June 10, 2011
It was two teenagers from the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio, that first imagined a caped superhero dressed in red, blue and yellow, with a giant “S” on his chest. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were geeky 17-year-olds wanting to create a character to look up to. They found it in Superman.
According to Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Superman’s story—of being catapulted from planet Krypton to Earth, where he was raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife, as Clark Kent—came to Siegel in pieces over the course of a single night: “I hop out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two-hour intervals. [The next morning] I dashed over to Joe’s place and showed it to him…. We just sat down and I worked straight through. I think I had brought in some sandwiches to eat, and we worked all day long.”
Siegel and Shuster began writing comic strips from their homes, and eventually from their New York City base. In 1938, though, they sold their superhero for a mere $130 to DC Comics. (Hold your gasps. After winning a lawsuit in the 1970s, Siegel and Shuster each received $20,000 a year for life.) The character made his first appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics and, 73 years later, remains a household name.
For admirers looking for a place other than Cleveland to pay homage during this anniversary month, the National Museum of American History is home to a few artifacts related to the superhero. He stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” after all. Superman’s cape from the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, starring Christopher Reeve, is in the collections, as well as an “Action Comics” comic book from 1940, featuring the vigilante on its cover. The museum even has a Superman lunch box and thermos from the late 1970s, showing how popular a character he was, especially in the wake of the Superman films. (They remind me of a Superman cup—a promo from Burger King—my older brother had in the late 1980s. I had the Wonder Woman one.)
“The presence of the superhero plays a real role in American culture, whether it is Superman or whether it is Indiana Jones,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator in the museum’s division of culture and the arts, in a Smithsonian.com video. “[It's] the presence of a larger than life figure who can save society.”
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