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Friday, February 27, 2015

Super Art

Superman 2015                                
The New Superman comic book.
We got our first TV set when I was in second grade, 1952. I was seven at the time. Every weekday after school, I would rush home to be in front of it by four o'clock when my favorite show came one--The Adventures of Superman. I grew up with Superman. I've grown old with Superman. And, while he's changed a good deal over the past sixty years, he hasn't seemed to age at all. Actually, the "Man of Steel" was already approaching middle age by the time I came to know him. He was born in 1933, his "parents" were Jerry Siegel (the writer) and Joe Shuster (the artist). As the photo below depicting the original character concept dating from about that time, is compared to his newest incarnation (right) it's plain the original super-hero has lost a little weight, updated his costume (ridding himself of the silly red briefs), and refined his logo. Otherwise, he's not changed much over the years.
Joe Shuster (left) and Jerry Siegel (right) with "birth" drawing of Superman.
Some might find this hard to believe, but the original Super Man was two words; and he was no hero. He was, in fact, a science fiction villain (below). Jerry Siegel (above, right) and Joe Shuster (above, left) were students at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, when they first conceived a Super Man. He was a bald telepathic villain bent on world domination. The character first appeared in "The Reign of the Super man", a short story from Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3 (below), in 1933. Later, they "reimagined" their creation, as a sort of combination of Samson and Hercules, turning him into a recognizable facsimile of the Superman we know and love today.
The first Super Man, 1933.
Worth up to  $3-million today.
The "new" Superman they modeled after Douglas Fairbanks Jr. while Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, was a composite name derived from movie actors Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. The creative pair originally intended their Superman to be a daily comic strip. They offered it to two publishers, both of whom turned it down. Then, they worked out a deal with a new company, called Action Comics, who wanted to use the superhero in a comic "book." Siegel and Shuster were asked to reformat their work to eight panels per page. However the pair ignored the request, laying out each two-page spread to suit themselves and the story line. They thus evolved a freedom of expression new to comic art. Action Comics No. 1 (left) debuted in June, 1938. A year later, Superman got his own comic book series (below, right).

Superman comes to TV: George Reeves as Superman, with Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane in the first season. Noel Neill stepping into the role in the second season (1953). In the back row are John Hamilton as Perry White and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen.
Superman No. 1, 1939.
The Superman I first came to idolize was several layers removed from the 1930s comic books. By 1940, Superman had made it to The Mutual Broadcasting Company's radio, show, The Adventures of Superman, where the series lasted for more than ten years. It was on the radio that Kryptonite was born as a means temporarily incapacitate our hero in order to allow the voice of Superman, Bud Collyer, some vacation time. There was also a B-movie in 1951 titled Superman and the Mole Men. It was intended to be the first episode of a movie theater serial, but the series was never produced, in that it was seen as more appropriate for the brand new medium of television. It was a smart decision. The Superman TV series, sponsored by Kellogg Cereals ran from 1952-1958 (104 episodes). Since then there have been numerous TV revivals, an animated series, a stage play, four movies (and one more in the works, not to mention dozens of parodies.

George Reeves' TV Clark Kent
The comic book Clark Kent
Quite apart from the radio, TV, and movie storylines, the comic book plots have often taken some pretty wild (not to mention illogical) turns. In one issue Superman fought Muhammad Ali. They even killed off Superman in one controversial issue. Despite all the wild and crazy plot devices promulgated over the life of the comic book series, one of the most fascinating, realistic, and humanizing features of Superman is Clark Kent. Bland and bumbling as he is, he makes Superman believable. What's unbelievable is that a simple pair of glasses have, for nearly eighty years, kept all of Clark's friends and colleagues from identifying him as Superman.

Even Lois Lane (no relation) and Jimmy Olsen briefly landed their own comic books.
And what about the two creative geniuses who gave birth to the Man of Steel? They became rich and famous, right? They lived happily ever after on the royalties derived from their high school brain child, right? Unfortunately, no. Early on, about 1939, not fully realizing what a goldmine they'd created, Siegel and Shuster sold the Superman copyright to Action Comics for a mere $130. As part of the deal, Action Comics would hire them for $75,000 each per year (an enormous sum in the 1940s) to write and draw Superman. The first hitch in that deal came in 1943 when Jerry Siegel got drafted into the army, thus reducing his presence in the enterprise. Meanwhile, National Comics (who'd bought out Action Comics) was making millions from the series. Siegel and Shuster renegotiated their salaries but their relationship to the company remained raw. Eventually, they sued to get the 1938-39 contract declared null and void. They lost, and not only that, the company fired them.

And the super money just keeps rolling in...
In one form or another, Siegel and Shuster spent most of the rest of their lives in litigation. Sometimes they won, most of the time they didn't. Joe Shuster died in 1992, Jerry Siegel in 1996. To this very day, their heirs are still involved in legal battles trying to claim some of the enormous riches Superman has generated from comic book, TV, movie, video games, and merchandising deals. The fact that copyright laws have changed (and keep changing) have further complicated court proceedings. The moral in all this? Artists, be careful where you write your name.


Relive the memories:

Action, Adventure, Mystery!

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