The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman
St. Martin’s Press
I am at Cleveland City Hall waiting for a copy of a birth certificate that is not mine. The final typed draft of this book—marked-up, messy, and almost done—lies in an immense pile on my desk at home. But there is one more fact to check, so I am downtown, on a gray October day. Numbers and dates and spelling: these things are important. These are places to start from.
This book is not only a story, but it is about one. The story we all somehow absorb of a child rocketed to Earth from a dying planet. The orphan grows up with incredible powers and is embraced by an Earth he is sworn to protect. He likes a girl who doesn’t give him a second glance. He wears a red, flowing cape, but also hides in plain sight. It is a silly story sometimes; silly in the face of what the world sometimes shows to us, yet it has given hope and solace to generations. That is important, too.
I am still waiting for the birth certificate and am now worried about how much time is left on my parking meter. To my right, on the black benches, two employees are trying to help an elderly woman get a death certificate for her late husband. The woman doesn’t understand why the insurance company is making her do this. She came here on the bus. She is crying. At the snack stand, which sells candy, pop, and cheeseburgers, the clerk closes his eyes. On the small TV mounted over the wrought iron cashier’s cage, local junior high flag football is being played. A kid catches a bomb and sails into the end zone.
When my dad would tell me that Superman was created here in Cleveland, I never really believed him. We took excursions downtown from the suburbs and explored it like it was some once-great civilization, with huge parts of it empty and exploded away. There were secrets and stories here, of a past that might once have been golden. As I grew up, I began to see why he might be right. At the time I am writing this, our football team has not won a game in eleven months. Our baseball team has not won a championship since 1948. The newspapers are filled with bad things. The air is getting cold and the skies will be overcast for the next six months. When we see a patch of blue, we look up and stare.
Superman is not real.
But here, at some point, he somehow was.
This story is not like the others. This story is not just about Superman, but is about two men and their work, both in public and in secret, over a significant portion of the twentieth century. This is about what they really did, not what we wanted them to. That is important, too.
I never knew Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I am not even remotely related to them. But their story—creating the impossible Superman as teenagers during the Great Depression—is one that somehow resounds through all of us with a soundtrack we can almost always quite hear. In the comics, Superman is always looking for secrets to his heritage. That is no coincidence. We all want to know where we come from. The same goes for our dreams and fictions. Why have these characters lasted? What can they tell us? Most people may claim to like Batman better, but it is Superman who measures the best of us. We want to know why.
But how? Not only through dusty facts and forgotten artifacts, but through the very actions that stole their hours. The truth is, Jerry and Joe told us their own secrets in the comics and stories they puzzled over for decades. We have been distracted by half-remembered tales when the answer has been right in front of us the whole time. The work: that is their secret identity.
Superman is not real. But the facts I discovered are just as unbelievable: a mystical cult, a bald, power-mad millionaire, a bulletproof strongman, the real Lois Lane, and a writer’s unlikely, secret service to his country. I found out that the first Superman story was stolen. I not only learned the true cause of Jerry’s father’s death, but who the culprits could be. How? I live in Cleveland; I went to all the places and read all the comics. It took a long time. I read Jerry’s last, unpublished story and my spine, as the comics always somehow promised, actually tingled. And I discovered someone real who, by all accounts, is supposed to be a lie. And somewhere in this book is who I think Superman really is. But that’s my interpretation; you have to find yours.
They call my name and I pay $25 for a birth certificate of someone I did once meet, but am not related to. I open it and pause. It is a new date and a new spelling, one that sounds suspiciously like a famous Superman character. This is how it starts: how truth can become imagination, and thus, a window into a hopeful world right next to our own. But creation has a cost.
Superman isn’t real. But sometimes we wish he could be.
This is the story of that wish coming true.