EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in December, 2017 by the Ohio History Connection. Knox Pages has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
The year is 1938 and the Great Depression is in full swing. Things are starting to get tense in Europe with the recent annexation of Austria into Germany. Meanwhile in Cleveland, two young men are about to realize a dream that would bring hope to the American people and publish one of the most iconic characters of all times.
It was April 18, 1938 when National Publications released their first issue of Action Comics highlighting a superhero named Superman. They had been looking for a companion serial to go along with their Detective Comics (later known as DC) and needed stories to go into the first issue. Along with a magician named Zatara, they premiered a character who would later be called the first American superhero.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both born to Jewish immigrants, the Siegel’s from Lithuania and Shuster’s from the Netherlands and Ukraine. In 1931 the two became fast friends at Cleveland’s Glenville High School and ended up creating comics together. At the age of 16, both Siegel and Shuster were already accomplished comic artists. Shuster drew a comic about a character named Jerry the Journalist, and Siegel sold his works under the pseudonym Hugh Langley.
Together they tended to work on sci-fi inspired comics or stories inspired by the folk tale of John Henry. They created a story based on these ideas about a villain they called “Superman.” Superman as a villain didn’t last long, though. The pair created a new hero, also named Superman, who developed into the beloved character we know today.
It was never said aloud, but Joanne Siegel, the model who served as the visual inspiration for the original Lois Lane (and Jerry’s wife), always thought that the death of Siegel’s father had a lot to do with the creation of Superman. Siegel’s father died of a heart attack in 1932 during a robbery at the family clothing store.
It is reported the earliest sketches show Superman saving a man at gunpoint that looked a lot like his father. The appearance of Superman was inspired by Siegel himself. Joanne recalled watching Joe draw sketches of Jerry with his hands on his hips. They also made Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, a reporter, which was a dream Siegel held as a child.
The pair worked hard to get people to pick up the Superman comic, but the publishing companies did not find Superman with rockets to be relatable. Besides, there were already two big sci-fi titles to compete with, Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers. After trying to push someone to take Superman on, Detective Comics finally picked up the title.
By this time, Siegel and Shuster already had a following from newspaper comics they wrote. Originally, the plan was for Superman to premier in a newspaper comic strip, but Maxwell Charles “M.C.” Gaines pushed to put the comic in a magazine-like format. Since it was a new format they could pay their creators less money.
In the end, Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to everything connected to Superman to Action Comics for a total of $130.
On April 18, 1938, the first issue of Action Comics was released with a picture of Superman lifting a car above his head. Superman soon became one of the best-known characters in the world. The Superman stories flew off the shelves. It was this popularity that made Siegel and Shuster realize they had been swindled into selling the rights to Superman.
Siegel was told that he and Shuster could be easily replaced. The offer was simple, keep writing and drawing a character they poured their heart and soul into, or allow someone else to take complete control. Even though they would not become rich off Superman they agreed to keep working on the comics.
One of the reasons for the early success of Superman was how Jerry wrote about real issues that affected everyday people. They included a lot of things that had happened in Ohio’s history such as the mine accident in Athens, Ohio on Nov. 5, 1930. As time passed they started to include stories of Superman fighting off anti-Semitic people.
With Hitler’s rise in Europe with his anti-Semitic words and the negative stereotypes of Jewish people, pushed Siegel and Shuster to make a hero that defended the weak. They often would portray Superman protecting the weak and those who were mistreated. He was a hero the world needed as World War II began in Europe. Shuster and Siegel worked hard to tell stories of hope that would cheer people on as things looked hopeless, even as they struggled to keep the rights to create those stories.
One of their more popular stories included Superman confronting Hitler and exposing the horror that was being inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe. Siegel and Shuster got the attention of the Nazi regime when they were commissioned to write a comic showing how Superman would end the war. Das Schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the SS, wrote how Siegel and Shuster were brainwashing the children of America and that “there is nothing the Sadducees (Jewish, aristocratic high priests) won’t do for money.”
They go on to argue that Siegel was attempting to push his Jewish agenda: “He sows hate, suspicion, evil, laziness.” It was stories liked this that inspired other Jewish artists to create their own comics about protecting the persecuted. One of those men was Jack Kirby. Along with his partner, Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America in 1941.
During and after World War II, the Superman comics would go on to tell stories about the oppressed and make commentary on the state of the world. Even after the war was finished, comic books pushed different social issues to the forefront. Superman endorsed fitness for John F. Kennedy. He once fought the KKK in The Adventures of Superman radio show and worked to combat racism. Superman even reminded people to buy bonds and stamps once.
Today, as Superman has become popular once again, we can look back and see how he has influenced comic books and movies. We can even see how Superman has shaped the world. Think about how many songs have references to Superman in them. You can’t even write super man without a computer trying to correct the phrase to Superman.
Although comics have changed over the years, the lasting legacy of two young Jewish men from Cleveland, Ohio will never fade.