Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero


I have enjoyed reading Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. It’s an academic, easy to read book on the history and business of Superman. .  We learn the biographies of the creators, publishers and editors. I did, however, learned a lot more about Jerry Siegel than I did Joe Shuster. For example, we learn in the opening chapter, that the day after Jerry Siegel’s father died a local newspaper ran “a letter denouncing the kind of vigilante justice that would become Superman’s early signature. The letter writer: A.L. Luthor,” which the author reminds us is close to Lucifer). There are lots of tidbits like that throughout the book. Of course the scariest tidbit, is a thing we all discuss today, this statement from the owner (Wheeler-Nicholson) of what is now DC, to Siegel and Shuster:

“Do not be alarmed of the legal phrasing on the back of the checks. Our lawyers made us put it on after we had a couple of unfortunate experiences with chiselers who tried to hold us up after we’d paid them in full.” It would take until the 1970s for new editor Jeanne Kahn to fix some of these injustices, but too late for most of the golden agers."

Tye tries to strike a balance in his storytelling between biographies of the creators, editors and publishers and the character of Superman himself, and his place in comics, books, radio, movies, TV and the rest of the world.  For this reason, while I was very satisfied, I think some readers would want more depth in one or the other.

Tye examines the stories that were outside sources, most notably the book “Gladiator” by Philip Wylie where a man gets super-powers. With some detail we can see how Doc (Clark) Savage, the Man of Bronze influenced the Man of Steel (Clark Kent). Most important to me, however, was the inclusion of John Carter of Mars, who gains powers on another planet.   I had seen, in the book “Supermen,” a Siegel and Shuster take on Superman called Dr. Occult. The character looks and acts like him.  What I learned here is that the good doctor did NOT come first but he was printed first, but was based on the Superman character Siegel and Shuster could not sell. Tye carefully shows us how Superman, or originally, the Super-Man evolved. It wasn’t just one idea or one story, but several ideas and several stories that morph into character. For example, the Tye discuss what it took to have Superman fly, which he didn’t do at first. Well, it took ghost writing and artist as Don Cameron and Ed Dobrotka did that story.  Shuster eyesight prevented him from doing a huge amount of the artwork, and he eventually was just doing Superman’s face. On a strip that paid Siegel $800, he paid the ghost writer $250. None of the players here are generous.

The back story of Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld is told, with their connections to organized crime, needed to distribute their magazines and pornography. (I would personally like to see what was considered “porno” back then!)  Siegel and Shuster had originally gotten work from the Wheeler-Nicholson owned comic company which went belly up, owing the pair some money. Liebowitz and Donenfeld took over, keeping editor Vin Sullivan, and paid the pair their back due money: $282 for previous work and $130 for Superman. As the book said, the biggest bargain since the Dutch West Indies Company bought Manhattan for $24. But without Jack and Harry, Joe and Jerry were never able to produce and sustain another successful character, and they tried several times, especially with Funnyman.

The religious backgrounds of all the main characters (almost all Jewish) play an important part. In fact, a small flaw in the book is simply that this should have even more integrated into the principals storylines than given a separate chapter.

How much they actually got for drawing Superman is in contention.  Tye reports that the Saturday Evening Post said they shared $75,000 in 1940, Siegel says it half that. But even if Siegel was right, in a era where houses cost less than $5,000 and teachers were making $2,000 a year, it had the spending power today of over $300,000.(simply multiply by 10.)  In three ten year production at DC, the pair made over $400,000, which would be worth over 5 million day, in addition they did win a lawsuit of $94,000, which they kept a third.

Tye does describe all the main media that the character appeared in. He discusses the evolution of the comic strip and newspaper strip. Lois and Clark originally worked for The Daily Star for an unknown editor who became George Tailor. But he doesn’t discuss everything, like why the Daily star changed into the Daily Planet, but he does discuss the evolution of Paris White to Perry. Oh, the reason why the Daily star got its name changed was economic.  In selling the comic strip, the syndicators discovered that there really were small papers called the Daily Star, often in completion to the paper wanting to run the strip. So they changed the name of the fictional newspaper. At about the same time, George F. Lowther’s Superman book was published and that is discussed.  It’s a fine book, and gives the first back story to Clark and the Kents. Its reading level is about that of the Hardy Boys. The radio show, which brought a huge amount the Superman legend, kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, the Superman and Batman team-up, is discussed, concentrating on the casting. Several times he mentions specific stories and what issues they were in, but sometimes he doesn’t mention the issue, often just giving the year.  I have the Archives, it would have been easier to look up if he gave the issue number.

