Mensch of Steel
By R. D. Flavin

6-21-2013


Unpublished second version of Superman from late 1933.

     “Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! Oh, it's just another guy in long underwear and a cape...” The kinda-sorta anticipated Superman reboot film, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, opened last Friday. Despite mixed reviews the comic-book superhero movie still managed box-office receipts of $128 million over its first weekend. American Republican Baptists are divided between regarding Supes as a Christian role-model or the latest Illuminati and LGBT plot to encourage abortions, legalize drugs, and outlaw the public observance of Christmas (like the Pilgrims did at Westboro, ...errr, Plymouth). The last son of Krypton is not Christ-like (contra “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah” by Anton Karl Kozlovic; Journal of Religion and Film, 6, 1: 1-18), or a god, and especially not GOD. He's Kal-El, like the Jewish angels Michael or Gabriel, an illegal alien, and a champion of good. He's the Mensch of Steel!

     It's been debated that the three most globally recognized fictional (var. literary) characters are Tarzan, Superman, and Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, they're all relatively modern pulp fictions with Tarzan appearing in 1912 (“Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs; All-Story Magazine 24, 2: 241-375, Oct. 1912), Superman in 1938 (“Superman” by writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster; Action Comics 1, 1: 1-13, June 1938, National Allied Publications) and Sherlock Holmes in 1887 (“A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle; Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887, pp. 1-95). Now, these are said to be popular characters known even to the remote and impoverished of the Third World and not just the affluent English-speaking and Western Cultural world. I'd like to argue that religious scriptures feature more widely known fictional characters, but perhaps at a later date. Supes has been and remains at 75 an iconic hero to billions and makes his copyright owners and merchandisers many, many millions (if not a billion) dollars a year. The two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio who originally created Superman have gotten the bum's rush. Literally. Oy veh...

     In 1972 it broke my ninth-grade comic-book geek heart to read various reports in fanzines about a nearly blind Joe Shuster hanging around the office of DC Comics earning chump change and tips for getting coffee and running errands. The acclaimed Batman (Bob Kane Studio) artist, Jerry Robinson, told a story of Shuster as a disheveled messenger delivering a package to the office of DC Comics and after much whispering, he was directed to the “CEO” and given a hundred bucks and instructions to buy a new coat and get a different job.* Perhaps the former followed the later. Seeing one of the founding fathers of superhero comic-books in failing health and suffering financial hardship, artist Neal Adams formed a lobbying group to get DC Comics (National Periodical Publications) and parent company Warner Communications to commit to a fair royalty compensation package (cash and health-care) for Siegel and Shuster, as well as future accreditation (“created by”). Adams would later champion the return of all original artwork to comic-book artists. Artists like Barry (Windsor) Smith had fought for his artwork as the sales would have greatly increased his earnings. It's said that was the reason he quit his award winning run on Marvel's Conan the Barbarian.

*Warner Communications had purchased DC Comics in 1967, but in 1971/1972 didn't have a hands-on presence in the DC Comics office. At that time, the bigwigs at DC were Carmine Infantino (Publisher), Murry Boltinoff (Editor), E. Nelson Bridwell (Assistant Editor), and Sol Harrison (Production Manager). Infantino was too nice of a guy to punk Shuster and I've heard good things about Bridwell. It's probable that Robinson's “CEO” was Jacob S. "Jack" Liebowitz (b. Yacov Lebovitz), the shrewd accountant turned tyrannical publisher of DC (Detective Comics) who regarded art as a commodity to be exploited. Liebowitz would have been great as Lex Luthor... In late 1973 initial work began on 1978's Superman: The Movie, and with great profit comes great greed. The Siegel Estate is still fighting for truth, justice, and more royalties.


L-R, Joe Shuster, Neal Adams, Jerry Siegel, and Jerry Robinson.

