OH, SUPERMAN

His creator died in penury this week; the man who played him in the movies lies paralysed. There are other victims, too, of what might be called the curse of Superman. By John Lyttle

"Look! In the sky!"

"It's a bird!"

"It's a plane!"

"It's Superman!"

"Yes, Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands; and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter of a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way!"

That's the myth. Here's the curse.

Two unrelated, but related, reports wing down the news wires on the same day.

The first updates an ongoing tragedy: "Paralysed Superman actor Christopher Reeve is facing bankruptcy because of massive medical bills. He is paying out pounds 270,000 a year for round-the-clock nursing ... his medical insurance will run out in less than three years ... The dad of three - who smashed his spine in a riding accident last May - is looking for work as a guest speaker or film director."

The second grants an almost forgotten pop culture figure his belated due: "Jerry Siegel, who as a teenager in the Depression co-created Superman with the artist Joseph Shuster, has died at age 81 ... the two men earned a fairly high salary until 1947 when they sued for more money - and were fired."

Fired and banished. Screwed out of copyright and a merchandising percentage for a pathetic ten bucks a page, neither man ever wrote or drew a Superman comic again and were living in povertywhen the first of the Superman films came out in 1978. As the report concludes: "While Siegel and Shuster's fortunes rose and fell, Superman, an immigrant from the planet Krypton, achieved the American Dream."

Some might call the timing of the two stories luck (bad luck). Others might dub it coincidence. A few would opt for synchronicity. The superstitious, however, will head straight for the time-honoured, Hollywood Babylon- cum-National Enquirer explanation: the curse of Superman, showbusiness's answer to the curse of Tutankhamun.

There's Reeve, of course, thrown from his mount while competing in a horse show that one trainer callously announced he was underqualified for; then Oscar-winning Superman effects genius Derek Meddings, the man who made you believe a man can fly, making you believe a man can die in September; and now Siegel, Superman's "father", succumbing to ... the obits don't say, but true believers are certain: the curse. The same evil spell that left Margot Kidder, the movie's Lois Lane, in a wheelchair; that brought the series' producer Pierre Spengler low, yea even unto bankruptcy, despite a franchise that grossed in excess of $500m; that kept Spengler's co-producers, Alexander and llya Salkind, without a hit for ever after.

Select a victim. Any victim. Small wonder, then, that Dean Cain, Superman's latest incarnation (in the The New Adventures of Superman), should have recently demanded a $2m insurance policy from the show's producers, begged off doing any "dangerous stunts" and chosen to spend his social hours out of the risky limelight, at home, "in favour of quiet nights with a book".

Over-reaction or wise move? A bit of both. For, as the curse proves, Kryptonite isn't the only thing that can kill a Man of Steel.

Take George Reeves, television's prototype "strange visitor from another planet". Despite the show's famous, much-parodied opening boasts, Reeves wasn't faster than a speeding bullet. Two years after the programme ended its 1953 to 1957 run, he ended himself with a gun, having wandered upstairs to his bedroom in the middle of a dull drinks party.

Since then, friends have come forward - and books have been printed - claiming that Reeves was murdered, punishment for conducting an affair with a powerful producer's wife. The truth is probably more mundane. Reeves's career had collapsed. Raised high by the ratings, a national icon for an earlier, simpler age, his identification with "truth, justice and the American way" had typecast him to the point of apparently permanent unemployment. He was acutely depressed, cheated and trapped by the positively divine image he had helped to create. Once Superman, always Superman; which sounds more like a deal with the devil than a bargain struck with a god.

Whether assassin's target or cheaply ironic suicide, the curse of Superman had none the less struck, and it looked to the public, as it would always look - like fate's cruel, almost gleeful, retribution for even daring to pretend to invulnerability and moral perfection, for being a sunshine Superman.

The mighty fallen. All too literally in Christopher Reeve's case, which, in eerie ways, parallels his near namesake's. Superman: The Movie at once made the stage actor a household name and just as swiftly strangled his ambitions. Audiences rejected him in Somewhere in Time, The Aviator and the disastrous Monsignor. Even the much-hyped Deathtrap - in which he defied agents, critics and received wisdom to essay a psychopathic homosexual, the ultimate anti-Clark Kent - under-performed, forcing him back into the red cape and blue tights he had, if press quotes are to believed, grown to hate.

Yet the role refused to leave him alone: The New Adventures of Superman dangled $150,000 for one appearance alongside new boy Dean Cain. Alexander Salkind, as overshadowed by Superman as Reeve, offered pounds 5m for a fifth, and presumably final fling in the flying harness (Dean Cain has a well- documented fear of heights). Reeve said yes, then said no, then yes again. All systems seemed set.

Well, he had to. By 1988, in Switching Channels, Reeve was second banana to Burt Reynolds, 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace having upheld the theory of diminishing returns. Reviews for Switching concentrated more on his hair loss: Superman going bald! More than one writer, tongue in cheek, invoked the "curse"; they invoked it again with greater accuracy in 1993 when the headlines screamed "Superman star hit by 105F malaria attack" and Reeve's spleen swelled to twice its size.