There is an important point about creator’s rights and how they were exploited.  Yet, Siegel and Shuster could not produce this project by themselves, they had no means to publish, distribute or publicize the book.  Yes, they were looking for a publisher, but that means that they were looking for someone to risk their money on their project. They found those risk takers in Liebowitz and Donenfeld. Jack and Harry printed 202,000 comics of Action comics #1, and sold 64% of the print run, for a big profit.(Anything over a 50% sell through was good)  By Action #13 they had printed 725,000 with a sell through rate of 86%

As Superman success grew, Jack and Harry, now the owners of the property, exerted, more and more editorial control over the strip. Superman began to lose some of his “wise guy” vigilante outlook that made him so popular. He became friends with the police. And the comics sold more and more. Editorially, a good decision was made as WWII broke out was not to have Superman fight in the war, but to protect the people at home. Of course, it would have been difficult to have Superman winning every battle. But after the war, the action comics that featured war heroes, with a few exceptions, faded away.

Jack and Harry also knew how to market their products, Superman, who was 75% of their income, Batman and Wonder Woman and learned from their failures of characters such as Green Lantern.  While it seemed that Superman was marketed everywhere, they were careful to protect their brand, breakfast cereal yes, gasoline yes, beer, no. The chapter that discusses the Superman TV show, and covers similar material as Grossman’s “Superman from Serial to Cereal”, adds a few new facts. It took two years to get Superman on the air after the shows were filmed. Wertham’s’ anti-comic book crusade is partly the cause of that, TV sponsors were afraid to go on board. It took the two years, and the editing out of some violent material to get a sponsor, Kellogg’s. And George Reeves, who considered this job “the bottom of the barrel” received a $600 an episode salary, but that was doubled when he did a Kellogg commercials. Even throughout the 1960s, Wertham’s anti-comic crusade made things hard for the industry, evening, eventually, getting Superman cartoons off the air. That the two different Loises, Coates and O’Neill played the role very differently and didn’t like each other was interesting to learn.

Mort Weisinger, Julie Schwartz, Carmine Infantino are supporting characters in the book. The
line that introduces Weisinger is: "In the 1960s the towering figure was Mort Weisinger…" So if he had any great input before then it is not mentioned here. They have important roles which are discussed, but are not the most major players.  Weisinger’ s contributions are discussed here, Supergirl, Imaginary Stories, Super dogs, supersets, Kandor and so much more.  But, it does establish that he had trouble getting along with anyone. This has never been a secret and so many writers and artists have commented on it. The book is kind to MW, even saying that he gave certain freedoms to his writers. And, throughout the book, is a small theme that the editors and publishers knew what they were doing in constructing not just a character but a brand to be marketed. The cartoons and the products are discussed, that was the strength of the editors and publishers and Siegel and Shuster’s weakness.  But other than the comic strip, S and S shared in very little of that marketing income. So you could make a case that they did well financially creating the comics but they saw nothing of the real money and Tye does not get into that very much.
Weisinger’ daughter, Joyce who has written an article published in Alter Ego, is mentioned, His son Hendrie has written a poor review of this book:

Overall, it's not bad. The biggest deficit is that it did not have enough on my father. True, the author does acknowledge his significant contributions, but in reality, he underestimates them. Superman never would have made it if not for my father. There are, from my perspectives, some inaccuracies, although the description about his abrasive personality is very accurate. However, most of the "negatives" about taking credit for the ideas of others is a falsehood… He didn't need to take the ideas of others. Indeed, most of these comments are made by people after he passed away when he could not defend himself, not that he needed too. Also, he left on his own volition, not forced out as the author reports. Next, many inside stories are left out. These will be revealed in my book, homage to my dad, which is being called, "Flying like Superman."

