Obituary: Jerry Siegel

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The Independent Online
In January 1933 two Cleveland college boys produced the third issue of their magazine on the school mimeograph. It was called with all the pride and pomposity of youth Science Fiction, the Advance Guard of Future Civilisation. The lead story, written by one Herbert S. Fine - Jerome Siegel's latest pen name - and illustrated by his best friend, Joseph Shuster, was entitled "The Reign of the Superman".

Prophetic, yes, but the hero was a villain looking not unlike the later bald baddie Lex Luthor, the bane of the long life of a Superman soon to be born - "the world's greatest adventure-strip character" in the words of his publisher. This phrase, super-promotional for 1941, illustrated the confidence in the character that had changed the company's logo to "Superman DC". The DC stood for Detective Comics, the new comic book that had been launched with Siegel and Shuster's first successful comic-strip hero, Slam Bradley, "Ace Freelance Sleuth, Fighter and Adventurer"; a super-hero in every way save superiority of strength - that would come in June 1938 with no 1 of Action Comics.

Jerome - forever afterwards Jerry - Siegel was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914, three months after Joe Shuster, who would become his lifelong partner, was born in Canada. In 1931 both teenagers were attending Glenville High School and met through the school newspaper, the Torch. Jerry was writing as a would-be journalist, Joe was drawing as a would-be cartoonist, and both were fans of the latest literary craze, science-fiction, which was burgeoning in a series of cheap pulp magazines (named after their low-quality paper) under the eccentric genius of Hugo Gernsback.

Shuster showed Siegel his concept of tomorrow, a sketch of a city skyline filled with rocket ships and entitled "World of Future - 1980". Impressed, Siegel proposed that they put together their own magazine, and they launched their first issue on 6 October 1932. This idea was something Siegel had already tried out in 1929 with an amateur production, Cosmic Stories, but it was Shuster's pictures that made all the difference.

They decided to combine their talents by creating comic strips for newspapers. Their early attempts were solidly linked to their hobby of sci-fi, and ranged through titles like The Inter-Planetary Policy and Steve Walsh, Scientific Adventurer Extraordinary. They all failed to impress the syndicates. A breakthrough came in the early Thirties when a new field for funnies, as strips were frequently called, opened up. A minor company reprinted some British comics, Funny Wonder and Comic Cuts; a New York publisher launched the first comic book, Famous Funnies; the Humor Company issued an original comic in cardboard covers, Detective Dan.

Siegel and Shuster tried them all, and even produced a complete 16-page comic for a local paper, Cleveland Shopping News. This would prove their biggest disappointment to date: the publisher reneged and the book did not see publication until 50 years later when a fan publisher issued it in 1984.

Superman was born in similar circumstances: an enthusiastic creation that was immediately rejected. They wrote and drew a complete 32-page comic starring a strong man, bullets bouncing off his chest, with the stirring caption: "A Genius in Intellect! A Hercules in Strength! A Nemesis to Wrongdoers! The Superman!"

The Humor Company thought it laughable and sent it back. Shuster promptly tore it up.

With the arrival of a series of new comic books, the pair found more luck. They became regular contributors to New Fun (1935), and other titles launched by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, pioneer of the original comic rather than the usual reprint comics of the period. Their first series was Henri Duval, Famed Soldier of Fortune, soon followed by their first fantasy, Doctor Occult, the Ghost Detective, and finally Federal Men, which they turned into their first published sci-fi super-strip, Federal Men of Tomorrow.

Hearing that a new strip was required for the first issue of Action Comics, they dusted off their Superman concept yet again. Every syndicate in the book had rejected it. The comic publisher did not care for it either, but his young editor Sheldon Mayer thought it great. Although history recorded that Mayer himself cut and pasted their daily strips into a 13- page feature, a story innocently repeated in my International Book of Comics (1985), Jerry Siegel wrote to tell me this was not so. "Joe and I cut and pasted the strips, and Joe's brother Frank assisted too. This was done at Cleveland at Joe's residence. I planned out the 13 pages and wrote any script changes I deemed necessary, while Joe created several new drawings, the brand new cover, and created the Superman logo."

This logo has remained virtually unchanged since that first appearance. I corrected the legend in my second edition.

The history of the American comic book was changed for all time by the debut of Superman. Within months similar super- heroes sprang into life in dozens of new titles by as many new publishers. Siegel's newspaper strip was taken up by the McClure Syndicate, a radio serial was launched, Max Fleischer began perhaps the finest animated cartoon series ever, Columbia Pictures produced two film serials, there was a hardback novel, and many more comic books. In time, Superman would enter television, both live action and animated, and finally the higher echelons of cinema with four of the world's top money-making films.

None of this did Siegel and Shuster much good. They had sold their first 13-page strip for $10 a page, a fee which included all rights. They also won a 10-year contract guaranteeing them $500 for each 13-page strip they produced, together with a tiny percentage of the early merchandising, but the last straw was Superboy, based on the life of Superman as a teenager. This spin-off was not credited to them. They sued their publisher in 1947 and were eventually awarded $100,000 compensation. In addition their publisher gave them the sack.

Siegel came back in 1948 with Funnyman, a humorous version of Superman, but it was no great shakes despite a supportive newspaper strip. In 1963 Siegel and Shuster tried to regain their rights in Superman, but after 12 years in the courts their claim was dismissed.

When the first Superman super-movie went into production in 1976, they tried once more, making their copyright claims public together with their monetary distress. This time they were lucky: the owners settled out of court giving them $20,000 a year for life, plus restoring their creators' credits to the strips. Shuster, virtually blind, died in 1992. Victims of wicked publishing practices, Siegel and Shuster will always be remembered , particularly by comic fans, an ever-growing sector of the world's population.

Jerome Siegel, cartoon writer: born Cleveland, Ohio 17 October 1914; married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 30 January 1996.