Wednesday, February 16, 2011

R.I.P: Joanne Siegel

The last living link to the creation of Superman, Joanne Siegel, has passed away at the age of 93. Joanne was not only the second wife of Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel, but she was also the inspiration, and model, for the original Lois Lane, as conceptualised by artist Joe Shuster. Throughout the latter parts of the 20th century, others claimed that they were the model, but Jerry always maintained it was Joanne, and only Joanne, who inspired Joe. Joanne met both Jerry and Joe in the mid 1930s, when Cleveland was still in a depression. She had placed an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which is still being published, offering to model for a modest fee. Joe made contact, Joanne modelled and Joe sketched. When the time came for a supporting cast in Superman, Joe went back to his sketch books and found Joanne, thus was born Lois Lane. Joanne kept in touch with Jerry and Joe, and when Jerry’s first marriage ended he and Joanne wed, in 1948, over a decade since they’d first met. She had a fondness for Joe, but she loved Jerry. They remained together until Jerry passed on in 1996, now they’re together once more.

Joanne was a woman of strength and conviction. She remained with Jerry after he and Joe attempted to regain control of Superman from DC Comics in the late ‘40s. They lost and both were thrown to the scrapheap, sacked, with the final insult being the removal of their names from the character of Superman. Such was the eventual removal of Jerry and Joe from the comic book world – they’d tried to re-establish themselves with their own characters such as Funnyman (drawn by a young Dick Ayers in the early ‘50s), but it never took off – that some people wondered if they were still alive. For a time Jerry and Joanne lived on any income that Joanne could scrape together, but they survived. Joe worked where he could, but with failing eyesight he was reduced to living in poverty. Jerry also found himself working where he could as a writer, ironically at DC and then Archie. Ultimately Jerry found himself writing Human Torch stories for Stan Lee and Marvel in the 1960s, where his presence amazed the likes of John Romita and Herb Trimpe, the new artists who were amazed that the creator of Superman was virtually broke and working as a proof reader and part time writer. “Jerry Siegel, who couldn’t afford a pot to piss in basically because he was getting nothing from the Superman creation,” recounted Herb Trimpe in amazement during a 2004 interview, “was hired on at Marvel as a proof reader for a while! He sat in a little desk in an office and was a proof reader at Marvel during the time I was there.” John Romita would go further, “He was only there for a few months, I think six to eight months. He was proof reading for us, which was like all the clichéd stories you hear about the world-wide famous guy who suddenly is doing a tedious job. And here I was saying, ‘This is JERRY SIEGEL next to me! This is the guy who created Superman! He’s about eighteen inches away from me and his chair is backing on mine.’ I got such a kick out of that. He had been through so many successes and then a few failures, and I think he only did it because he had gone through the Ziff-Davis fortune and I’m sure he was just reduced to having to do proof reading because he needed the money. He was quiet, and rather subdued. We didn’t have a lot of conversations because when you’re a proof reader you can’t stop to talk to anybody. So he’d just sit there and proof read all day and we didn’t want to bother him. I certainly didn’t want to go over there and ask for his autograph, I felt sheepish about that. I felt like bowing to him every time I passed his cubicle.” Stan employed him for as long as he could, but sadly Jerry’s writing style, as quaint and serviceable as it was, wasn’t what Marvel needed at the time and Jerry was let go. If anything it served as a lesson to the younger artists and writers.

In the mid 1970s DC Comics, via its parent company, Warner Brothers, announced that a new Superman movie would be made. Armed with a massive budget, cutting edge special effects and the presence of Oscar winning actors such as the legendary Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, DC Comics were riding a crest of popularity like never before. Things were looking good for the company and money was beginning to flow freely into several pockets. Joe and Jerry got nothing and were rarely, if ever, mentioned in the press lead up. By this time Superman had risen to be a worldwide pop culture icon, as easily recognised as Mickey Mouse and the image and logo that Jerry and Joe had created was plastered everywhere. Jerry was working at the Cleveland post office at the time for a minimum wage. Joanne was one of the people who began to complain, and, with Jerry’s support and blessing, the complaints were then made public. Sadly nobody really listened, or took much notice. It took the intervention of Jerry Robinson, who’d seen this before with the eradication of writer Bill Finger from the history of Batman by both DC Comics and Bob Kane. To perpetuate the myth, Bob Kane was, and still is, credited with the creation of Batman. It’s a commonly known fact that Finger contributed enough to the character to be listed as a co-creator, but such was the deal that Kane made with DC that he, Kane, got sole credit. Robinson, who was hired as one of Kane’s ‘ghost artists’ (along with the likes of Jim Mooney, Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff), also helped create Batman’s sidekick, Robin, but received no official credit. Unlike Jerry and Joe, Robinson had made a career out of comic books and art in general, and, more importantly, he had contacts and wasn’t afraid to use them.