On the contrary, I do not see a lot of what is suggested here. Tye points out that Weisinger came up with most of his ideas and then gave them to writers. True, he did a great job marketing the brand, His concept that, “Superman never would have made it if not for my father” but he still came in years AFTER the brand was developed and introduced and Superman was already successful. He writes, “abrasive personality is very accurate.” Then says, “most of these comments are made by people after he passed away when he could not defend himself, not that he needed too.”  Well, there’s a contradiction here, but people won’t say things when the need him to give them jobs.  By the way, Carmine Infantino is quoted in the book as saying he fired Weisinger.

The book tells a story that I have heard for years, “You could see Mort's influence in the artwork…” Boring said that, after nearly thirty years of drawing Superman, he couldn't believe his ears when Weisinger fired him in 1966, so he asked if he'd understood right. "Do you need a kick in the stomach to know when you're not wanted!?" the editor answered. His biggest nightmare, Boring added, was that "I'd die and go to hell and he'd be in charge!"

The final chapters of the book, those that describe events after 1991, were a disappointment to me. There is no analysis for the decline of Superman, both in the marketplace and in the comics. Tye does not discuss the change in philosophy when the corporations took over; Kinney (now Time Warner) bought DC for $60,000,000 in the 1970s. The corporations took over and the individual creativity, from Siegel and Shuster, to Donenfeld to Weisinger is gone. Tye discusses a corporate conference in 1991, to discuss the Death of Superman, not a meeting of the creators. The writers and artist no longer imitate concepts, they carry them out.  Circulation for Superman drops from 800,000 to just over 40,000.  But Tye discusses everything as if it was a great new idea. Some had great short term success, but the long term effects are ignored.  Sure, Superman’s death had sales jumped, but that made fans disenchanted and they left. Tye mentions that the marriage of Lois and Clark was a chief reason for the TV show failing (although it had already steady drop in ratings) but doesn’t mention what the marriage did for comics. Did it do the same thing?  In fact, that marriage is now erased in the new 52. Tye just doesn’t get into that. Tye mentions many of the Graphic Novels and mini-series produced out of continuity, but doesn’t examine what that does to a fan base.  He mentions that comics now cost $4 and the average reader is over 35, but is he turned off by amount of product on the market. Or that he has to go to a special store to buy comics. He discusses Superman Returns as if it was a success, but it pillaged the characters and did not make a profit. There is not enough examination about this period.

Little is mentioned about Superman’s future, is it, as with all comics, digital?  Is that going to be the solution to declining sales? What do the creator’s think?  Tye concludes “Our longest lasting hero will endure as long as we need a champion, which should be until the end of time…”, but gives us no basis for his conclusion.

I had to read the last chapter, about the Superman/Toberoff/DC lawsuit twice. Tye wrote nothing wrong here, but much of it is confusing, I just wanted to get it clear. To be honest, you need an entire book about this and information from Danny Best site which has put up many of the documents discussed in the book. (

This is an enjoyable book.


  1. Barry,

    I love your blog! Great review.

    John F.

    Pop Culture Safari

  2. Good review, but it does seem the book tries to show that Siegel and Shuster were making out pretty good and not mistreated in the way that most histories seem to indicate. Maybe I'm just misinterpreting what you write.

    Also, most of the information in the book seems 'old news', and doesn't add much to common knowledge (at least among those fans who have read about the subject). You mention that the book disappointed you in the final chapters, and frankly I think it is the past twenty plus years of the character's history that many would be interested in learning. The 'death' and marriage of Superman/Clark, the various 'events' and 'crisis' that have effected not only Supes, but the entire DCU. Under what pressure to boost sales have these (generally of limited success) stories been created and just who makes these decisions.

    Unfortunately, I think it will be years down the line (probably after I'm long gone) when the people involved in these decisions feel they can come forward with the facts.

  3. Steve, you are correct. Tye did not go over in depth the reasoning behind the cooperate decisions, the reasons why they did things, nor their repercussions. I too wanted more. And even the acquisition by Kinney, and how that accepted their purchase of Warner’s is not delved into with any detail.

    The book plays it a bit down the middle, and I am the one saying “Where did the money go?” let
    ‘s face it, Siegel and Shuster in eh 1970s were paupers, but they should not have been. That aspect of their lives remains a mystery.