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legend has it that superman was born under a fiery red sun on the futuristic planet of Krypton, in a crystal tower overlooking the Jewel Mountains and the Scarlet Jungle. But the legend has it wrong. In fact, Superman was born under a hazy yellow sun in a gritty Jewish precinct of Cleveland, two blocks from the Hebrew Orthodox Old Age Home and down the street from Glenville High. Just ask Jerry Siegel. He’s the one who brought him to life there in the throes of the Great Depression.
Jerry Siegel happened to have been born in a gritty Jewish precinct of Cleveland, too, in 1914. And being Jerry never was easy. His trouble began in first grade. The stubby six-year-old had proudly memorized the rules for asking to pee: You raised your hand, and the teacher acknowledged you and said it was okay to go to the bathroom. The boy behind him did it. A pigtailed girl followed. But there was no reply when Jerry raised his hand. Finally the teacher turned his way: “What do you want?” He told her. “No,” she said. Maybe she thought he was faking. Maybe it was that he was short, shy, wore glasses, and was the child not of refined German Jews but of unwashed immigrants from Eastern Europe. Whatever the reason, his bladder swelled and a puddle formed under his seat. With other children pointing, the teacher descended: “You are a bad, bad, bad, bad boy! Bad and disgusting! Leave the room, this very instant! Go home!” “At an early age,” Jerry recalled decades later, “I got a taste of how it feels to be victimized.”
That sensation became a pattern. On Valentine’s Day, classmates addressed cards to one another; the teacher handed them out as the students waited anxiously. The first year Jerry got just one, from his sympathetic teacher. The next year he secretly inscribed a card to himself. Jerome the Loner, he thought. Jerome the Pariah. Jerome the Outcast. Schoolwork was equally problematic. The semester started with smiles and anticipation. “Happiness,” he would say, “vibrated all over the place. But then, when the grim business of cramming knowledge into one’s skull got down to business, interest in arithmetic, geography, etc. just slid off my brain, and oozed into a crack in the floor, where it gradually evaporated.” He got used to Ds and Fs—and to summers repeating the failed subjects, which “was even more dismal. While other kids enjoyed summer vacation, I had my nose rubbed into education.”
Recess, too, was a trial and oftentimes a terror for him. Tormenters were everywhere. Some tripped him as he tried to escape, others punched. His very name became a source of ridicule. “Siegel, Seagull, bird of an Eagle!” they would chant. If only he really could fly away. If only the girls hadn’t heard. He was too bashful to say a word to pretty ones like Lois Amster, the girl he had a crush on, but even the homely ones showed zero interest. “I hadn’t asked for the face or physique I was born with,” he wrote. “I had not sculpted my nose, or fashioned my chin, or decided how broad my shoulders would be, or how tall I would become. I looked searchingly into the mirror for a clue. The mirror refused to commit itself.” Doubts like those are part of growing up. Most kids outrun or outgrow them. Jerry’s stuck like a mark of Cain from grammar school all the way through high school, where he would often turn up late, with his hair flying off in different directions and his pajamas just visible under his pant cuffs and over his shirt collar.
With the real world offering no solace, he created one built around fantasies. Mornings, he stood in the schoolyard until his classmates disappeared indoors, then he headed to the public library. Pulling his favorites from the tall stacks of books, he was transported into the dime-novel worlds of master detective Nick Carter, collegiate crime buster Frank Merriwell, and adventurers closer to his age and circumstance like the Rover Boys. Fred Rover and his cousins Jack, Andy, and Randy may have been in military school, but that never kept them from exploring wrecked submarines or prospecting for pirates’ gold. On weekends, Jerry went to matinees at the motion picture theater. Western megastar Tom Mix made 336 films and Jerry saw all that his allowance would allow. He also was an insatiable consumer of movies starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as Zorro, Robin Hood, and the thief of Baghdad. And watching was not enough. Convinced he could replicate Mix’s and Fairbanks’s derring-do, Jerry darted in and out of traffic on the narrow roads of his Glenville neighborhood. “Those furious humans driving the cars, who yammered and glared insanely at me,” he said, “were mere mortals. But I . . . I was a leaping, twirling, gleeful phenomenon!” Back at home, with his hip healed after one of those glaring drivers sideswiped him, he climbed onto the roof of the garage holding an umbrella. “I opened the umbrella and leapt. Look out world, here I come! . . . I did this over and over again. Unexpectedly, the umbrella suddenly turned inside-out as I descended. I banged a knee, when I hit the ground. Just as I had abandoned berserkly dodging in and out between moving automobiles, I gave up jumping off the top of my garage.”
