Larry Tye, author of the recently-released Superman biography “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” sat down with comic book writer and Superman aficionado Mark Waid at Comic-Con International at San Diego during a special panel to discuss the creation, life and legacy of the Man of Steel.
Tye, an author and journalist for over 20 years, met Waid while conducting research for his book. “I interviewed probably 250 people and none of them were more gracious than Mark, none of them knew more than Mark and absolutely none of them had a better Superman collection than Mark,” said Tye.
Waid recalled his interview with the journalist and that he liked Tye’s approach to the subject. “Larry seemed to be coming at it from exactly [the right] angle,” said Waid. “He didn’t have a specific agenda, he wasn’t on one specific aspect of Superman like the media stuff or the movies. It was a much more well-rounded biography, which is something I’ve been waiting to read my whole life.”
Tye, whose last book was a biography on the life of Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, shared his reason for choosing Superman as his next topic of research. “What attracted me [to Superman] is that I was really intrigued by other kinds of heroes … why we American’s embrace the heroes we do,” Tye said. “I thought the best way to look at that was to look at the longest lasting hero in this country in the last hundred years and my argument is that Superman is that hero. That was the serious reason. The real reason I wrote this book was I wanted to be 10 years old again. For the last two years, I felt like everything I did [accomplished that] — if you can imagine spending two years, and calling it work, reading comic books, watching every old Superman TV show. We may be the only two guys who can do that. That work was really fun and I found a publisher who was willing to take me up on it.”
While Superman’s long and complex history makes him a compelling pick for a biography to Tye, the legal aspect of his history was also a draw. Waid and Tye also talked about the various Superman-related lawsuits between Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. over the years.
“After 74 years, my book was trying to understand why [Superman] was a success for this long and also whether or not he had a future. I think there’s only one thing that could kill Superman and it’s not kryptonite,” Tye said, referring to the various lawsuits between the families of Siegel and Shuster and the copyright holders of Superman which he said he feels is dividing Superman apart.
Research for Superman’s biography was more than just reading a few comic books — Tye searched for any piece of information related to Superman that was not readily available or known. Eventually, he was able to access a copy of Jerry Siegel’s unpublished memoir, which allowed him to get a glimpse into the man behind Superman’s early life.
“I think in today’s terms we would call him a bullied kid. He was out there everyday, he was a little bit too short, he was a little bit too round and he had glasses that were a little bit too thick. He didn’t have an easy life as a kid going to school. Every day on the playground kids would come up and tease him,” said Tye. “He would have liked to have flown away from that kind of taunting — but since he couldn’t do that, at night he would go to bed with a pad and paper with a pencil and dream up another world that would let him fly away. And, the first thing that he dreamt up was a character called The Super-Man. It was a story that he actually did publish about a guy who wanted to take over the world and had incredible powers. This is sort of Jerry’s way to fight back against the bullies — to have power and money and anything else you would want so that the world is yours.”
However, Siegel’s world-dominating, all-powerful Super-Man didn’t last in its original incarnation for very long.”This character evolved in a really profound way,” said Tye. “I think in part because at about age 17, Jerry had something traumatic happen in his life. Michael Siegel [Jerry’s father] ran a used clothing store … one day, three guys walked into that used clothing store and walked out with a suit without paying. There are lots of great stories that have grown up around this — none of which are true — about being shot and killed, which makes a very dramatic story. But what happened is [Michael Siegel] had a massive heart attack. The police report documents he was dead before they got him to the hospital.
“You’re a 17 year old kid, the youngest of six kids. This puts a big vacuum in your life. So the story of The Super-Man got a little bit different. Jerry dropped the ‘The’, he dropped the hyphen and he dropped the bad guy act. The first version of this story that was ever written and drawn shows a guy who, I think is not a stretch to say, looks a lot like Michael Siegel who was being robbed and suddenly this character zooms in to save him. I think Jerry was trying to do what he wished he could have done when those guys came into the store and caused Michael Siegel to have a heart attack.”
After the change in tone, Superman became one of the most recognizable characters in the world.
The writers opened the panel to questions from fans, discussing which incarnation of Superman is their definitive version.
“What got me, when I was age 14 or 15. I had left home … I went to see the ‘Superman’ movie. I liked Superman at that point but I also liked Batman and Captain America and I liked comics,” Waid said. “I went in to see the movie and I saw it twice in a row, sitting there just mesmerized. I walked out of that movie still not knowing what direction my life was going to take because, I’m going to be blunt, I was a very semi-suicidal kid with no hope, and no ambition and no direction and, like I said, no strong parental figure. I came out of that movie knowing that no matter what the rest of my life was going to be, it was somehow going to involve Superman. It took me a long long time to put my finger on exactly what turned me around in that four hours in the move theater. I went in there as a kid who felt like no one cared and Christopher Reeve’s Superman in particular made it abundantly clear that Superman cares about everybody. Whether you’re rich or your poor, black or white, whether you’re 9 years old — he cares about everybody. I know that sounds a little goofy come from a man my age but when I was a teenager I needed that.”
Tye’s choice, while still personal, had more to do with nostalgia. “I’m convinced, after interviewing hundred of fans across the world, that everyone fell in love with the first Superman they encountered that’s the one they always think about. For me, if I close my eyes and I’m trying to envision Superman they guy I see is George Reeves from “The Adventures of Superman” when there was something called black and white tv in the 1950s,” said Tye.
After a few more audience questions about Superman’s longtime love Lois Lane and the Man of Steel’s religion (Tye suspects he’s Jewish, while Waid theorizes Methodist), the panel wrapped up, bringing a fascinating exploration of the world’s most recognizable superhero to a close.
“Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” by Larry Tye is available now in bookstores.