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Justice (Part 2): Real life Inspiration for Superman’s Greatest Challenges

by  in Comic News Comment
Justice (Part 2):  Real life Inspiration for Superman’s Greatest Challenges

It cannot be mere coincidence that Lex Luthor evolved over the decades from mad scientist to conniving business man. He initially evolved with the maturation of his adolescent, sci-fi crazed creators. As they grew more aware of the cruelty of the real world and its business dealings, so did Lex find his way into the realities of corporate corruption. Long after the creators had been removed from the helm of Superman, Lex continued his progression, making his big-screen debut by concocting “the crime of the century,” (a real estate scam) 1 and entering the ’90’s as the power hungry owner of LexCorp2. Corruption became a staple of Superman’s antagonists and as he began his battle for “the American Way,” his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were falling victim to it.

To say that Siegel and Shuster were naïve to the comic book industry would be an understatement. There was no such industry. Only after finding an issue of “Detective Dan” (a black and white “Dick Tracy” knock off) did they become aware of the possibility that their comic ideas could be put into book form3. Still, it is ridiculous to expect these boys (who were too wrapped up in fantasy to graduate high school until they were nearly 204) to understand the intricacies of any industry, much less its far reaching potential 50 years down the line. One can hardly blame them for their tremendous enthusiasm when signing the contract that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

In 1938 Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (a former cavalry officer who had been publishing two Siegel & Shuster strips in his “New Fun Comics”), finally sent the news they had been waiting for through countless rejections: Superman would be published. 5 At 24, the boys were still living at home and lonely. The $130 for which they sold the rights to Superman was nothing compared to the future they envisioned, for while they were ignorant on many things, they knew science-fiction, they knew what youth wanted, and somehow they knew that their creation would be the greatest hero of the 20th century.6 Along side their Man of Tomorrow, the future was bright.

But it was not their future. Harry Donenfeld (a former bootlegger) and Jack Liebowitz, who squeezed Wheeler-Nicholson out early on, would be the beneficiaries of Superman’s exploits, while Siegel and Shuster were merely hired hands. 7

Within a short time, there were dozens of other heroes/Superman copies spanning several companies. Some creators, such as Bob Kane, learned from Jerry and Joe’s mistakes and struck lucrative deals, while others, like Bill Finger, had similar problems. But nobody had it worse than the two who started it all. 8

Jerry Siegel Joe Shuster

Soon after “Action Comics” #1 gave Superman his debut and shortly after the death of Jerry’s mother, Sarah, Jerry (along with new wife Bella) and Joe moved to New York to work more closely with the industry that had been built on their work. While Donenfeld and Liebowitz were striking land mark deals for TV, radio, and merchandise, they were also keeping the brains behind Superman at a safe distance. From the millions that Superman raked in, Jerry and Joe made $20 a page. Creative control rested in the hands of management and Jerry’s ideas – such as K-metal (a precursor to kryptonite) and Superboy – were continuously rejected. Jerry was able to write, but only within the spectrum of ideas that were laid before him. Joe was the artist, but with his eyes failing him, the work fell to a staff led by Wayne Boring. By the mid-’40s, Jerry and Joe were mere figure heads of a corporate product. 9

When Jerry was drafted into World War II, Harry Donenfeld lost his head writer and his biggest head ache. While Joe’s shyness and bachelorhood kept him quietly disgruntled, Jerry’s headstrong attitude and a wife who felt she deserved better, pushed Jerry to action. He wrote countless letters to Harry and Jack asking for better treatment. When this resulted only in moderate bonuses, Jerry and Sarah took to picketing outside Harry’s house. The timing of Jerry’s departure for war calls attention to the political connections that Harry bragged about, but there is no additional evidence to suggest that he had – or that he would have used – the connections to have someone drafted. During Jerry’s service, tensions certainly eased in the Superman offices. 10

However, the release in tension was short lived. Jerry returned at war’s end to find that the company had been publishing his ideas, including a Superboy own spin-off comic, and that Joe’s eyes were worsening. This time. however, he came armed. A lawyer named Albert “Zuggy” Zugsmith had served alongside Jerry and took an interest in his plight. 11

An early sketch of Superman by Shuster.

In order to keep their jobs, the impending lawsuit was kept quiet. But when they tried to strengthen their case by soliciting the help of Bob Kane, their efforts backfired. Seeing an opportunity to sweeten his contract, Kane told Donenfeld that he would join the case unless he was allowed to renegotiate. Kane claimed that his original contract was never valid as he was underage at the time (a point which was never proven). Kane got what he wanted, and with Harry aware of the lawsuit, Jerry and Joe were promptly fired. 12

Ultimately, their early dismissal would be irrelevant, for the judge quickly awarded the rights to Superman back to Donenfeld and DC. In a cruelly ironic twist, Jerry and Joe were awarded the rights to Superboy, which they were forced to sell back to DC in order to pay their legal fees. Zugsmith took his share of the losings and became a B-movie producer. 13

With Jerry morally defeated and Joe legally blind, the two descended quickly into abject poverty. Joe worked briefly as a courier, while Jerry bounced through a few writing gigs, with Archie, Marvel, and finally back to “Superman” where the new management made his life unbearable. 14

For nearly three decades, the creators of Superman lived in misery, their lives “ruined,” 15 and all because they signed their names to a piece of paper that promised $65 a piece and the fulfillment of their dreams. From that first day Superman was introduced to the world, shady financial dealings have been a part of the hero’s lore; from deceptive contracts to back-stabbing to shady lawyers. The challenges to Superman’s creators provided the perfect example of the perils and villains that dominate a world without a hero. In their pursuit of happiness Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fell under the spell of an illusion of an ideal for which they had created a super-human protector – the American way.


  1. Superman: The Movie Ilya Salkind, 1978
  2. MAN OF STEEL (miniseries) #4 (August, 1986) John Byrne
  3. NEMO: The Classic Comics Library, issue #2, August 1983, pages 6-19
  4. Time Magazine: “Superman turns 50,” Volume 131 number 11, March 14 1988, Otto Friedrich
  5. Wikipedia, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson
  6. Time Magazine: “Milestones,” Volume 147, February 12 1996
  7. Brand Channel: “DC Comics super” April 21 2003, Brad Cook
  8. “Batman”
  9. Jerry Siegel, Press release 1975
  10. Siegel
  11. Albert Zugsmith’s Opium Dreams, C. Jerry Kutner
  12. TIMES ONLINE: “Behind the Mask,” June 11, 2005 Jones, Gerard.
  13. Coville, James “Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Superman”
  14. Wikipedia, Jerry Siegel
  15. Siegel

Return tomorrow for the conclusion of this series, which finds Siegel and Shuster finally recognized for the tremendous contributions made to this industry.

Related Articles:

Justice (Part 1): How Mitchell Siegel’s Murder Gave the World Its Greatest Hero

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