As freeing as it felt to mimic his idols, better still was concocting narratives starring Jerry Siegel—not the shunned, tongue-tied adolescent the kids in the schoolyard saw, but the real Jerry, fearless and stalwart. The setting, too, was of his own making, leaving behind Glenville’s twenty-five Orthodox shuls and row after row of faded up-and-down duplexes. Crawling into bed at night with pencil and paper, he imagined faraway galaxies full of mad scientists and defiant champions. He loved parody, too, inventing characters like Goober the Mighty, a broken-down knockoff of Tarzan. He went on daydreaming in the classroom, and his writing found its way into the high school newspaper, the Glenville Torch, and onto the pages of his own Cosmic Stories, America’s first science fiction magazine produced by and for fans.
Jerry wasn’t popular, he wasn’t strong, but one thing he knew: He was inventive. Pointing to an empty Coke bottle, he told his cousin, “I could make up a story about that.” He even tried an autobiographical novel but flushed it down the toilet after a friend suggested that perhaps not all his experiences were worthy of the label “ecstasy.” No theme stuck for long, he confessed in a later-life autobiography. And he still couldn’t decide whether good guys or bad made better protagonists.
Clarity came on the wings of his own tragedy. It happened on an overcast evening in June 1932, just after eight o’clock, in a downtrodden strip of Cleveland’s black ghetto known as Cedar-Central. Michel Siegel was ready to head home to his family when three men whom police would describe as “colored” entered his secondhand clothing store, one of the few Jewish businesses left in a neighborhood populated by barber shops, billiard parlors, and greasy spoons. One man asked to see a suit, then walked out with it without paying; another blocked the owner’s path. Michel, a slight man whose heart muscle was weaker than even he knew, fell to the floor. A month shy of his sixtieth birthday, he stopped breathing before medics could get him to the hospital. His wife, Sarah, was a widow now, on her own with three girls, three boys, and next to no savings. Jerry, her youngest, took the loss of his father the hardest. The boy who had been bullied was bereft. Sitting on his dad’s knee and being rocked up and down had been one of Jerry’s few safe havens. “Bliss,” he called it later. “Supreme rapture.” Now his father was gone.
The world of make-believe seemed more alluring than ever to Jerry, who was not quite eighteen. What had been a series of disparate characters with no focus or purpose now merged into a single figure who became a preoccupation. He called him “The Super-Man.” Jerry’s first story, written shortly after his father’s death, envisioned the figure as endowed with exceptional strength, telescopic vision, the capacity to read minds, and a resolve to rule the universe. Over the months that followed, this character would drop “the” and the hyphen, along with his evil inclinations, becoming simply Superman—a bulletproof avenger who beat back bullies, won the hearts of girls, and used his superpowers to help those most in need. And who, in the only artwork that survives from that first imagining, soars to the rescue of a middle-aged man being held up by a robber.
. . .
superman may have been a product of the 1930s and Jerry Siegel’s teenage imagination, but his DNA traces back twenty-five hundred years to the age of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The evidence is there in the Book of Judges and the parable of its last and most exalted jurist, Samson. With the Israelites desperate to free themselves from forty years of enslavement by the Philistines, God offered up a strongman who killed a lion with his bare hands and then, using nothing more than the jawbone of an ass, slew a thousand enemy soldiers. The Philistines managed to capture this extraordinary being, gouging out his eyes and bringing him to their shrine in shackles to dance before them, humiliated. But in an act of self-sacrifice and backbone that would set a yardstick for every super-being who came after, Samson brought the enemy’s temple crashing down around them as he proclaimed, “Let me die with the Philistines!”
Masterful as the Hebrews were at fashioning powerful and noble warriors, no one outdid the Hellenists. The very word “hero” comes from the Greek heros, meaning “protector” or “defender.” The Greek pantheon of demigods began with Perseus, famous for slaying monsters from the sea and the land. There was Jason, who led the heroic Argonauts on a quest for the golden fleece; Euphemus, who could walk on water; Caeneus, who was invulnerable to swords, spears, or any weapon known in his day; and Hermes, speediest and cagiest of the gods. The ultimate exemplar of the Greek ideal of heroism was Herakles, the defender against evil and tamer of beasts, whom the Romans would adopt and rebrand as Hercules. Like Superman, Herakles signaled his special powers in infancy, grabbing by their necks a pair of deadly serpents that had crawled into his cradle and squeezing the life from them. And like Superman, Herakles devoted his days to rescuing ladies in distress, battling a shifting cast of villains, and searing a place in the public imagination as an embodiment of virtue.
