Man of Steel rebooted: Searching for Superman's Ohio roots 75 years on
As the next cinematic instalment of this superhero heads to cinemas, Thomas J. Sheeran charts his creators' humble Depression-era heritage
Wednesday 17 April 2013
The tough, blue-collar roots of Superman's creators are getting a fresh look on the superhero's 75th anniversary.
Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived just a few blocks apart in the Cleveland neighbourhood that shaped their teenage lives, their dreams and the imagery of the Man of Steel.
In the city's Glenville area, still in the throttling grip of the Great Depression, Siegel and Shuster laboured on their creation for years before finally selling Superman to a publisher.
The Man of Steel became a Depression-era bootstrap strategy for the Siegel/Shuster team, according to Brad Ricca, a professor at nearby Case Western Reserve University who uses Superman in his classes.
"They really just saw it as a way out," he said.
In his upcoming book Super Boys, Ricca says the story of Superman's creation is mostly about their friendship: two boys dreaming of "fame, riches and girls" in a time when such dreams are all the easier to imagine because of the crushing economic misery.
Ricca said Siegel and Shuster reflected Cleveland's ethnic mix: both were sons of Jewish immigrants, struggled during the Depression and hustled to make something of themselves.
"The Depression is all about, you know, if nobody is going to give you a job, you make your own, you find your own niche and we find that's what they are doing," Ricca said.
Superman's first appearance, in Action Comics No. 1, was April 18, 1938. The first and greatest superhero has gone on to appear in nearly 1,000 Action Comics and has evolved with the times, including a 1940s radio serial, a 1950s TV series and as a reliable staple for Hollywood.
Pop culture expert Charles Coletta at Bowling Green State University said Superman ranks globally with George Washington and the Super Bowl as American icons.
But it wasn't just hardscrabble circumstances that tempered the Man of Steel, Siegel's daughter said.
Laura Siegel Larson said Cleveland's public library, comic pages and high school mentors all nurtured her father's creativity.
"The encouragement that he received from his English teachers and the editors at the Glenville High School newspaper and the literary magazine gave my dad a real confidence in his talents," she said over the phone from Los Angeles.
The school even allowed Siegel to mimeograph the science-fiction magazine he wrote and sold by mail subscription, she said.
The tale of Superman's first moments begins in Siegel's bedroom. He once recalled coming up with the idea while looking up at the stars and imagining a powerful hero who looked out for those in distress.
Today, Siegel's home is easy to pick out on a street with a mix of renovated and dilapidated homes: a stylized red Superman "S" adorns the fence and a sign identifies the home as "the house where Superman was born."
And like the Man of Steel, the neighbourhood is tough.
"You better have 'S' on your chest if you come out after dark," grinned Tommie Jones, 50, helping move furniture several doors away.
Hattie Gray, 61, who moved into the home nearly 30 years ago unaware of its history, has become used to the parade of Superman fans walking by or knocking, trying to savor a piece of comics lure.
"I get people all the time, people all the way from Japan, from Australia," she said. "It's a great joy to live here."
The top floor, where Siegel often wrote, still offers the nighttime view of the sky that inspired him.
Gray has heard the talk about Glenville being tough, but said crime that might merit Superman's attention can be found anywhere. "The neighbourhood is not really bad, it's just the people are poor. That's all," she said.
Shuster's home has been demolished and replaced by another, but the fence has oversized Superman comic book pages displayed. The nearby commercial strip has a state historic marker detailing Superman's Cleveland roots.
But there isn't an outsized Superman profile in Cleveland like the way the city celebrates its role in the history of rock 'n' roll, including the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Comic store owner Markus Benn thinks hometown fans want to see the Man of Steel rendered in granite.
"I don't understand why Cleveland won't own up to owning Superman," he said. "What do I suggest for a Superman statue? He should be downtown, he should have the shield or the eagle, that classic pose where he's standing up there with the eagle on his arm."
The low Superman profile in Cleveland may be because Siegel and Shuster weren't self-promoters and sold their rights to Superman so early, according to Mike Olszewski, a longtime Cleveland broadcaster and president of the nonprofit Siegel & Shuster Society.
Last year the $412 check that DC Comics wrote in 1938 to acquire Superman and other creative works by Shuster and Siegel sold for $160,000 in an online auction.
Fans hope tomorrow's 75th anniversary, including lighting city hall with Superman's colours, will raise the Siegel-Shuster profile. The city is making a start with a Superman day proclaimed by the mayor and giving out birthday cake at the airport's Superman display.
The June release of Hollywood's latest Superman tale, Man of Steel, should renew fan interest. The film offers a fresh start for the kid from Krypton, with Henry Cavill as the boy who falls to Earth and becomes its protector.
Ricca said the image of Superman arriving from a distant planet and getting raised in America mirrors the Cleveland background of his creators. The parents of Siegel and Shuster fled Europe for a new life "and they end up on this alien world, which is Cleveland," Ricca said.
"Funky Winkerbean" creator Tom Batiuk shares roots in the Cleveland area with Superman and that inspired him.
"When I was in elementary school, I found an entry in a school encyclopedia about Jerry Siegel," Batiuk said in an email.
"The fact that he was the one of the creators of Superman immediately caught my attention, but what was even more astounding to me was the fact that he was from Cleveland. The fact that someone from my area could do something like that was revelatory and inspirational."
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