surpassed such long established classics as Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy and Popeye….

[It is not], to those versed in primitive myth or to students of the blacker arts of modern demagogy, difficult to understand why this new comic should have become so generally and so fantastically popular. For Superman, handsome as Apollo, strong as Hercules, chivalrous as Launcelot, swift as Hermes, embodies all the traditional attributes of a Hero God. He is, moreover, a protective deity whose role, according to the authors, is the "savior of the helpless and oppressed." In other words, the comic strip, besides affording entertainment for the romantic young, seems also to fill some symptomatic desire for a primitive religion. And though one cannot help wondering if [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche, sourly contemplating Time's Ruins, would consider this popular vulgarization of his romantic concept with equanimity, even as [Jonathan] Swift may shudder over the final and ironic destiny of his Gulliver, I, at least, cannot share whatever disapprobation he may feel. For in Nietzsche's own native land and in the neighboring country where he lived, it is not the children who have embraced a vulgarized myth of Superman so enthusiastically; it has been their elders.

Slater Brown, "The Coming of Superman," in The New Republic, Vol. 103, No. 10, September 2, 1940, p. 301.

John Kobler

[The] Man of Steel, with his super-hearing, super-sight and super-vitality, has become all things to all boys. He has shaken the pedestal of many a classic boyhood idol: Tarzan, whom he can outleap and outfight; Nick Carter, whom he can out-sleuth; Galahad, whose purity is as tarnished brass compared to his. More than this Superman accomplishes with casual ease feats that are common to every boy's daydreams…. And to top it all, his motivating traits are "super-courage, super-goodness and super-justice"; his mission in life "to go to the rescue of persecuted people and deserving persons."

Perhaps the greatest of all Superman's achievements is that he is a miracle man in fact as well as in fancy. No other cartoon character ever has been such an all-around success at the age of three. No other cartoon character ever has carried his creators to such an accomplishment as Siegel and Shuster enjoy at the age of twenty-six. (p. 14)

The young creators of the Man of Steel would have been hailed by [Sigmund] Freud as perfect clinical illustrations of psychological compensation. For here are two small, shy, nervous, myopic lads, who can barely cope with ordinary body-building contraptions, let alone tear the wings off a stratoliner in midair. As the puniest kids in school, picked on and bullied by their huskier classmates, they continually moped off into what Doctor Freud termed "infantile phantasies," wherein they became colossi of brute strength, capable of flattening whole regiments of class bullies by a flick of their pinkies….

[There] were years of struggle and discouragement. The partners brewed many a strong potion—Doctor Occult, a sort of astral Nick Carter who kept tangling with zombis, werewolves and such; Henri Duval, a doughty musketeer in the image of D'Artagnan—but no editor hastened to press riches on them. What few continuities they did place were bought by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a grand-mannered, bespatted ex-Army officer, who in February of 1935 had published New Fun Comics, [the] first original comic magazine…. But the major couldn't see Superman for two pins….

[As Siegel related,] "I am...

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Martin Sheridan

[Superman's] popular appeal is due to the fact that America is a land of hero worshippers. Superman is the ultimate in heroes. He outdoes everybody in everything, even to bursting through steel doors and catching bullets between his teeth.

Superman is for the right and against the wrong. With two-thirds of the world at war people take delight in following the adventures of a fictional being who can dictate to dictators and make tyrants say "uncle." He's a comforting fellow to have around—even if he is an imaginary character—for the stimulus to our morale. (pp. 235-36)

Martin Sheridan, "Superman," in his Comics and Their Creators: Life Stories of American Cartoonists (copyright © 1944, copyright renewed © 1972, by Martin Sheridan; reprinted by permission of the author), revised edition, R. T. Hale & Company, 1944 (and reprinted by Hyperion Press, Inc., 1977), pp. 233-36.

Coulton Waugh

[Superman] is a national figure, perhaps the most worshiped and adored of our time. (p. 256)

The simple and marvelously effective idea back of "Superman" was to take one of the interplanetary heroes who … had added supernormal powers to their sex-bursting physique, and allow him to whip through the setting of our place and time….

