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
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two ordinary young men who created an extraordinary hero, lived 12 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.
The 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 13 pages of Superman. Action Comics #1 came out in June of that year. The issue sold out, and a star was drawn.
In a brilliant stroke, Shuster and Siegel gave their superhuman hero a secret identity, that of an all-too human reporter, the meekly mannered Clark Kent. Practically speaking, this notion of “double identity” allowed for almost endless storyline twists and thematic depth. On another level, it added considerably to the “mythology” that would eventually accrue around this fictional crime fighter. Clark’s shyness undermines his courtship of his co-worker, the gutsy Lois Lane. Siegel and Shuster later admitted that the shy Clark struggling for a date reflected their own social challenges.
Superman #1 was published in the summer of 1939. Across the Atlantic, in Germany, Adolph Hitler was exploiting his nation’s economic and social ills by scapegoating Jews. Living in a country that had stripped them of their citizenship yet perversely obstructed their exit, German Jews resorted to desperate measures. Just as the baby Superman was sent away from Krypton to avoid the mass destruction of his people, many Jewish children were sent on the Kindertransports to seek safety with families in England.
After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America entered World War II, and so did Superman. In Siegel and Shuster’s comic, Clark Kent tries to enlist in the Armed Forces, but he fails the routine medical examination,. Clark accidentally uses his X-ray vision to read the next room’s eye chart. Distraught, he muses, “I’ve got the most perfect body the world has ever known, and through a sad trick of fate, the army turns me down as hopeless!” This feeling of desperation and despondency was felt across the country. As news of the Nazis’ murderous Holocaust plan emerged, American Jews felt utterly powerless to help their European brethren.
Word of Superman and his ethnic undertones did not escape the enemy’s notice in real life. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, denounced Superman as a Jew. In April 1940, Das Schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the Nazi S.S., attacked the comic and its Jewish writers:
Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York. . . The inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind “Superman..
Here were Nazis wringing their hands over a cartoon character cooked up by a couple of boys across the sea. Yet this ideologically driven rant actually touched on something vital–the importance of Shuster and Siegel’s Jewish heritage.
Superman #1 begins with a brief synopsis of the hero’s escape from Krypton, which draws heavily on Jewish sources. Superman’s journey closely reflects the story of Moses. Like the people of Krypton who faced total annihilation, the Israelites of biblical Egypt faced the murder of their male offspring. To ensure her son’s survival, Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile. Her desperate decision is clearly echoed by Superman’s father, Jor-El, who launches the little rocket ship containing his son into outer space.
Moses and Superman are eventually discovered and raised in foreign cultures. Baby Moses is found by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised in the royal palace. Superman is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a Midwestern cornfield and given the name Clark. From the onset, both Batya and the Kents realize that these foundling boys are extraordinary. Superman leads a double life as the stuttering, spectacle-wearing reporter whose true identity no one suspects. In the same way, for his own safety, Moses kept his Israelite roots hidden for a time.
Superman’s original name on Krypton also reveals biblical underpinnings. Superman is named Kal-El and his father Jor-El. The suffix “El” is one of the ancient names for God, used throughout the Bible. It is also found in the names of great prophets like Samuel and Daniel and angels such as Michael and Gabriel. We may never know whether Siegel and Shuster were aware of these precise Hebrew translations; nevertheless, the name could not be more apt.
While the invincible Superman may have stood the test of time, the lives of his creators were not as triumphant. From the beginning, Siegel and Shuster were so busy they had to hire assistants, but while DC Comics was making millions, Superman’s creators weren’t sharing the wealth. The two men were paid a salary, but their initial payment back in 1938 had included all rights. They had sold their percentage of a goldmine for $130 and were eventually fired from their own creation.
Lawsuits followed. None were successful. Siegel and Shuster tried and failed to create new characters. Their names were familiar only to comic book aficionados. Then, rumors began to circulate in the early 1970s that a big budget Superman movie was in the works. DC Comics received $3 million for the rights to film Superman. Once again, Siegel and Shuster were left out of the equation.
This time, the two men tried a new approach. They bypassed their lawyers and went straight to the media. Newspapers across the world picked up the story of Siegel and Shuster, the poor boys who’d created an American icon, made DC Comics rich — and were now penniless and forgotten. That Shuster was now going blind added to the story’s poignancy.
Legally, DC Comics owed Siegel and Shuster nothing, but bad publicity was costing the company dearly. A financial settlement was reached, and the names “Siegel and Shuster” appeared in Superman comics once more. In 2006, Superman returned to the big screen, and not a moment too soon–in today’s world, we need a hero more than ever.