However, as part of the 18th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival, I was lucky enough to attend the Canadian premier of Last Son, a 60 minute documentary on the creators of Superman, artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel.
The film, which does an excellent job tracing the origins of Superman and gives a thorough exploration of Shuster’s and Siegel’s childhoods, provided me with a newfound appreciation for the Man of Steel – for his history and for his influence on comic books and superheroes to come.
From a young age, both Joe and Jerry showed an interest in comic strips and sci-fi and fantasy pulp magazines. After meeting in highschool, the two collaborated on numerous projects, including short stories and comic strips for their school newspaper. One of their longest running strips was Slam Bradley, a detective series about a private eye who always got the girl.
Later, the two friends created “Science Fiction” – a five issue magazine used to publish many of the duo’s comic strips and short stories. One such piece of fiction was The Reign of the Superman, a short story written by Jerry and illustrated by Joe about a man who developed special powers and called himself the “Superman.” However, unlike the Superman we grew up with, Joe and Jerry’s first rendition of the Man of Steel was a villain who aspired to world domination.
After facing constant rejection, Superman would finally appear on the cover of Action Comics #1, a 13-page comic book released in 1938. Joe and Jerry would end up selling the rights to Superman for $130 (that’s $10 per page) – consequently resulting in decades of law suits and embarrassment for both the creators and the publisher.
Despite the messy legalities, what impressed me the most about Last Son was its insight into the hero’s design. Superman’s legendary appearance – the belt, the boots, and even the iconic “S” on his chest – was influenced by the world the creators grew up in. A variety of athletes and fads from the early 20th century can been seen throughout Superman’s design.
Joe, who drew on his mother’s bread board (except on Friday’s when she made the bread), never went to art school, so he copied Superman’s poses from the body builders and boxers in fitness magazines. Last Son attributed Superman’s build and size to the body builders that Joe aspired to as a child, and the boots and belt were also common aspects of the strong man ensemble. Surprisingly, the “S” was featured as stitching on trendy ladies’ garments.
Following the screening of Last Son, the audience was treated to three original Superman cartoons from the 1940’s. Although the cartoon was filled with clichés and predictable plot lines, I was pleasantly surprised with the depiction of Lois Lane. An independent, hard-working journalist, Lois was a real character with a personality. She did whatever it took to get her story, and in an office dominated by men, she spoke her mind and didn’t follow orders. Although her independent spirit often put her in harm’s way (allowing Superman to come to the rescue), I couldn’t help but marvel at this unconventional portrayal of a woman in the 1940’s.
And so even though Superman draws heavily on the icons of his time, so too has modern-day art and media drawn on Superman. Action Comics #1 is considered the first real comic book, and Superman our first superhero. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel have inspired countless artists and writers, and the Man of Steel has helped shape our vision of truth, justice and heroism. So despite his pretty-boy demeanor, I can’t help but appreciate Superman and his influence on my favourite medium.
Conveniently, each 1940’s Superman cartoon ended with the same piece of dialogue: “Thanks to Superman.” I couldn’t agree more.