Each era that followed produced its own mythic figures that reflected its peculiar dreams and dreads. In 1752, Voltaire anticipated the genre of science fiction and poked fun at contemporary dogmas in his tale of Micromegas, a 120,000-foot-tall super-genius who traveled here from a far-distant planet. Micromegas rendered his verdict on Earth: It’s not nearly as special as its inhabitants think. Half a century on, nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley gave us Victor Frankenstein, who tapped his collection of dead body parts to build an eight-foot monster with yellowing skin. More even than Voltaire, Shelley reflected the tremendous leap from Hebrew and Greek legends built on superstition to a more modern reliance on science as the wellspring for fantastic literature. Likewise, her monster foreshadowed Jerry Siegel’s early vacillation between Super-Man and Superman. Should his standard-bearer be a contemptible villain, an unwavering hero, or something more ambiguous like Dr. Frankenstein?
History’s most infamously ambiguous blueprint for the hero was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, which translates literally as “overman” and colloquially as “superman.” With God dead, Nietzsche argued, man would be tempted to look for salvation in an afterlife or from a society that was naively egalitarian. The real place to look, he said, was among mankind’s talented few—its Caesars and Napoleons—who were ready to rule decisively and efficiently. “What is the ape to man?” Nietzsche asked in 1883. “A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman.” Some interpreted Nietzsche’s answer as a Buddha-like call for humans to reach for an enlightened state; others saw a clearheaded if cold assessment of the unequal allocation of human talents. Adolf Hitler used Nietzsche’s argument to bolster not just his theory of a master race of Aryan supermen, but also his obsession with rooting out Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others he saw as subhuman. Whether Hitler appropriated Nietzsche’s message or perverted it, the lesson for all hero-framers who followed was clear: Be careful. Whatever your intent, madmen can fuse their nightmares onto your dreams. Fairly or not, history will hold you accountable.
That prehistory was especially resonant in 1932, the year Michel Siegel died and The Super-Man was conceived. America’s flirtation with science fiction had, by then, mushroomed into a craze. The only medium that mattered was the written one, with AM radio still in its chaotic early era, FM a year away, and network television but a gleam in its designers’ eyes. Action and adventure were still essential, but better still was a story that drew on pseudoscience and a hero endowed with superpowers. Popeye the Sailor Man had both, which let him chase Bluto and Sea Hag all over the planet, popping open a can of spinach whenever he needed to recharge his muscles or fend off bullets or aliens. Buck Rogers’s oyster was outer space, where his swashbuckling was such a hit that he spawned an interplanetary imitator: Flash Gordon. Alley Oop started out in the Stone Age, in the kingdom of Moo, and ended up in a time-traveling machine. And when it came to brainwashing there were no rivals: Ask any teenager in the 1930s, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” and they answered as one: “The Shadow knows.”
The Shadow, an avenger with the power to cloud men’s minds so they couldn’t see him, was born on the radio and would catch fire everywhere, from magazines, cartoon strips, and comic books to TV, film, and graphic novels. A more typical launching pad was the funny pages, where tens of millions of readers followed Popeye, Tarzan, and their chums every day in black-and-white, and on Sunday in full color. The adventure strip was taking off in 1932, which was just the right moment given what readers were seeing in the rest of the newspaper.
Who wouldn’t want to escape his circumstances, if not his planet, with the world economy in free fall? One in four Americans had no job. The British had just tossed into jail the conscience of the world, Mahatma Gandhi. Millions of Soviets were starving to death. Almost as unsettling was the human-scale drama of a twenty-month-old toddler: Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., son of America’s beloved aviator-inventor, was discovered missing from his crib the evening of March 1. The “crime of the century” riveted the nation, as a note from kidnappers told the Lindberghs to “have $50,000 redy” and assured them that “the child is in gut care.” Gangster Al Capone promised that if he was let out of jail he would crack the case, while President Herbert Hoover vowed to “move Heaven and Earth” to find the infant. It was truck driver William Allen who actually did, two months after the abduction. Stopping to relieve himself in a grove of trees five miles from the Lindbergh home, he discovered the remains of a baby. The skull was fractured. The left leg was gone, along with both hands, and the torso had been gnawed on by animals. But the overlapping toes of the right foot and a shirt stitched by his nursemaid identified the body as the Lindbergh boy.