The Creation of Superman: Jerry Siegel vs Jim Steranko 1973



It’s a battle that could have been epic, but, instead, due to Jerry Siegel's reluctance to confront anyone, it’ll never be played out properly. All we have are Siegel's original comments and any replies that might come by from Jim Steranko.

In 1970, Jim Steranko published the first volume of his “The Steranko History of Comics”. This oversized magazine formatted book was heavy on text and was designed to be the first in a series that would give the true history of the comic book industry, from the very first superhero, Superman, through to the current day. Sadly, only two volumes were ever published, maddening really as they are a hoot to read and packed with great information and interviews, done by Steranko.

For years’ people have referred and recommended Steranko’s History books, and they quickly became very sought after and desired. But not everyone was happy with them. One person who was annoyed by Steranko’s telling of history was a man who featured heavily in the first volume, Superman co-creator, Jerry Siegel.

For the most part, Siegel kept his feelings to himself. He lived a solitary life from the 1970s onwards but every so often he’d engage in correspondence with people and, when enough trust was built up, he’d let his guard slip. It was such a letter, written in 1973, that Siegel let his correspondent know what he thought about Steranko and his History of Comics. Unfortunately, only a few lines survive, but there are more letters to be read and some of them are just as scathing about other comic book professionals.

Siegel hated people writing about Superman, and he especially hated anyone trying to take credit away from and, to a lesser extent, Joe Shuster. He praised Shuster, a lot, and was always quick to point out, in this particular correspondence, where fans and scholars had gotten things wrong when it came to him, Shuster and Superman. Steranko was merely one of many people who Siegel took to task.


Ironically Steranko would provide a deposition and an expert report into the creation and history of Superman for the Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson vs. Time Warner Inc (Superman) court case. I wonder what Jerry would have made of all that.

I have placed the original Steranko text in italics, and Siegel’s responses, complete with original spelling and syntax, follow immediately after.

On a sweltering summer night in 1933, Jerry Siegel lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling of his Cleveland, Ohio bedroom. The air was still and heavy. Clouds drifted past the moon. Up there was wind. If only I could fly. If only...and SUPERMAN was conceived, not in his entirety, but little by little throughout a long and sleepless night.
Siegel tells it this way, "I hop right out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two-hour intervals, until in the morning I have a complete script."
The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1

(1)    The creation of Superman was not as described in the Steranko book.

Initially, Superman was a variation of pulp heavyweight Doc Savage. The concept, and even the name Superman, could easily have been inspired by a Street & Smith advertisement that ran in the early 30's pulps. Comparison between Shuster's original Superman drawing and Doc's promotional ads bears marked similarities.
The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1

(2) I had used the title SUPERMAN prior to the publication of Doc Savage.

The idea of a visitor from a world other than our own probably took its fictional bows in Voltaire's 1752 tale Micromegas. Since then, countless authors have employed the idea including H. G. Wells in War Of The Worlds. More probably the thought came from John W. Campbell's AARN MUNRO stories about a descendant of earthmen raised on the planet Jupiter who, because of the planet's dense gravity, is a mental and physical superman on earth. Siegel used this man from another planet speculation to explain the reason for his protagonist's extraordinary physical development.
The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1

(3) Steranko stated, regarding “the idea of a visitor from a world other than ours” ...” More probably the thought came from John W. Campbell's AARN MUNRO stories about a descendant of earthmen raised on the planet Jupiter, because of the planet' s dense gravity, is a mental and physical superman on Earth. Siegel used this man from another planet speculation to explain the reason for his protagonist’s extraordinary physical development.” - I have never read the Aarn Munro stories. Have checked, after I saw the Steranko assertion, and learned Aaron Munro appear in Astounding Stories magazine, Dec., 1934 issue, in a story entitled “The Mightiest Machine”. Superman had been originated. and was being offered for consideration prior to December of 1934. The Sam Moskowitz book “Seekers of Tomorrow” mentions on pg. 366 that the Aarn Munro story dealt with “a race of devillike creatures who first lived on Earth, migrate to another planet and once again constitute a danger to the mother world.”

Wylie's story was one of Siegel's favorites; he even reviewed it in his S-F fanzine.
The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1

(4) Steranko wrote, “Wylie' s story was one of Siegel' s favorites; he even reviewed it in his S-F fanzine.” At a party, after the Steranko book appeared, Forrest J. Ackerman showed me a bound collection of all the issues of my Science Fiction fanzine. I could not recall ever having written any such purported review of “The Gladiator”, and so I carefully examined the bound copies of the Science Fiction fanzine I had published many years ago; I could find no such “review” in any of the issues.

Whatever it may be, Superman's appeal was one of intrinsic simplicity. Kids understood it better than anyone. His outfit was more colorful, more flamboyant than the Phantom's. His method of operation more direct than Dick Tracy. And he was stronger than Tarzan, Buck Rogers and everyone else put together. He lacked the adult, sophisticated veneer of Flash Gordon, the talkativeness of Terry. In short, he was the graphic representation of the ultimate childhood dream-self.
The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1

(5) Steranko wrote about Superman, “His outfit was more colorful, more flamboyant than the Phantom's.” - From page 268 of the hardcover book, “The Great Movie Serials” by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, “Falk once described his Ghost Who Walks as a combination of Robinson Crusoe, came before Superman and that strip owes something to the Phantom. In point of fact, as does Batman and all the long-underwear boys discussed in this chanter.” - And E. Nelson Bridwell in his error-filled introduction to the SUPERMAN hardcover Crown book asked whence came Superman's skintight costume: “From the Phantom?” - According to “The Great Movie Serials” book and Martin L. Grein’s column in The Buyer' s Guide, No. 31, Lee Falk created 'THE PHANTOM’ in 1936. - I have proof that the Superman newspaper strips drawn by Joe and written by me were being submitted to markets prior to 1936 when The Phantom was first published, and any statement that Joe copied Superman' s costume from the costume of the Phantom is untrue.

Just for fun, here's a scan of Jerry Siegel's letter with the comments about Steranko. Original is now owned by Daniel Best



Comments

Steven Smith said…
Fantastic article Daniel, very informative.
Baggsey said…
Thanks for posting this. Very interesting.

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