Men of Steel: The Creators of Superman

Men of Steel: The Creators of Superman

Eighty years ago, Superman made his first appearance - and since then, the creators of the icon have become heroes in their own right.

DC Comics

At the time of writing this, Action Comics #1000 is just under a month away. This is the first comic to publish that many issues, continuously released since 1938 – though the actual release schedule has changed over time. In the eighty years since, Superman has become an icon of American culture, and a staple of the comic book industry as a whole. The story of his creation, however, is not as all-American as one may think. It is filled with trial and error, offers and failures, and lawsuits over the exact ownership of the Man of Steel. The superhero genre would not exist without this character, meaning in turn it would not exist without the two people that made it happen all those years ago.

The idea of Superman originated in 1933, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were friends from high school, made a science-fiction magazine, wherein one story was titled “Reign of the Superman.” This take was a balding villain, not unlike eventual Superman arch enemy Lex Luthor. This magazine failed to sell in their local Cleveland area, but the two continued to work out this character. By 1934, they had evolved their character to being a more heroic type, and looked to find publishers interested in their character. Siegel figured that because they were unknown and this concept was unique, Shuster's art would have to be replaced – leading to a major argument between the two, resulting in the destruction of the original concept comic at the hands of Shuster. Siegel contacted the artist behind the popular Buck Rogers comic strip, and the concept of a “last survivor of a dying planet” came into play. But once again, they could not find anyone interested in releasing the story – at the time, they intended to make it a comic strip in the newspapers, not an actual comic book (which weren't popular at the time, and extremely limited). Shuster came back onboard the project, as long as his art could be used in the final product. By 1936, the pair found themselves getting professional work at National Allied Publications, and when National's parent company, Detective Comics Inc, prepared to release their self-titled comic series, Siegel and Shuster were hired on to write for them. National was interested in the Superman comic, but it wasn't until the pair were told by a newspaper publisher to ask Detective Comics about releasing the strip, did they finally have an outlet for this five-year project.

National was gearing up to start a new comic series, and Seigel and Shuster were offered a spot to print their Superman story. As this was a comic book and a different formatting system than a newspaper strip, they had to add onto and change things around in order to extend the story and page layouts. In March of 1938, the rights to Superman were sold to Detective Comics, and one month later, Action Comics #1 hit the newsstands. It was an instant hit, selling out every copy and becoming the talk of American kids. It should be noted that the comic ran a contest as well – kids had to tear out a page, color it in, and send it to National's office to be entered to win one of twenty-five grand prizes of one dollar. The page in question was a black and white comic, but the last page of the Superman story was on the reverse. And speaking of Superman, his costume was very different from the iconic one we know today – the same red cape and shorts, but the “S” logo was more like a police badge, and his boots were blue. However, many aspects of Superman lore were introduced in this story as well. Lois Lane, Perry White, Krypton, and secret identity Clark Kent. Superman would be officially the first superhero in comics, leading the way for many more in the coming years. Siegel and Shuster had made it big, except not really. In selling off the rights, they were contracted for a ten year deal, but after that, the rights would still be owned by the company. The next year, the pair brought their successful comic book hero to the newspapers, finally getting a comic strip. That year, 1939, was also the year in which Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27, though the first illustration of the Dark Knight was in an advertisement for said issue of Detective in the back of Action Comics #12. While continuing to appear in every issue of Action Comics, Superman was given his own series in 1940.

Over the next few years, National published several other heroes, including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Hawkman. An official company designed to manage the Superman rights and comics, Superman Inc, was established as well. Seigel and Shuster kept on adding more and more to the Superman mythos, from his city of Metropolis to Lex Luthor to further enhancing his powers. When World War II broke out in 1941, the Superman comics became pro-America, pro-war, punch-Hitler-in-the-jaw type comics – as did most in this era, with Timely Comics having been publishing Captain America Comics since 1940. Meanwhile, National was starting to license out the character, without asking the pair first. An animation studio, Fleischer, best known for the Betty Boop cartoons of the 1930s, worked on a series of short cartoons based on the comic, some involving robots and mad scientists, others having Superman fight Nazis. Also at this time, other comic companies were working on trying to out-sell Superman and Action Comics, among them Fawcett Publications. Their hero, Captain Marvel, who at the time was the focus of a popular movie serial (and the first live-action superhero adaptation) was considered by National to be a copy of Superman, and the case was brought to court, where it continued for close to a decade.

