Superman at 80: How two high school friends concocted the original comic book hero



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In 1938, a cultural icon was born.
ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

Brad Ricca, Case Western Reserve University

Superman – the first, most famous American superhero – turns 80 this year.

The comics, toys, costumes and billion-dollar Hollywood blockbusters can all trace their ancestry to the first issue of “Action Comics,” which hit newsstands in April 1938.

Most casual comic book fans can recite the character’s fictional origin story: As the planet Krypton approaches destruction, Jor-El and his wife, Lara, put their infant son, Kal-El, into a spaceship to save him. He rockets to Earth and is taken in by the kindly Kents. As he grows up, Kal-El – now known as Clark – develops strange powers, and he vows to use them for good.

But the story of the real-life origins of Superman – a character created out of friendship, persistence and personal tragedy – is just as dramatic.

From villain to hero

When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, my dad would regale my brother and me with stories of Superman’s local origins: The two men who had concocted the comic book hero had grown up in the area.

As I became older, I realized I wanted to understand not only how, but why Superman was created. A 10-year research project ensued, and it culminated in my book “Super Boys.”

In the mid-1930s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two nerds with glasses who attended Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. They worked on the school newspaper, wrote stories, drew cartoons, and dreamed of being famous. Jerry was the writer; Joe was the artist. When they finally turned to making comics, a publisher named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson gave them their first break, commissioning them to create spy and adventure comics in his magazines “New Fun” and “Detective Comics.”

But Jerry and Joe had been working on something else: a story about a “Superman” – a villain with special mental powers – that Jerry had stolen from a different magazine. They self-published it in a pamphlet titled “Science Fiction.”

While “Science Fiction” only lasted for five issues, they liked the name of the character and continued to work on it. Before long, their new Superman was a good guy. Joe dressed him in a cape and trunks like those of the era’s popular bodybuilders, modeled the character’s speedy running abilities after Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, and gave him the bouncy spit-curl of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan. It was a mishmash of 1930s pop culture in gladiator boots.

When they were finally ready, they started pitching Superman to every newspaper syndicate and publisher they could find.

All of them rejected it, some of them several times. This continued for several years, but the duo never gave up.

When Superman finally saw print, it was through a process that is still not wholly clear. But the general consensus is that a publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who had acquired the major’s company, National Allied Publications (the predecessor to DC Comics), bought the first Superman story – and all the rights therein – for US$130.

Was Jerry trying to create a Superdad?

The first issue of Action Comics featured Superman on the cover.
Philipp Lenssen, CC BY-NC

The world was introduced to Superman in “Action Comics” No. 1, on April 18, 1938, with the Man of Steel appearing on the cover smashing a Hudson roadster. The inaugural issue cost 10 cents; in 2014, a copy in good condition sold for $3.2 million dollars.

When the comic became a runaway hit, Jerry and Joe regretted selling their rights to the character; they ended up leaving millions on the table. Though they worked on Superman comics for the next 10 years, they would never own the character they created, and for the rest of their lives repeatedly filed lawsuits in an effort to get him back.

But there is another more personal piece to the puzzle of Superman’s origins.

On June 2, 1932, Jerry’s father, Michel, was about to close his secondhand clothing store in Cleveland when some men walked in. Michel caught them trying to steal a suit, and ended up dying on the spot – not in a hail of gunfire, but from a heart attack.

Jerry was 17.

Jerry Siegel pictured while serving in the U.S. Army.
Wikimedia Commons

Some believe Jerry may have created Superman as a fantasy version of his own father – as someone who could instantly transform from a mild-mannered man into a hero capable of easily overpowering petty thieves. Indeed, some of the early Superman stories feature Jor-El out of breath (as Michel often was from heart disease) and show criminals who faint dead when confronted by Superman. As many victims of childhood trauma often do, Jerry may have used Superman to re-enact his father’s tragic death over and over in an attempt to somehow fix it.

In Superman’s never-ending battle of good versus evil, this same story is repeated again and again on the page, in cartoons and in movies. It’s seen in kids who pretend to be Superman, tucking towels in at their neck and playing out battles in their backyards.

The ConversationWhy is Superman’s 80th birthday important? It isn’t just about celebrating a “funny book” about a guy who has heat vision and can fly. It’s about using fantasy to make sense of the world, plumbing personal tragedy to tell a story, and using art to envision a more just and safe society.

