With the departure of basketball star LeBron James earlier this summer, Cleveland has lost a superman. James was going to save the city as its native son, rescuing Cleveland from its economic woes. His image literally loomed over the city’s residents, on a multistory billboard that dominated downtown. Now, though, with James leaving the Cavaliers for Miami, Cleveland can focus on its first Superman—the one born on Krypton. In the past, the city has not given Clark Kent and his alter ego much attention, even though he was invented by two boys on Cleveland’s East Side. But that is changing, as the city is slowly beginning to recognize its role in creating the superhero who stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
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In 1933, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster dreamed up the comic strip hero with superpowers. Both boys were from immigrant Jewish families and lived down the street from each other in Glenville, then a booming, overwhelmingly Jewish, middle-class neighborhood, with kosher markets selling Yiddish newspapers on nearly every street corner. At the time, Cleveland was the fifth most populous American city, and a forward-thinking one at that, being the first to install public electricity and trolleys.
Siegel’s father first arrived in Cleveland as a sign painter, but he soon left that profession to open a haberdashery in a less prosperous part of town, only to die from a heart attack when robbers entered his store. According to Gerard Jones’ indispensible book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, the Siegel family was told that he had been shot in the chest. (Whether this incident was the inspiration for a bullet-proof superhero is unknown but seems plausible.)
Shuster’s family was not as wealthy as Siegel’s, so Joe, an obsessive artist, often sketched on tissue and other scrap paper. Both teenagers were awkward around girls, timid and obsessed with the pulp magazines of the day. According to Jones, Shuster would visit newsstands and pore over the magazines, particularly Amazing Stories, and then recreate them at home.
Judi Feniger, executive director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, notes that Siegel and Shuster both exemplify the Cleveland immigrant story, as children of parents who may not have spoken English. They had a “working-class ethic that is particularly Cleveland, and particularly Glenville,” she says. In 2008, the museum hosted the exhibit “Zap! Bow! Bam!” about the creation by Jewish immigrants of Superman and other comic book heroes.
Siegel and Shuster met in high school; Siegel was the ambitious one. After the two came up with the idea of a comic book hero, he took control of the venture and concocted a romantic origin story for Superman. One sleepless summer night, as retold by Jones in his book, Siegel was struck by an inspiration: “I hop out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two-hour intervals. [The next morning] “I dashed over to Joe’s place and showed it to him…. We just sat down and I worked straight through. I think I had brought in some sandwiches to eat, and we worked all day long.” By that night, the first weeks of comic strips were completed.
Whether or not this “Eureka!” tale is true (In Men of Tomorrow the author questions its accuracy), Siegel and Shuster did write the first Superman strips from their houses, and continued to do so even after they graduated from high school and became famous. (Siegel eventually moved out of the house in Glenville into one in the upscale neighborhood of University Heights, but began spending most of his time in New York, where he and Shuster eventually relocated.)
In 1938, they sold their hero to DC Comics for $130, which took the rights to the character. Superman soon became one of the best-known characters in the world, but Siegel and Shuster received no royalties or benefits from their creation. Unable to support themselves with their comic, they took other jobs; by the 1970s, Siegel was working as a mail clerk. In 1975 a lawsuit they filed against DC Comics was settled in their favor, giving Siegel and Shuster both money—$20,000 a year each for the rest of their lives—and credit. Now the phrase “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” appears on all Superman-related products.
Shortly after Siegel and Shuster died in the 1990s, a similar struggle for recognition of Superman’s creators took place in Cleveland. Michael Sangiacomo, a comic books critic and a reporter for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer, called on the city to honor Siegel and Shuster. Nothing came of it. Every few years he would trot the idea out again, writing an article calling on Cleveland to honor the pair. “I pointed out that the Siegel house was here [the home of Joe Shuster had been torn down], and that is the home of Superman, and the city should do something.”
In his will, Siegel asked that half of his ashes be donated to the city of Cleveland; his widow also wanted to donate some of his belongings to the city, such as his typewriter. She visited Cleveland to find a home for them, and Sangiacomo escorted her around town. “Nobody wanted them,” he remembers. “It was a low point. I felt horrible for her and mad at the city.”