     Indeed, Siegel and Shuster had sued DC Comics in 1947 and 1969 to regain creator's rights, but lost both times. It was then standard practice in the comic-book industry to regard all writing and artwork as “work-for-hire,” creators were compensated only once, and there was no hope of royalties from reprints and merchandizing. Along with Adam's industry lobbying efforts, a 1975 interview published in The New York Times with Siegel and Shuster publicly embarrassed DC Comics (and Warner Bros.), and an agreement of $20,000 a year (later claimed to have been raised to $100,00) was soon offered and ...accepted. With the Copyright Act of 1976 allowances were made for writers and artists (and their estates) to reclaim copyright if a case could be made that “work-for-hire” didn't apply. Siegel and Shuster had self-published a science fiction fanzine with a bald and evil “Superman” character in 1933 (Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3, January 1933), had reworked their concept into a good guy with super-powers and a full head of hair in late 1933 (see above) and in 1934 marketed a complete story (words and art) to Consolidated Book Publishing, got rejected, then in 1935 got employment with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and National Allied Publications (DC Comics). Working at last in the comic-book industry (“Henri Duval,” “Doctor Occult,” “Federal Men,” “Slam Bradley,” etc.), Siegel and Shuster developed a costumed and caped version of their super-hero “strip character,” shopped it around, and finally found acceptance with the cover and lead story in 1938's Action Comics #1. Success was immediate, costumed and capped super-heroes are still popular seventy-five years later, and will likely remain so for many years to come.

     Attempts to win a more substantial slice of the Superman merchandizing pie didn't succeed until after the deaths of Shuster (1992) and Siegel (1996). In 2008 the Siegel Estate won a major legal victory and was granted 50% royalty rights of the original elements of Superman as published in Action Comics #1 (costume, cape, leaping over tall buildings, and being bulletproof). Other character and narrative elements (flight, x-ray and heat vision, Smallville, Metropolis, The Daily Planet, Lex Luthor, etc.) were introduced later and were ruled the intellectual property of DC Comics and Time/Warner. And, because corporate capitalism is sworn to take from the poor and keep it, last October a judge reversed the ruling and considered the matter closed. The Siegel Estate may or may not continue to receive their annual check for $20,000 or $100,000. I hope, at the very least, this remains so. I also hope the reversal is appealed... Soon.

     “Superman,” in Actions Comics #1, showed considerable novelty as a science fiction strip-character adventure. Inspirations and antecedents are many, but while the super-strength, costume, and cape are renowned and most recognizable, so too is the immigrant tragedy of its first sentence: “As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it to Earth!” Less than a year later, in a daily McClure Syndicate newspaper comic-strip by Siegel and Shuster, the scientist was named as “Jor-L” (Episode 1: Superman Comes to Earth, “The Superman Is Born,” January 16, 1939). The next day, the scientist's son was named as “Kal-L” (Episode 1: Superman Comes to Earth, “Destruction Menaces,” January 17, 1939). In 1942, a script-writer for the Superman radio programs wrote a novel (The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther; New York: Random House) which changed the spelling to “Jor-el.” The “-el” expansion of “-L” was applied to Superman's Kryptonian name in “The Superman of the Present and the Superman of the Past,” a story written by Bill Finger, Superman's given name was revealed to be “Kal-el” (Superman 1, 113: 5; May 1957). The capitalized form “-El” happened at some later point. It's hard to say with certainty as the convention in comic-book lettering is to capitalize pretty much everything...

