on September 30, 2012 at 9:00 AM, updated September 30, 2012 at 9:02 AM
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MOBILE, Alabama — Phrases like “faster than a speeding bullet,” “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” and “it’s a bird, it’s a plane” have all become easily recognizable parts of the myth of Superman. In a new biography, author Larry Tye pushes beyond the story’s well-known love triangle of Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, beyond Lex Luthor, kryptonite and Metropolis, to more fully explore the lesser-known but perhaps more important real-life struggles behind Earth’s strongest man.
“Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” interweaves the back stories of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; publishers and editors Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicolson, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Mort Weisinger; comic artists and writers Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring and Carmine Infantino; and a myriad others whose names remained shrouded in shadows despite the many years they worked to breathe life into the Man of Steel. Tye tells the story of a character nearly left on the cutting-room floor, of a life fraught with plagiarism, court cases, shady business deals, censorship and, ultimately, success like no other creation before him. “It was on his muscle-bound back,” Tye explains, “that the iconic comic book took flight and the very idea of the superhero was born.”
The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero
By Larry Tye
Random House, $27
Reviewed by Jacob Laurence Correspondent
Creators Siegel and Shuster eagerly, and naively, sold the rights to Superman in 1938 for a mere $130 to ensure the character would be printed, even if it was only once. Their Superman was an immigrant, an interplanetary new arrival and a conscientious New Dealer whose super strength was used to fight for oppressed people of America’s Great Depression generation. His method was as straightforward as the manner in which he was drawn and the language used to convey each story. His success was instantaneous, greedily devoured by young and old, including the likes of baseball great Joe DiMaggio. “Action Comics No. 1,” the first issue in which he appeared, sold 130,000 of 202,000 originally circulated. A year later, “Action Comics No. 16” sold 625,000 of 725,000, a whopping 86 percent of the available copies.
Superman had all the attributes to make him market gold, and he quickly transcended the block-drawn pages of four comic-book series and the weekly newspaper comic strips in which he appeared. By 1940 more than 20 Superman products, from toys to games to jigsaw puzzles, packed the shelves of retailers across the country. The marketing of Superman-inspired merchandise became big business. No other superhero could compete with his popularity. Tye estimates that in the first 10 years of Superman’s reign, Siegel and Shuster earned royalties that equate to $5 million in today’s market. However, the character amid all the fuss remained more than a marketing ploy.
Artists, writers and editors molded the character to fit the times, as the 20th century progressed and the new millennium approached. The catchphrase “truth, justice and the American way” became part of the lore in 1940s radio broadcasts that elevated his stature even further. He became a star on television and the silver screen, with Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling and, most recently, Brandon Routh all personifying a version of the character. Superman’s story continues to be one of the most recognizable stories in American popular culture. But that his is a modern morality tale has never changed. He was, and is, “not just an abstract notion of good but the good in each of us.” He remains relevant, timeless, a hero for all times.
Tye chronicles the smallest details of the “artist-entrepreneurs who were youthful as well as inventive, with the audacity to presume they were shaping not just a fictional character but popular fiction itself,” probing for the answer to Superman’s endurance in the American consciousness. His work provides the definitive volume of the Man of Steel’s first 75 years. The scholarship points to a broader interpretation and more encompassing study of American history and Americana. Tye questions, “Why does America embrace the heroes it does?” and “What do our choices say about them and, more important, about us?” In response, he hypothesizes, “There’s no better way to understand modern-day heroes than to look at Superman, the superhero who tapped into the American psyche more effectively than anyone else and, as a result, has lasted longer than all of them.”
The History Museum of Mobile’s exhibit “Up, Up Away: Evolution of the American Comic Book Superhero” will begin in October and run through March 3, 2013. The opening event will be at the museum on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 4 to 8 p.m. at 111 S. Royal Street in historic downtown Mobile. For more information, call 251-208-7508.
Jacob Laurence is the curator of exhibits at the History Museum of Mobile.