Superman started as a reject.
Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were two naive kids from Cleveland who repeatedly failed to get anyone to take a chance on their strongman hero before a publisher with a past in girlie magazines needed something to fill the first issue of Action Comics in 1938.
The duo sold the rights to their creation for $130. Superman would go on to star in comics, serials, TV shows and movies. He became a superhero prototype, earned countless millions and became a transcendent American pop culture icon on par with Mickey Mouse.
Larry Tye’s new book is a cultural biography that tracks the famous character over the decades and gives voice to the many creators who shaped Superman on the page and screen, starting with Siegel and Shuster. Tye does a thorough job showing Superman’s evolution from the rambunctious building leaper of the 1930s to the Christ-like figure in the 2006 movie Superman Returns.
Tye deftly explores the natural tensions among the writers and artists who have breathed life into Superman and the evolving demands of the marketplace. When creators got it right, like they did in the first Superman movie from 1978, the character really does soar. But the storyline doesn’t always work. Some of the superpets introduced to spice up the comics long ago, especially Streaky the Supercat, are best forgotten, and fans panned a more assertive Clark Kent with stylish round glasses in the late 1980s.
The book makes clear that the hero’s greatest superpower might be as a salesman. Superman has been enlisted to sell soda, video games, T-shirts, “krypto-ray guns,” briefs, lunchboxes and much, much more. When Superman — that model of righteous living — is tossed into the side of a Marlboro truck in Superman II, the product placement is no coincidence. While Tye writes that “Superman’s handlers would not let him shill just any product,” readers might ask: Like what? Super Suppositories?
Tye has done some exceedingly good reporting, including deep dives through court filings and dozens of interviews. He found a lot of stuff — too much, maybe. There are too many reviews quoted, too many paragraphs that should have been pared down. Two-thirds of a page devoted to a 1940s Superman school grammar workbook is too much.
Superman has had dozens of midwives — writers, illustrators, editors, directors, TV producers — who shaped the character. But the book is haunted by the two nerdy kids who dreamed him up. Lightning never struck for Siegel and Shuster again: They ended up fighting a long legal battle for compensation.
Siegel in particular became embittered about the loss of control over and the lack of compensation for his one great contribution. But he was still driven to tears after seeing the character he made fly across the big screen in the 1978 movie. He reportedly told the comic’s publisher, “It was exactly how I had imagined it.”
Michael Hill reviewed this book for the Associated Press.