The Inception of Superman

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The comic books remained as a popular medium in America to bring forth its country’s virtues such as chivalry, honesty and patriotism. The comic books were populated with heroes, who either save innocent victims or an entire nation from evil forces. But, if there is a mythical model that embodies the cultural reality of a country or a particular era, then it’s got be the man with the “S” on his chest, which represents “truth, justice and the American Way.” Superman has lived in the public imagination for the last 75 years (since its first comic book publication) and also is having a long-run in the silver screen. For many, the superhero symbolizes Christian iconography. He is always seen as a messiah figure, who has always denied personal pleasures due to his commitment to humanity at large. However, Man of Steel’s origin is deep-rooted in Judaism. How? And why did this superhero became a well known American icon?

The Superman comic strips were created by two Jewish teenagers named Jerry Seigel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist), in 1933. This was the era of Great Depression and the Nazis. Joe Shuster, a 16 year old, moved from Canada to Cleveland, USA and met with his cousin Jerry Siegel. They both shared a passion for comic books and sci-fi stories. These bespectacled, shy, Jewish boys had already published many carton strips in their junior high school papers and were fascinated by ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Little Nemo.’  It was Siegel who came with the idea of a strongly built superhero with red tights and flamboyant cap. Their early versions of ‘Superman’ didn’t had the characters ‘Clark Kent’, ‘Lois Lane’ or the planet ‘Krypton.’ It was just about a formidable hero with superpowers.

Jerry Siegel looks on as cartoonist Joe Shuster sketches Superman

Jerry Siegel looks on as cartoonist Joe Shuster sketches Superman

In the summer of 1934, Siegel and Shuster started creating Superman comic weekly strip. This version told about the demise of Krypton and the arrival of baby ‘Kal-El’ in Smallville, USA. Despite building an elaborate superhero comic, they both were repeatedly turned down by comic book syndicate editors. After many defeats, it was Harry Donenfeld of DC comics, who published first comic strip of ‘Superman’ in June, 1938. He published the materials under the title, “Action Comics”, which started the superhero’s journey to immense success and popularity. Initially, the publishers felt that the story is too slow but the Superman’s flight to Earth gave way to potpourri of heroic exploits.

The name ‘Superman’ came from the concept used by the great German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The character’s model was earlier based on the movies “Mask of Zorro” and “Robin Hood”, starring Douglas Fairbanks senior. The famous stance, where the Superman stands with his hands on his hips was drawn from the actor’s stance. The character sketch of diffident reporter Clark Kent was borrowed from the looks of great comedian Harold Lloyd.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Harold Lloyd

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Harold Lloyd

Superman’s original name ‘Kal-El’ was derived from Hebrew words meaning ‘God’s voice’ or ‘God’s vessel.’ The origin of Kryptonite kid is very similar to the story of Moses. He too was put in a watertight basket by his parents and cast adrift to save him from the murderous hands of a Pharaoh, who ordered to kill the entire new born Hebrew male child. The Jewish culture emphasizes three things: justice, truth and peace. It closely resembles the motto of ‘Superman’ (“truth, justice and the American Way”). The Jewish symbolisms inherent in the Superhero character even irked Joseph Goebbles, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who brandished the comic book in a meeting, denouncing that the American hero is a Jew. An SS newspaper called the comic book as a poison that sows “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality” in the hearts of American youth. But, what the Nazis failed to understand is that the superhero’s persona is not of a Jew, but of an immigrant: an out-lander coming from another place. Shuster and Siegel denied that they have explicitly created a Jewish superhero, although the duo admitted that they were inspired by anti-semitism present at those times.

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In the early strips, Superman was just seen leaping tall buildings and airplanes, but after the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor during World War II, he became a godlike figure which later matched America’s status as the military super-power. In these times, he became a combat hero, who destroyed Nazi armies and Japanese submarines. However, Superman comic strips couldn’t save their creators from financial toils. Around 1947, Siegel and Shuster were fed up with peoples making millions from their characters. They went to court to claim ownership of Superman and sued DC comics for $5 million. Ironically, the creators of a super-natural hero couldn’t do anything against legal justice. The court denied their ownership, however in the 50’s, DC comics eventually agreed to pay them a royalty for the rest of their lives.

The Anglo-Saxon hero promoted the cultural reality of post World War II America and later shifted himself to bring forth the idea of a multi-facet world. He is now seen as a representative of the world’s changing cultural reality. Superman’s archenemy, the cruel, corporate-minded Lex Luthor will be understood in this machine-frenzied modern age more than ever. Nonetheless, don’t forget about the influential minds of two shy, poor guys, who have forever embedded the superhero image into the cultural consciousness.

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