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Arts & Entertainment

How Superman became America’s real superhero

Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Larry Tye’s book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero”

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Before he was Clark Kent, the adopted son of Kansas farmers,  he was Kal-El, born on the doomed planet of Krypton. And before they were the creators of the iconic character Superman, Jason Siegel and Joe Shuster were a couple of awkward teens from Cleveland looking for a hero to revere or even to become.

Larry Tye explores the life of Superman and those who helped create him in Tye’s book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

"It was a hard enough sell that it took them five years to finally find a publisher," said Tye on AirTalk. "When they did, they sold the rights to Superman for a grand total to be divided between the two of them of $130, which is a sign of just how desperate they were."

The book takes a look at the cultural history of Superman over the decades—from battling Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to his encounters with the Ku Klux Klan—and simultaneously chronicles the struggles that the superhero’s creators endured. 

Siegel had endured abuse at the hands of bullies throughout his childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, and he initially imagined his Superman character (first known as The Super-Man) to be a mean-spirited fighter of bullies. After all, there's nothing a kid wants more than to be able to fly away in those moments of bullying. 

"Jerry couldn't fly away, but what he could do is go to bed every night with a pencil and paper and dream up what in his mind was the perfect hero to fight back against these bullies on the playground," said Tye.  The character that he came up with initially … was not a very nice guy, it was just the kind of person that a teenager looking to fight back against bullies would dream up."

That all changed after a tragic incident that happened just after his 17th birthday. Siegel's father, Michael, owned a haberdashery, and one day a group of men came in, try on suits and walk out without paying. The elder Siegel goes to chase after the thieves and just as he comes to the threshold of the outside, he collapses dead of a massive heart attack. 

"Not long after that, Jerry, who was the youngest of 6 kids, went to bed with his pencil and paper and he redesigned his Superman hero," said Tye. "The first scene of Superman that was ever drawn was Superman winging in to rescue a guy, who looked a whole lot like Michael Siegel, who was being robbed."

Though the first Superman comic came out nearly 75 years ago, Tye’s book attempts to illustrate how the Man of Steel became a timeless American icon.

Is there any American superhero that compares to Superman? What are your memories of Superman throughout the years? How did the comics or books influence you?

Larry Tye, author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero”

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