It’s not hard to argue that the single most influential, and popular, comic book artist in the 1970s was Neal Adams. His work at DC Comics on Superman, Batman, Deadman and Green Arrow/Green Lantern was groundbreaking, both in visuals and design. Nobody drew like Adams. He was exciting, his art was realistic, vibrant and appeared to be light years beyond anyone else was capable of at the time. His influence was as widely felt on the industry as that of Jack Kirby by 1976 and with that influence he wielded a lot of power. Adams had moved from DC to Marvel where he worked on the X-Men, The Avengers, Thor and the Inhumans before forming into his own company, Continuity, with Dick Giordano, a company that still exists today. With Continuity Adams worked when and where he pleased and was able to mentor artists across an entire generation. The amount of artists that Continuity nurtured and developed is legion and reads like a who’s who of comic books for the past thirty five years, Trevor Von Eeden, Terry Austin, Michael Netzer, Alan Kupperberg, Steve Leilahoa, Bob McLeod, Tom Grindberg, Al Milgrom, Frank Brunner – the list is almost endless. Certainly with a multi-million dollar movie in the offering, a major cross-over project being published in the form of Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man and the resulting hype the last thing DC Comics and Warner Brothers needed was any adverse publicity, and certainly not from one of its star artists. However once Jerry Robinson made the call that’s exactly what they got.

There’s been plenty written and said about Neal Adams over the years, both positive and negative, but if all he did was assist Jerry and Joe then his place would be set in stone. As it was he went above and beyond that, arranging press conferences and, ultimately, an appearance on the Tom Snyder show, which was one of the more popular syndicated shows in America at the time. The crux of the message was a simple one: here we have DC Comics, they’re making millions from Superman, and have made millions from it in the past. Now here are the creators of Superman. One is legally blind, delivering packages and the other is working in a post office. Both men are completely broke while others profit, and profit handsomely, from their creation. Neal Adams made a compelling, and strong, argument and DC Comics had seen their worst fears realised.

Suddenly the world understood that DC Comics and Warner Brothers, along with the film’s producers the Salkinds, the director Richard Donner and various cast members would be making millions from the forthcoming Superman movie, all the time while the characters creators were destitute to the point where, as legend has it, Joe Shuster wandered into DC Comics only a few years earlier pleading for money to buy shoes in winter. Marlon Brando would make a cool million, plus a percentage of the gross, for a few weeks worth of work. Writers Mario 'Godfather' Puzo and David Newman made hundreds of thousands, in Puzo’s situation he made nearly a million for work that was generally discarded. Meanwhile Joe and Jerry were set to make nothing. Joanne and Jerry continued to fight, but the reality is that once they appeared on national TV they’d won their battle – DC were embarrassed and ready to negotiate to keep everyone quiet.

Joe and Jerry nearly accepted the first deal put before them, until Robinson and Adams convinced them to hold out. They then won an instant payment and a pension for life, to be increased annually in line with inflation and cost of living, and, more importantly, they won their credit and ultimately their dignity back. From then onwards, through to now, the legend “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” would appear in the Superman comics, books, television, videos, DVDs, films and anywhere else that Superman was to appear. They had regained recognition and also a degree of financial security. Joe, who was almost legally blind by that stage, and would soon be blind, took the money and lived quietly, occasionally producing sketches of his most famous creation. Joanne and Jerry decided to take the money and also attempt to cash in on their newfound fame and Jerry went back to work and found himself suddenly in demand by small press publishers eager to have a script written by the man who created Superman.

Joe passed away first in 1992 and Jerry followed in 1996. Joanne took Jerry back to Cleveland to lay his ashes to rest, and to also donate some highly personal items, Jerry’s glasses, his typewriter, scripts and other items, with the view of establishing a permanent memorial to Jerry but was met with apathy. Joanne began another battle, and this time she saw the fruits of her fight, with Jerry’s house being restored and streets officially renamed in honour of Joe and Jerry. Thanks to Joanne’s efforts, Cleveland realised that they had a lot to celebrate – they were the official home of Superman. More importantly Joanne took on another battle in the name of her late husband. Again she decided to take on DC Comics and Warner Brothers, but this time the stakes were higher, Joanne was going after Superman. In 1999 she announced her intentions, and after a decade of battle, it was announced in a Federal court that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, via their heirs, now owned a large part of Superman. DC Comics and Warner Brothers are still working out the exact details, but it’s only fitting that Joanne would live to see the outcome of the court battles, and Jerry and Joanne’s daughter, Laura Siegel Larson, and her family, along with Joe Shuster’s heirs, will benefit from Joanne’s actions.

Joanne is gone now. Both Jerry and Joe went years ago. But their creation will live on, no matter who owns it, and we can see the ghost of Joanne in Lois Lane, both now and in the reprints. And in the reprints, the original stories that Jerry and Joe created, is where you’ll find the real Joanne, a brave soul, afraid of no-one, cautious and cunning, ready to fight the fight for what she believed in and for truth and justice. Lois Lane as written by the man who loved her, and drawn by the man who was fond of her and drew inspiration from her. We see that fighting spirit in the battles that she took on, and won, triumphs over a multinational company for the rights to Jerry’s future and his character. The world will miss Joanne Siegel, even if the majority of them have no idea who she was, what she did and what she stood for. In the grand scheme of things, Joanne Siegel should be considered to be one of the most important women of the 20th century for what she achieved and eventually, when the dust has settled, she will take her rightful place, both as a pioneer and as the inspiration for one of the original tough, independent female reporters to ever live, Lois Lane.