     We function on conscious and unconscious levels and the act and art of writing, perhaps especially, demonstrates this combined duality. Writers of fantastical genre fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries turned to Semitic language components when forming or inventing names to establish exoticism apart from the accustomed Western prevalence of Indo-European (e.g. Dunsany, Machen, Lovecraft). To the Western eye, invented names with real or affected Hebrew and Arabic language components seemed foreign and otherworldly (in Heavy Metal music jargon and popular occultism they still do). For writers of science fiction and fantasy, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, “otherworldly” names and naming became as important as the narrative itself. And, much like James Joyce broke all the rules of grammar and current writers are advised to forgo excess and write simple and plain, the Oxford philologist, J. R. R. Tolkien, created various names, languages, names for languages, and names for languages in different languages. One could guess that Jerome Siegel named the alien scientist “Jor-L” with the “-L” denoting a societal classification or honorific rather than as a family or surname, but that would be ...just guessing. Or, perhaps the hyphen combined with a capital 'L' was a clever contraction of “-el” from the start. And, with an added liberal helping of guesswork, perhaps “-L” and “-el” were meant to be bald borrowings of a Hebrew-esque “of God,” like the names of angels all along. Surely the young men were aware of the Late Bronze Age Canaanite/Hebrew Northwest Semitic “Ēl” as a name for god, gods, and GOD (with an even earlier cognate in the East Semitic Akkadian “ilu”), ...or maybe not. Siegel and Shuster never definitively said one way or the other, thereby allowing for fun and not-so-fun speculation. Some take comic-books (var. “funny books”) quite seriously.

     The renowned semiotician, Umberto Eco (Professor Emeritus, University of Bologna), addressed the appeal and purpose of Superman in 1972 and concluded that readers enjoy iterative genre narratives which allow them to suspend time and belief, male readers identify with the meek and (potentially) mighty duality of the character, and that “untold,” “imaginary” and “What if?” stories in the Superman fictional universe are a means to alleviate the romantic needs of the hetero-directional do-gooder, everyone's platonic friend and brother, and somber adherent of "parsifalism" (“The Myth of Superman. [Reviewed work:] The Amazing Adventures of Superman.” by Umberto Eco and translated by Natalie Chilton. Diacritics. 2, 1: 14-22). Though I'm usually astounded by Prof. Eco's insights, with Superman he generally seemed more concerned with the longevity and currency of popular characters and how readers inherently understand a narrative sliding timeline than ...recognizing sacrifice and civic nobility. Prof Eco wondered: “It is strange that Superman, devoting himself to good deeds, spends enormous amounts of energy organizing benefit performances in order to collect money for orphans and indigents. The paradoxical waste of means (the same energy could be employed to produce directly riches or to modify radically larger situations) never ceases to astound the reader who sees Superman forever employed in parochial performances.” It's ironic (and a tad shallow) that Eco would find fault with Superman assisting orphanages as the character spent his first days on Earth in one (later, “orphan asylum” and “home for foundlings”) before the elderly Kents adopted him. Siegel and Shuster were sons of Jewish immigrants, the world was in the Great Depression, war was being macro-brewed abroad, and Superman's strong work ethic, compassion for the downtrodden, and a tireless dedication to fairness were created as values achievable by both the meek and the mighty. Siegel and Shuster changed their Superman character in 1933 from evil to good and ...everyone's still talking about it!

     Now, the Jewish-thing ...is a Jewish-thing and that's how that goes. Siegel and Shuster were employed by the 'new' comic-book industry centered in New York City, lots of Big Apple folks of the Hebrew persuasion worked in the industry as publishers, editors, writers, artists, and probably at streetcorner news-stands. They were FIRST and many followed (...personal shout-out to Simon and Kirby). All shapes and sizes of costumed characters (some with capes) were and continue to be created, yet they seldom or ever get the religious analysis. Psycho-sexual deviancy, sure (i.e. Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, New York: Reinhard and Co.; 1954), but finding biblical parallels in long underwear and a cape? Actually, it's been suggested by Larry Tye (author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero; New York: Random House, 2012), that “Superman’s arrival on Earth as an infant in a rocket ship parallels the biblical story of baby Moses being delivered to Pharaoh’s daughter in his papyrus basket. And his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, sounds like the Hebrew for voice or vessel of God.” Such an approach (and, cough, much more) follows the rather perky Rabbi Simcha Weinstein's Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Baltimore: Leviathan Press, 2006). All religions promote good behavior (or should) and to Yiddish speakers such a nice guy who's humble and sincere is called a mentsh or mensch. The Mensch of Steel! Okay, that was too easy...

