Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics 103: The Trials of Superman
Superman is the granddaddy of all superheroes. He’s the one that paved the way for every superhero that came after him. While he fought for truth, justice and the American way his creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had their own challenges to overcome when it came to fighting for their creative rights to arguably the most famous superhero of all time. Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics 103: The Trials of Superman takes a look at Superman’s creators, the Man of Steel’s cultural impact and the trials and tribulations surrounding Siegel and Shuster’s fight to be fairly compensated for their creation.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster grew up in Cleveland during the Great Depression. The duo created Superman in 1933 and fuelled by dreams of turning their creation into a comic strip sent their idea to countless newspaper syndicates. Unfortunately, they were all rejected due to the then outlandish nature of their Superman comic script. Comic strips were dominated by westerns and detective stories during that time. Science fiction had characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, normal men who performed heroic feats, but that was soon to change.
Superman is essentially a god on Earth and the alien’s otherworldly powers soon captured the imaginations of readers. With DC Comics suffering from poor sales the company decided to take a chance on Siegel and Shuster’s strip and paid them $130 for their work. The deal gave Superman worldwide exposure but also forced Siegel and Shuster to give up their rights to the character.
Within a year Superman became a cultural phenomena appearing at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Macy’s Parade, radio shows and Max Fleisher cartoons. Superman comics flew off the shelves and Siegel and Shuster benefitted from the popularity of the character. They were paid well for their work but DC who now owned Superman was making millions off the Man of Steel. As Superman’s popularity skyrocketed, the demands for more comics grew. With the pressure to create more comics Shuster and Siegel came the realization that their initial deal with DC was anything but equitable.
Siegel and Shuster’s dissatisfaction with DC’s treatment of them led to the duo suing the comic book company. The court ruled in DC’s favor and the pair were fired. The creators’ decision to sue their employers, coupled with Superman becoming a TV show starring George Reeves only exacerbated the difficulties the pair would encounter as time went on. Financial hardship, humiliation and disappointment followed until Superman became a major motion picture starring Marlon Brando and Christopher Reeve. It wasn’t until the intervention of modern creators, particularly superstar artist Neal Adams that Siegel and Shuster’s fortune turned around.
It’s ironic that a character that has brought immense joy to millions was also the source of such pain for its creators. Siegel and Shuster’s fight to be fairly compensated for their work and to maintain their creative rights has had a lasting impact on the comic book industry. The Trials of Superman is a cautionary tale that is required viewing, not only for fans of Superman and comic books but for anyone thinking of becoming a part of the industry.