Brad Ricca, Lecturer of English, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Not My Review: A Higher Loyalty, by James Comey


The link below is to a book review of ‘A Higher Loyalty,’ by James Comey.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/17/higher-loyalty-james-comey-jonathan-freedland-review

Before Westworld was Mudfog – Charles Dickens’ surprisingly modern dystopia



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George Cruikshank’s impression of Dickens’ dystopia.
Philip V. Allingham of Victorian Web, Author provided

Lynda Clark, Nottingham Trent University

If you’re a fan of the TV series, Westworld, you’re probably aware that it’s based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. What you may not know is that the concept has been kicking around for a very long time. While Crichton insists his dystopian vision had no “literary antecedents”, there’s at least one writer who may beg to differ. Charles Dickens imagined a robot theme park way back in 1838. Just like Westworld, the patrons of Dickens’ park are able to enact their “violent delights” on realistic humanoid androids.

In the short story titled: Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything, a group of scientists meet to discuss a variety of proposals, including the classification of a one-eyed horse as “Fitfordogsmeataurious” and a snuffbox-sized machine for more efficient pickpocketing. The most vividly described of these outlandish ideas, though, is entrepreneurial inventor Mr Coppernose’s suggestion for a park filled with “automaton figures” which would enable wealthy young men to run riot without causing a public nuisance. Sound familiar? So, how do the two parks measure up?

Dickens’ dystopia is in a book of short stories.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

In purely physical terms, Dickens’ park is much smaller. The series’ showrunner, Jonathan Nolan, has indicated that Westworld covers around 500 square miles, while Coppernose suggests a more modest “space of ground of not less than ten miles in length” for his park. But both demonstrate a similar attention to detail when it comes to creating a realistic environment for their patrons to explore. Westworld offers trading outposts, farmsteads and wide open plains populated by robot cowboys, saloon girls and the Ghost Nation Tribe. Coppernose’s park strives to recreate a version of semi-rural England using “highway roads, turnpikes, bridges [and] miniature villages”, inhabited by automaton police officers, cab drivers and elderly women.

Delos Incorporated (the company which owns Westworld) expects its players will use these environments and android “hosts” to engage in both whitehat (heroic) and blackhat (villainous) activities. Meanwhile, Coppernose assumes only the most base and destructive behaviour from his park patrons. This is evidenced in various design choices, such as the “gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen”, and the vocal abilities of the automatons themselves which, when struck, “utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete and the enjoyment perfect”.

Yet this advanced speech technology isn’t the only thing Coppernose’s automatons have in common with Westworld’s hosts, as demonstrated in George Cruikshank’s illustration. Here the lifelike robots are shown to be operational despite missing limbs – something we’ve seen during diagnostic sessions with Westworld’s damaged hosts in the repair lab.

While Coppernose doesn’t provide specific details of any maintenance crews, it seems he has a similar rotational system in mind when he suggests a stock of 140 automatons, with around half kept in reserve so that broken units can be exchanged. However, rather than the spooky warehouse filled with dormant hosts seen in Westworld, Coppernose has a far more space-saving storage solution, keeping inert robot police officers on shelves until needed.

Only human after all

Although its never been explicitly explained in the show, showrunner Lisa Joy has described the “good samaritan reflex” as a safety measure programmed into all Westworld’s hosts – including the animals. This ensures that if a guest is at risk of endangering themselves or another guest, a host will step in to save them from harm. Humans don’t fare so well in Dickens’ park – Coppernose advocates the use of “live pedestrians … procured from the workhouse” for the wealthy park guests to run down in their cabriolets.

Natural born killer: Westworld’s Man in Black.
HBO

However, this is where a theme only lightly touched on in Westworld is brought to the fore in Dickens’ text: the disparity between justice for the rich and the poor. Coppernose’s affluent young adventurers must attend a mock trial following their wild and destructive behaviour, where wooden-headed automaton magistrates side with the defendants rather than the robot police attempting to prosecute them. Dickens describes this process as “quite equal to life” serving to underline the inequality at play in the justice system.

While Westworld primarily focuses on what it means to be human it does hint at this same idea: that we’re inclined to overlook the bad behaviour of the rich and powerful. When wealthy park patron “Man in Black” kills hosts indiscriminately, security chief Ashley Williams says: “That gentleman gets whatever he wants.”

The ConversationOf course, now that Westworld’s robots have gone rogue, the Man in Black may not go unpunished in season two. Perhaps the retribution Dickens would doubtless have liked to have seen will be delivered not by the courts, but the robots themselves.

Lynda Clark, PhD Researcher in Creative and Critical Writing, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.