     The Jewish parallels and symbolism in the Superman character may well have been coincidental. At least in the beginning. Arguments and suggestions to the contrary seem driven by a mythopoeic pareidolia “Where's Waldo?” Of course, one can favor even the facetious, as in “The Hebrew Origins of Superman” by James K. Brower (Biblical Archaeology Review. 5,3: 22-26; May/June 1979) which featured an illustration of Supes with a tenth-century BCE Hebrew letter 'shin' on his chest, a photograph of the ruins of an ancient Israeli building and a caption describing an enclosed room suitable for changing apparel, like a ...telephone booth (?). The article's most insightful and hilarious reasoning was: “The term “Superman” reflects a strong Jewish influence, though of a relatively recent date. This can be seen most clearly in the suffix -man, a suffix common to many contemporary Jewish names (e.g. Silverman, Freedman, etc.).” Yeah, biblical archaeology and related studies could benefit from more humor.

     Following archaeological methodology, we dig through layers of the past to uncover a greater truth. The presence of the “-El” endings of Kal-El and Jor-El has been shown to be a late development with their earlier appearances as '-L'. Toward a better understanding, if we go back even earlier, say two years before the January 1939 newspaper-strip appearance of Jor-L, another Siegel and Shuster story features a futuristic scientist named “Jor-L” confronting a dame named “Nira-Q” ("Federal Men of Tomorrow" by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster; New Adventure Comics, 1, 12; January, 1937).


First appearance of "Jor-L" in 1937.

     Comic-books were 'new' in the late 1930s and science fiction writing wasn't much older. Bypassing Verne and Wells, many cite the 1911/1912 publishing of “Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660” by Hugo Gernsback (Modern Electronics; 12 installments from April 1911 – March 1912; published as a novel in 1925, Boston: The Stratford Company) as the first American work of science fiction. For those interested in such matters, Gernsbeck's story is essential reading for the genre and it wouldn't be foolish to posit that Jerry Siegel had read the novel and borrowed (read: copied) the “futuristic” combination of names with the addition of identifying letters and/or numbers. Hey! That's MY guess and if anyone can do better they're encouraged to have at it!

     While researching (cough...) this column, I happened upon a sad and cruel accusation of “Jewish assimilationist wish-fulfillment” in the creation of Superman. No, I won't supply a source... As much as I chuckle when others get so serious regarding comic-books and science fiction, it needs repeating that the primal goal in such writing is ...entertainment. As a writer, I'm all too aware that inspiration may be found ...next door or simply walking down the street.


Joanne Carter, Stanley Weiss, and Joe Shuster's final Superman drawing due to vision deterioration.

     In a 1975 taped interview at the San Diego Comic Con, Joanne Siegel (née Carter) told of how she posed for a young Joe Shuster for $1.50 @ hour in a house with kids and Joe's mom running around. A short time afterward, Joanne would become the face of “Lois Lane” and also Mrs. Jerome Siegel. Not bad... As far as the 'face' of Superman is concerned, there's a delightful account of Shuster walking around the popular summer vacation spot in the Adirondacks called Green Mansions in 1945, soon after returning from World War II, and encountering a square-jawed man who perfectly resembled Shuster's ideal “Superman.” Joe asked the 24 year old Jewish accountant if he could make some sketches and Stanley Weiss agreed. Just look at the square-jaw and prominent lock of hair; it's Supes! Weiss's son said his father looked upon the drawings as, “...amusing, but not a big deal.” Stanley sounds like a good guy, a mensch if you will. So, Lois and Clark were Jewish. Good for them and great for us. And absolutely wonderful for both office or super-hero cosplay!

     BTW, as far as the movie that came out last week from the guy who did 300, ...meh. Okay, I formally encourage everyone to see this expensive comic-book movie (because I support the comic-book industry and DC Comics and Time/Warner need more money to make other and better movies). Man of Steel is bruised len's flare with most of the cast in emo-mode and holding back tears. It's a tragedy and it should have been a celebration. If DC Comics plans to build a future movie universe around Man of Steel with a sequel and a Justice League film, I hope they lighten up. I don't wanna' see a slacker Flash!

Returning to my basement of solitude,
Rick

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