We have always worshiped heroes, and Superman is only a modern cousin to Paul Bunyan, who once took an annoying tornado by the dark, fast-twisting, deadly tail, and cooped it up in a homemade cage…. (p. 257)

There is, of course, a deeper reason for Superman's present, enormous popularity. The world, life itself, has come to be...

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Geoffrey Wagner

I do not personally believe that the hollow, self-gratulatory note of the Superman comic means that the USA has a bad conscience; rather I think it may suggest that the publishers of the stuff cannot help but be a little queasy in their consciences at the dilapidation of taste they are so systematically perpetrating. War-mongering? I wouldn't know. But I have found in the Superman ethic undeniable signs of that philosophy I best describe to myself as Jim Crow While U Wait. (p. 86)

Geoffrey Wagner, "Comics: The Curse of the Kids," in his Parade of Pleasure: A Study of Popular Iconography in the USA, Derek Verschoyle, 1954, pp. 71-114.∗


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Fredric Wertham

Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and "foreign-looking" people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force.

Superman not only defies the laws of gravity, which his great strength makes conceivable; in addition he gives children a completely wrong...

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Stephen Becker

[By 1942, the critics were in action, pro and con, regarding Superman.] Superman was the ideal outlet for youth's unruly instincts; Superman was in the tradition of the American hero; Superman was a force for good in a world of evil. Or: Superman expressed an irresponsible social philosophy in which the average citizen abjured his own duties and let the marvel fulfill them; Superman was a glorification of the physical; Superman represented absolute power, which is ultimately corrupting. While the battle raged, kids bought the comic books, listened to the radio programs, heeded Superman's preferences in literature, clothing, bubble gum and toys.

He seems a little easier to explain now, twenty years...

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Heinz Politzer

[Superman] has hardly more than his name in common with [Friedrich] Nietzsche's blasphemous and iconoclastic phantasm; in fact one suspects that he originally owed his "super" to the "super-duper," the "ne plus ultra and then some" of advertising usage. This Superman is a Li'l Abner without Mammy Yokum and without popular background, a hillbilly without the fertile background of folklore or remnants of creed. He is a Goliath rather than a David, but a Goliath who has joined the side of the conventionally right. The most serious objection to him I have heard from the mouth of a child: that he is immortal, and therefore the amazing things he does are not miracles.

The emblem of his supermanhood...

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Jules Feiffer

The particular brilliance of Superman lay not only in the fact that he was the first of the super-heroes, but in the concept of his alter ego. What made Superman different from the legion of imitators to follow was not that when he took off his clothes he could beat up everybody—they all did that. What made Superman extraordinary was his point of origin: Clark Kent.

Remember, Kent was not Superman's true identity as Bruce Wayne was the Batman's or (on radio) Lamont Cranston the Shadow's. Just the opposite. Clark Kent was the fiction. (p. 18)

Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the...

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Richard Kluger

Superman is the most fabulous of the comic book heroes—part of our folklore already, one might argue. And the most engaging feature of the Superman stories was surely not the fellow's prowess at bending bridges into pretzels or dispatching felons with a flick of his cuticle—for, by definition, he was invincible, so what suspense could there be over the outcome?—but the fruitless romance between Lois and Superman-Kent.

First, any good logician would have to question the assumption, perpetuated by the comic strip itself, that Superman was real and Clark Kent was the put-on. It is important to recall the famous episode … describing how Superman got here from the doomed planet Krypton: "A...

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Roderick Nordell

What saddens me is that the Man of Steel seems to be going the way of that mighty hero of the past, Hercules. Perhaps humanity can stand the superhuman only so long without laughing. At any rate, it appears that after all his Herculean labors, Hercules became for the ancients a figure of fun, brought on stage for comic relief….

[In] those early days—"It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's …!"—the Man of Steel stood on his own two feet. Superman was the star. He was enough.

But at some point Superman's drawing power must have faltered, as I used to think none of his other powers could. Like the bygone strong men in the current film Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, he was...

