Siegel, Jerome (“Jerry”)

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Siegel, Jerome (“Jerry”)

(b. 17 October 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio; d. 28 January 1996 in Los Angeles, California), comic book writer and editor best known for creating the character Superman, with foe Shuster.

Siegel was the youngest of six children born to Michael Siegel and Sarah Fine, Russian immigrants who managed a tailor shop and dry cleaning establishment. School did not come easily for Siegel, but working in a printing plant supplemented his family income and encouraged his fascination with writing. This interest led him to submit stories to pulp magazines under the pseudonym Bernard J. Kenton and to self-publish a science fiction fanzine, Cosmic Stories, at the age of fourteen. Siegel met Joe Shuster at Glenville High School in 1931, and their shared passion for comic strips led to the creation of their own. Siegel wrote and Shuster drew a Tarzan parody, Goober the Mighty, in their school newspaper, the Glenville Torch. They also self-published a fanzine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization (October 1932); “The Reign of the Superman” first appeared in the third issue, January 1933. The Superman character was originally a villain, but Siegel and Shuster soon recognized the character’s potential as a hero and, in 1934, tried to sell it as a comic book to Consolidated Book Publishers in Chicago, and later as a comic strip to the major newspaper syndicates, though without success. The pair produced other strips such as Steve Walsh, Snoopy and Smiley, Reggie Van Twerp, and Interplanetary Police, but they, too, generated little interest.

In 1935 Siegel and Shuster’s first professional work, a swashbuckling adventure called Henri Duval and a magic strip, Dr. Occult, appeared in New Fun Comics #6 (October 1935), published by National Allied Publishing, a firm that would become National Periodicals and ultimately DC Comics. Siegel and Shuster followed with Federal Men in National’s New Comics #2 (January 1936) and Slam Bradley for Detective Comics #1 (March 1937). The latter was the team’s first major success, becoming the first original comic book character to run in more than 100 continuous stories. Siegel drew additional income by writing for the Cleveland Shopping News and serving as editor/publisher of the Dental Review.

Then, in 1938 DC Comics published Superman in Action Comics #1. Their original strip came to the attention of Sheldon Mayer, editor/artist for the McClure syndicate. He showed it to chief editor M.C. Gaines, who rejected it as ill-suited to the newspapers but passed it on to Vincent Sullivan, editor of Action Comics. In a move that would have a profound effect on copyright and trademark issues, Siegel and Shuster signed the standard contract, turning over all rights to the character for $130 (roughly $10 a page for the first story), and worked exclusively for DC for the next ten years. The work gave the team financial independence. On 18 June 1939, Siegel married Bella Lifshitz; they later had a son, Michael.

On 16 January 1939, the McClure Syndicate debuted Superman in four newspapers and in November added a Sunday feature. By 1941 the strip was carried in over 300 newspapers with a circulation of over 20 million readers. Action Comics sold 900,000 issues per month in 1941, while the subsequent title, Superman, sold over 1,250,000; the comics together grossed $950,000 a year. Siegel and Shuster earned $500 per thirteen-page story plus a small percent of merchandising, sharing an estimated annual income of $150,000. Siegel alone developed other characters, such as the Spectre (or More Fun Comics #52 (February 1940), the Star Spangled Kid in Action Comics #40 (September 1941), and Robotman in Star Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942).

Siegel was drafted into the United States Army in 1943. He served as a private in the Thirty-Ninth Special Service Corps and as an editor for Stars and Stripes, but still managed to write Superman stories for DC. When he returned in 1945, he found that DC had published one of his characters, Superboy, in More Fun Comics #101 (January/February 1945) without the partnership’s permission. The team sued in April 1947 to regain the rights to the Superman/Superboy character, to cancel their newspaper contract with McClure, and to recover an estimated $5,000,000 worth of lost revenue. A $400,000 settlement was reached out of court, but with it Siegel and Shuster lost all claim on Superman and Superboy. Moreover, their names were taken off the strips and their DC contract was terminated.

Siegel and Shuster turned to Vincent Sullivan and Magazine Enterprises to create Funnyman, but it lasted only one year, and the Siegel and Shuster partnership ended. This troubling time also saw the end of Siegel’s first marriage. As the Superman lawsuit was pending, Siegel’s wife, Bella, was granted a divorce on 7 October 1948. Siegel had become reacquainted with Joan Kovacs who, under the professional name Joanne Carter, had posed as the original model for Lois Lane in 1937. On 14 October, Siegel and Carter were married in Cleveland; they had a daughter, Laura, and their marriage lasted until Siegel’s death.

In 1950 Siegel became the editor of the Ziff-Davis publishing house and scripted their most successful title, G.I. Joe. But another Siegel work, Kid Cowboy, and other titles were less profitable, and by 1953 he was once again freelancing, writing Joe Yank (1953–1954) at Standard Comics and Nature Boy (1956–1957) for Charlton. He was rehired by DC in 1959 to write stories for the Legion of Super-Heroes, Adam Strange, and Superman, but received no published credit. In the mid-1960s he went to Archie Comics and penned stories for Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom (both 1966–1967) for Charlton, and finished his comics career early in the 1970s working for Marvel on the X-Men, Human Torch, and Kazar. By 1975 he had moved to California, where he worked as a mailroom clerk and typist.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Siegel wrote frequently to DC, arguing that the copyright on the original Superman contract had run out in 1963 and that the rights should be reassigned to him and Shuster. When Warner Brothers, which purchased DC in 1968, began to plan a Superman feature film in 1977, Siegel took his protest to the media. Embarrassed by the resulting outcry and fearful of a negative impact on their production, Warner settled out of court, paying Siegel and Shuster $20,000 a year. Jerry Siegel died of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles at the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital on 28 January 1996. His remains were cremated.

Siegel’s outstanding contribution was in his early work with Shuster, creating and defining the superhero genre in American mass culture. Superman became the template for dozens of imitators in all realms of mass media, impacting the use of marketing and merchandising, and affecting radio, television, the movies, publishing, and even the stage. Siegel himself became an important figure in the struggle for writers’ and artists’ rights in graphic publishing; in part because of his efforts, marketing and creative rights for artists have drastically changed for the better.

The growing field of media studies research has produced several excellent examinations of Siegel and Shuster’s work. Les Daniels’s informative Superman: The Complete History (1998) is highly recommended, as are Ron Goulart’s two volumes, The Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990) and Over Fifty Years of American Comic Books (1991). See also Maurice Horn, The World Encyclopedia of Comics (1976); Mike Benton, The Comic Book in America (1989); and Paul Sassiene, The Comic Book (1994). DC Comics has also published several reprint volumes of Siegel and Shuster’s work that offer informative introductions, notably The Superman Archives (1989); The Golden Age of Superman (1993); Superman: The Daily Strips (1998); and Superman: The Sunday Classics (1998). An entry on Siegel also appeared in the 1944 Supplement to Who’s Who in America. An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Jan. 1996).

Patrick A. Trimble