December 05, 2005

Superman: Triumph of the Geeks

The Canada Post stamp commemorating Superman

Material for this rant about Superman, history, and national pride came from the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Superman's creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel have often been described as the two kids from Cleveland who dreamed up the "Man of Steel". But unlike Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster wasn't actually from Cleveland. Joe was a Canadian.

In recent years, the Canadian Government made a point of reminding us that Joe Shuster, the artist who for many years drew that strange visitor from another planet, was actually born in the far-off land of Toronto, Ontario.

In 1998, Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating the 60th anniversary of the genesis of Superman. I bought a t-shirt featuring artwork from the stamp at the Postal Outlet in my neighbourhod 7-11. Not long afterwards, I saw a TV commercial depicting a young Joe Shuster saying goodbye to his cousin Lois, and waving a sketch of his new superhero character as he left on the train to Cleveland. The dramatic little scene closed with the words " A Part of our Heritage." It actually made me feel rather proud to think that one of the collaborators of a character strongly identified with the U.S. was a Canadian.

In Superman's early years, the first stories in Action Comics in 1938 said that the name of Clark Kent's employer was The Daily Star. This is likely a reference to The Toronto Star, Joe's home paper. Later on, the name was changed to the familiar "Daily Planet". Any vestigial references to Canada (which you'd have needed a microscope to have noticed in the first place) disappeared over the succeeding decades as Superman grew in the American comic marketplace, and evolved into an American icon, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way".

When Christopher Reeve used those same words "truth, justice and the American way" in 1978's "Superman: The Movie", it grated on me a little. Like it or not, I will freely admit to feeling skepticism and even anger towards the "A word" when used to refer to a particular ideal of morality or social values. To be fair, this might be resentment or frustration from what I'd call "Canadian Second Banana Syndrome" - the sense of having one's cultural identity overshadowed or even drowned out by an incessantly more dominant one. (Hey - I do whine about this from time to time...)

Anyway, at 12 years old back in 1978, I wondered why a figure like Superman, who is basically a demi-god on Earth, would bother to limit himself to only "the American way"? That phrase never seemed to refer to all the Americas, North and South either, but just the one that starts with "The United States of".

Superman's story is really an immigrant's tale. He came from an alien land, disguising himself and hiding (or even denying) his cultural heritage in order to be accepted into a new society. Joe was an immigrant to the U.S. himself, when his family moved from Toronto to Cleveland when Joe was in his high school years. Immigrants could relate to Superman, with their sense of cultural background coming into relief against the requirements of a large homogeneous society of American nationalism.

The "American way" expression used by Supes is a narrow association of Nationalism more suited to the post-WWII era. I guess it might have sounded a bit naive or refreshingly charming to movie audiences back in 1978, hinting perhaps at less cynical, less complicated set of values. But since that time, Superman has evolved into more of a universal, global icon. So, who's "way" would he be fighting for now? Questioning this leads us to where Frank Miller took Superman in "The Dark Knight Returns", where Superman was only allowed to operate as a Superhero if he defended U.S. interests and enforced a form of Cold War detente, where he serves as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction or mass peace.

Joe met Jerry Seigel at Glendale High in Cleveland, and they shared a geekish love of pulp fiction and fantasy stories. In many ways, they were each like that skinny little guy from the old Charles Atlas ads that you might have seen in comic books. Superman was Seigel and Shuster's symbol of freedom from and triumph over marginalization. The skinny guy getting sand kicked in his face was Joe and Jerry and every kid reading it, and the perfect physical specimen punching out the bully in the last panel was Superman and every other hero that made a geek feel empowered and accepted.

Jerry Seigel always had first billing before Joe. I might speculate that the quieter, less self-aggrandizing Shuster didn't mind who's name went first, so long as he was credited as one of the parents. I'll allow myself that blatant Canadian stereotype of the passive, polite Canadian "nice guy".

Joe's long-time collaborator, Jerry Seigel, fought tenaciously over the years to have his and Shuster's names restored to the masthead as the original creators of Superman. By 1975, with the help of friends, other artists and writers across the entertainment industry, and from the newer generation of management at DC Comics itself, an agreement was reached between Seigel, Shuster and Warner Brothers, who owned DC Comics and the stable of characters. The comic books and the credits for "Superman: The Motion Picture" would include the words "Superman created by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster". The comic book geeks had won back official recognition for their character. By all accounts, relations between the Seigel and Shuster families and Warner Brothers/DC are fairly healthy and vibrant. Detente.

Joe's last interview (and he rarely ever gave them) was in 1992. Legally blind, he gave one last interview to the newspaper which he had sold in the streets of Toronto at the age of nine: the Toronto Star. "There aren't many people who can say they're leaving behind something as important as Superman," he said. "But Jerry and I can, and that's a good feeling."

Sources and Related Links:

The Original Superman, C. 1933 to 1938
Whatever Happened to the Heroes?
The Death of Christopher Reeve
127 Reasons why Superman is a Dick.

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