It's tempting now, to employ hindsight, to seek a pattern. A pattern in which Kirk Alyn, the Superman of the 1940s Saturday morning movie serial, so proud of his body, lived to see it, and his brain, maliciously ravaged by Alzheimer's. No? Then why not a pattern in the way Margot Kidder, desperately low-profile after the generally unwanted attention afforded by playing Lois Lane, found herself flung from a car after a crash on the roads of her native Canada and landed on the front pages, there to have every detail of her damaged spinal cord flaunted for consumption? When she visited her one-time screen lover in June did she tell him that 1990 was not her favourite year? How 24 months in a wheelchair felt, how she was forced to sell jewellery, furniture, art to buy the expertise that would help her walk again? How at one point she was pounds 250,000 in debt?

Did they discuss the curse?

Jerry Siegel said he and Joe Shuster had discussed the curse once, and only once, as yet another of their court cases inched its way through the legal system. Both dismissed the notion (George Reeves was simply a sad drunk). Perhaps the idea that their creation - part Aryan ideal, part Christian idol, with a touch of Moses thrown in - could cause ill, when his express purpose was to do good, offended them. Yet they were the legend's first casualties. As Superman leapt comics, radio, celluloid and the paperback form in one bound, the naivety they cherished in him began to look foolish on them. Having sold their son into slavery, they attempted to wrest him back. To no avail. Lawyers periodically battled with DC Comics from 1947 onwards to little reward. Court costs took the duo's savings and blindness eventually struck Shuster.

Only handouts of $20,000 a year (somewhere between a pittance and an insult) from Warner Bros, fearful of bad publicity as they readied the Superman movies for the elusive family audience, kept Shuster and Siegel financially afloat. Their pride, one would like to think, was salvaged by their credits being restored to the comic books. Or not. Shuster's death was brought on by hypertension and went unnoticed by neighbours for days. He had lost everything, including his wife Joanna, the model for Lois Lane, a woman who hitched her wagon to her Superman for life and suffered along with him.

But why should Shuster and Siegel be exempted from the curse - if curse there is - when even Superman has succumbed? DC's ruthless culling of the ink and paper character in 1992 was both PR ploy - the death issue toted a black armband - and desperate act (sales had slumped from a Fifties peak of 1 million to around 200,000). If the sales graph hadn't moved upwards - and it jumped eightfold - Superman, unlike another popular supernatural being, would not have been resurrected from the tomb. For resurrection is part of the myth (Christopher Reeve would undergo it in Superman II, from Superman to homo sapiens, and, only months ago), as is reinvention. Darker, grimmer superheroes were muscling in on Superman's patch, so he had to be put to rest, and brought back. Brought back with Rambo-long hair and a seriously bad mood.

Reinvention requires fresh blood. So you wonder about the curse and ponder whether George, Christopher, Kirk, Margot, Jerry and Joe have provided the mortal flesh that keeps the myth meaningful, keeps it fresh.

How embarrassing. Curses, myths, gods, blood, sacrifice. We'll be talking premonition next. The sort that involves actors researching their upcoming roles and visiting a spinal injuries unit, all the better to impersonate a wheelchair-bound detective. And leaving the unit and telling an interviewer how he, Christopher Reeve, was moved to tears and moved to think,"God, it could happen to anyone. It could happen to me."

And Dean Cain keeps the lights low and reads another book.

The superhero's life in pictures

1938 First appearance. Action Comics No 1, in which Superman made his debut, is now the most valuable American comic book, going for pounds 20,000 at auction in the UK.

1948 Became the subject of a matinee movie serial starring Kirk Alyn (a sequel followed in 1950), and also of a cartoon produced by the Fleischer brothers at Paramount (still available on video).

1949 Launch of Superboy, a comic chronicling Superman's younger days.

1954 Makes the transition to television, with George Reeves starring. The series runs until 1957. Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent's colleague at the Daily Planet (originally the Daily Star), got his own comic. Lois Lane follows in 1958.

1963 Becomes the star of a light-hearted Broadway musical, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman.

1978 Christopher Reeve takes on the role for the big-screen adaptation, produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind and directed by Richard Donner. At a cost of $55m, it's the most expensive film ever made to date(parts of Superman II were shot at the same time). However, it went on to earn $83m in rentals, and spawned two more sequels (1983 and 1987).

1984 Release of a spin-off from the film franchise, Supergirl, starring Helen Slater.

1992 Is killed off by DC. The "final" (Superman No 75) issue sells an unprecedented 2.5 million copies. It is, unsurprisingly, a publicity stunt to boost sales. He makes a comeback the following year.

1993 Enter the glossy US television series, The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain as the Man of Steel and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. It arrives in Britain on BBC 1 in January 1994. It's a hit and renews the franchise.

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