Superman: From Cleveland to Krypton

The Man of Steel's Jewish roots.

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Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.

-- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

The Birth of Superman

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two ordinary young men who created an extraordinary hero, lived twelve blocks apart from each other in Cleveland. The pair collaborated on stories for their high school newspaper and shared a passion for science fiction and pulp comics. It was the 1930s, and comic book publishing was in its infancy. Like many young Jews with artistic aspirations, Siegel and Shuster yearned to break into this fledgling industry. Comic book publishers actively hired Jews, who were largely excluded from more "legitimate" illustration work. 

superman, action comics #1The 1930s were also, arguably, the most anti-Semitic period in American history. Nazi sympathizer Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities, including Siegel and Shuster's hometown. Radio superstar Father Charles E. Coughlin of the pro-fascist Christian Front was one of the nation's most powerful men. And Ivy League colleges kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.

So Siegel and Shuster began submitting treatments under the pseudonym Bernard J. Kenton, just to be on the safe side. Throughout the Great Depression, the two boys scraped together every penny they could just to cover postage. Shuster sketched on cheap brown wrapping paper.

From these humble beginnings, Shuster and Siegel carved out a character that embodied their adolescent frustrations, served as a mouthpiece of the oppressed, and became an American icon. Many years later, Jerry Siegel recalled the birth of Superman:

 "The story would begin with you as a child on far-off planet Krypton. Like the others of that world, you had super-powers. The child's scientist-father was mocked and denounced by the Science Council. They did not believe his claim that Krypton would soon explode from internal stresses. Convinced that his prediction was valid, the boy's father had been constructing a model rocket ship. As the planet began to perish, the baby's parents knew its end was close. There was not space enough for three people in the small model craft. They put the baby into it. The mother chose to remain on the doomed planet with the man she loved, and die with him. Tearfully, hoping that their baby boy would survive, they launched the craft toward the planet Earth. Shortly, Krypton exploded and its millions of inhabitants were destroyed."

The idea of for this new superhero came to them in 1934. It would take another four years before Superman would be transformed from a feverish dream to a full-fledged hero. In 1938, Detective Comics, Inc., was looking for a character to launch its new magazine, Action Comics. They paid young Siegel and Shuster $130 for the first thirteen pages of Superman. Action Comics #1 came out in June of that year. The issue sold out, and a star was drawn.

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Simcha Weinstein

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the founder of the downtown Brooklyn Jewish Student Foundation. Rabbi Simcha is a sought-after television and radio guest, and has been profiled in many publications, including the New York Post, the Jerusalem Post and the Washington Post. He is also the author of Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.