Jerome Siegel Critical Essays

Introduction

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.