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Ted White

It was 1938, and the country was shuddering its way out from the crippling blow to its economy in 1929. The air was full of talk of war in Europe, and of the mad clown named Hitler…. It was a time of idealism and of shattered ideals. We were down but not out. Our world had crumbled, but we knew we could build a better one.

We hadn't grown up yet.

Enter Superman. (p. 28)

For a man who was setting out to "help those in need," Superman had a remarkably pedestrian mind. For the most part he did not occupy himself with sweeping social change; instead he battled crooks and racketeers, uncovering corruption in low places. (p. 29)

It's fortunate for...

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Les Daniels

Superman, the ultimate expression of human aspirations to power and pure freedom, was an instant triumph, a concept so intense and so instantly identifiable that he became perhaps the most widely known figure ever created in American fiction. Almost immediately it became apparent that he was too super to ever lose his war against crime. Once it was known who he was, it was known what would happen to him—for all intents and purposes, nothing. Consequently, it might have been possible that his very invulnerability would have been the source of his defeat, in the public eye if not in his adventures. Some devices, like the introduction of Kryptonite, the alien element with a deleterious effect on the Man of Steel, were...

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Arthur Asa Berger

In recent years Superman has been changing…. When we discarded our old legacy of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, we also abandoned the view that a heroic super-powerful individual might solve all our problems with some magnificent gesture.

But what is important about Superman is not that he is changing…. It is what Superman represents, as a symbol, before he started changing that I am most interested in; and it is his symbolic significance that is most important, I feel, for our purposes.

Though he may have been a relatively simple-minded hero in the old days before he became socially conscious, as a symbolic figure he presents many difficulties. This is...

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Mordecai Richler

[The] real Superman controversy has always centred on his assumed identity of Clark Kent, a decidedly faint-hearted reporter. Kent adores Lois Lane, who has no time for him. Lois is nutty for Superman, who in true 'aw shucks' tradition has no time for any woman…. [The significant factor in this is] the Canadian psyche.

Yes. Superman was conceived by Toronto-born Joe Shuster and originally worked not for the Daily Planet but for a newspaper called The Star, modelled on the Toronto Star. This makes his assumed identity of bland Clark Kent not merely understandable, but artistically inevitable. Kent is the archetypal middle-class Canadian WASP, superficially nice, self-effacing,...

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Leslie A. Fiedler

[It was the late 1930's before comic books] were accepted as fit for children in whose innocence parents were still pretending to believe. Moreover, the children themselves demanded more than parody of the daily scripts in which sex was absent and violence trivialized; they yearned for a new mythology neither explicitly erotic, overtly terrifying nor frankly supernatural, yet essentially phallic, horrific and magical. Such a mythology was waiting to be released in pulp science fiction, a genre recreated in the United States in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, who published the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre. He did not invent the name, however, until 1929, just one year before a pair of 16-year-olds, Jerry Siegel...

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Alvin Schwartz

Before the scientific hypothesis came along with its dependence on stored data and libraries and a written language, we structured the truths of our world in both physical and psychological terms by means of myths, legends, and fairy tales. The transmission of these fictional forms from one generation to the next was by word of mouth…. But when we examine the collected and printed forms of our oral tradition, we note how much of it, fairy tales in particular, has been relegated to the role of children's literature…. The fact is, of course, that fairy tales were never originally intended for children. But with universal literacy, children are the only ones left among whom the oral transmission of culture is still...

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Philip Demuth

The saga of Superman takes on an entirely different cast if we regard it psychologically…. In this light, the character of Superman becomes simply the elaborate fantasy wish-fulfillment of mild-mannered Clark Kent.

Imagine Clark, a frail child, raised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Smallville. He is an only child, introverted by nature; his parents are straight, old and remote. Although little is known of his early childhood, somewhere along the way Clark seizes upon the idea that he is "special." Many children entertain the idea that they might secretly be adopted, but for Clark this holds a peculiar fascination. He turns it over in his mind. Could it be that his real parents were great...

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