“And still playing the role”


Superman, DC, series #1, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939

From The New York Times:

“Superman!” gasps Lois Lane, freshly scooped from beneath the nodding carbines of a South American firing squad. “Right!” says the boxy blue-and-red figure who holds her in his arms. “And still playing the role of gallant rescuer!” His mouth is set in a kind of grimace, but with dimples. Is he frowning? Tautly grinning? And what can he mean by “still playing the role”? This is only the second Superman comic ever, from July 1938, and already our hero — caped and airborne, with Lois coiled against his unbreachable bosom — is carrying a freight of super-irony.

Then again, as we learn from “Superman,” Larry Tye’s exhaustive and engaging book, irony attends every phase of this story. Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel (writing) and Joe Shuster (drawing) — were a pair of Cleveland geeks whose underdoggery was purer almost than the ­alpha-male prowess of the pulp heroes they adored: Tarzan, Hugo Danner, Clark (Doc) Savage Jr. and so on. Both the sons of immigrant Jewish tailors, Siegel and Shuster were uncool, and they were girl-less. They had no money. Shuster, the artist, was horribly nearsighted. And how they toiled, through lost nights of teenage-­dom, at their secret weapon: their made-up ultrabeing, their hero to out-hero them all. First, in a misfire, he was naughty (a mind-reading tramp called “the Super-Man”), then he was good. Then very good. At last, on what Tye calls “a hot summer night of divinelike inspiration,” it happened: the elements fused, and the 19-year-old Siegel, scribbling madly in his bathroom, came up with the doomed planet Krypton, Lois Lane, Clark Kent the mild-mannered reporter. . . .

Four years later, after many rejections, the boys finally got a Superman comic onto the newsstands: Action Comics No. 1, June 1938. The comics writer Grant Morrison, in his 2011 book “Supergods,” describes the cover image as looking “like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall 10,000 years from now.” Superman, his body flexed with a terrible rectitude, is hoisting a car over his head and crushing its front end against a boulder. In the foreground a man flees wildly, “clutching his head,” as Morrison observes, “like Edvard Munch’s Screamer, his face a cartoon of gibbering existential terror.” And no wonder: this Superman is dynamically angry, an avatar of decency outraged, bashing through doors and tossing goons over the treetops. “Don’t get tough!” growls an interrupted wife beater. Says Superman: “Tough is putting mildly the treatment you’re going to get! You’re not fighting a woman, now!”

“Man of Action”, Larry Tye, The New York Times