Super Boys

“It’s a man, it’s a bird…” OK, stop right there. You know what this is about.

But maybe you don’t.

The beginning of this thorough biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, does indeed focus on their childhood, as the book’s title seems to suggest. But the rest of the book deals extensively with their adult lives, particularly with some unending legal issues concerning intellectual property. I refer to this book as a “thorough biography” because the author Brad Ricca has researched it so meticulously, complete with dozens of pages of endnotes documenting what he writes. In other words, it’s remarkably academic for a biography on such a pop-culture topic. Personally I found it fascinating, even though I couldn’t possible work through it in a single weekend — and “work” is the operative word here. Be warned!

Six years ago I read a related book, Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way, by Harry Brod; I’m surprised I didn’t blog about it at the time. I don’t want to do so right now, other than to point out some important similarities to Super Boys. The former is specifically about Superman — and note that its title says Superman Is Jewish?, not Is Superman Jewish? — while the latter is about Siegel and Shuster. So I checked out published reviews of Super Boys, just to see whether other readers were seeing what I was seeing. Oddly, they weren’t. To me, the main point of Super Boys is the strong set of parallels between Siegel and Shuster on the one hand and Superman on the other. From Superman’s original Hebrew-sounding name, Kal-El, to his exile from Krypton, to his commitment to tikkun olam (see ”truth, justice, and the American way”), we find a strong connection with Superman’s creators. “Write what you know,” we’re always told, and that’s what Shuster and Siegel did. A long sub-plot (or maybe it’s the main plot) revolves around their fight with large corporations that effectively stole their copyright from them — not literally, but in the sense that Woody Guthrie made explicit in Pretty Boy Floyd, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The connections are clear.

Superman was exiled from his home, where he could no longer live, and became a refugee in the U.S., just like Siegel and Shuster’s parents. He was welcomed by an American family and proceeded to fight crime and do good in other ways. Yes, he’s a fictional character, but he reminds us that the U.S. welcomes refugees and other immigrants. We do, don’t we?

Categories: Books, Life