By 1946, Siegel and Shuster were getting ready to end their ten year deal, and prepared to get the rights to their character back. But this was a very different time for comic creators. The idea of creator rights didn't exist at the time, much less did companies really care who was doing the work as long as somebody was pumping out content (see what happened with Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson on the Batman line). They sued Detective Comics and National for the rights back, but the case was ruled in favor of the company – while the writer/artist team was signed for ten years, the character rights were signed off outright. It was ruled, however, that Siegel did own the rights to Superboy, who at the time was a young Clark Kent, allowing them to get some pay out of that, but not much. National continued to publish Superman comics, hiring new writers and artists. The two attempted to find work for other companies and teams, During the 1950s, Shuster did work-for-hire, and is rumored to be the anonymous artist behind the pre-code BDSM comic Nights of Horror. Siegel went on to write stories for whoever would hire him, including a Human Torch story for Marvel Comics in 1963. To add insult to injury, as there was no real creator rights movements in the industry, Siegel and Shuster were not credited in each issue for the creation of Superman. It seemed that National, now referred to as DC Comics, was going to let these names go to this history books.T owards the end of the 1960s, the pair once again sued for the copyright, and once again were told they did sell the rights off, and that contract still stands.

As production moved forward on the feature film adaptation of the character in the mid-1970s, a small rebellion had broken out, and comic creators were looking to get their names credited finally. Siegel brought this up with DC, and they still wouldn't budge. However, when Siegel was able to get in contact with current DC writers and artists, who also pushed for DC to make sure Siegel and Shuster's names were put in the pages of the comics and the credits of the movie. To avoid another lawsuit, DC quickly made a deal – in exchange for never disputing the ownership of Superman again, the pair would get severance, health care, and complete credit in every issue. This credit continues to this day. Shuster died in 1992, and his estate signed the deal once again with DC, this time just to signal that the estate would receive the money from the company. Siegel died four years later, but his estate was less cooperative – they issued a termination of copyright notice to DC in 1998, and effectively owned 50% of the rights by doing so. Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC, negotiated their 50% down to a 6% royalty payment in 2001, and the family agreed. After a few years, while the show Smallville aired but overall sales were low, the Siegel family was made an offer by a lawyer to regain the rights. This court battle lasted close to a decade, with judges ruling at one point that because the Superboy character was a joint project with Shuster, the family no longer had the right to terminate the copyright, thus giving total control to DC Comics. By 2013 (which also marked the release of Man of Steel, a film made partially to prove DC planned on using the Superman character), a deal was finally made, securing the family's royalty payments and the total ownership to go to DC – on the condition that a line would also read: “By arrangement with the Seigel family.” The character, and the content from that famous Action Comics #1 will go public domain in 2033 – perhaps there will be another case to keep the rights, maybe not. Time will tell.

I can't go into the complete detail of every single decade of Superman's history. There's been eighty years of stories and changes and different takes. But in the end, it all goes back to two guys who wanted to publish a comic strip. They never expected to hit it big, just have a daily story and make a few bucks. Superman became an instant hit, and an icon of American pop culture almost immediately. An entire genre, one that persists to this day and is possibly even more popular than ever, was created by two high school students in the 1930s. Without Superman, there would be no Wonder Woman, Batman, Justice League, nor would there be Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers. Action Comics #1 launched the Golden Age of Comic Books, and with it, millions of fans who come together to read and discuss the adventures of these heroes. A copy, graded at a near perfect 9.0, sold in 2014 for $3.2 million, making it the most valuable comic book in existence. The one-thousandth issue will be released this April, containing stories written by several past and present Superman-related writers, and a hardcover companion will include an unpublished story from the team that started this all in the first place. Eighty years on, Superman is still just as popular as ever, and will continue to be for another eighty.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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