Why Superman? The Other Story

So there’s the story of Superman — kid launched in rocket, Kansas, flies, American flag, triumph over baldness, etc. — but there’s also the story about how he was created that is now, I think, part of (2nd round?) general knowledge. Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow summarizes it perfectly that it always conveniently comes down to “one sentence” for us — “Two Jewish kids from Cleveland create the first superhero” OR “A pair of Jewish youths in the Depression create Superman” aaaaand….

Their names were Jerry Siegel (the writer, with an “e”) and Joe Shuster (the artist, with no “c”).  Confession: It took me a good year to finally get this right, much less pick them from a line-up (which still can be difficult, as you’ll see). The creation of the character, as Jones also notes, is sometimes just as fascinating as the comics origin. In fact, it has become part of the meta-mythology — I bet most people know that Superman was created at least by “two kids in the Depression” or “two kids who got screwed.”  Most people even know the “Cleveland” part.

But that sentence has a lot of miles on it. I’m going to show the first place it showed up and how it singlehandedly inscribed how we would understand these two — always as a pair, always somehow the same — for decades. And how it is, in many fundamental ways, wrong. And deliberately so.

Why is the story of the story becoming part of the overall Superman phenomenon? For one, it is an inspiring, tragic, and nearly unbelievable American story. This is not hype: there are things I have fact-checked for years, typed up, that are ready to be published in June — that I still can’t believe.  And the really weird part, the “spine-tingling” one that all those covers promised, is that each side of the story — that of Superman and his creators — fits the other in an uncanny way.

Many people think that the story of Jerry and Joe is popular because it’s a story about “the underdog” and “injustice.” Yeah, I guess, but I think we also like the story because of its possibilities. At heart, it’s where imagination meets the road, where fiction meets the non-. It’s Earth-1 and Earth-2 on Thanksgiving Day. People sometimes breathlessly claim that they want Superman to be real — this is where that happened.

-Brad 1/6/13

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