The Myth of Superman

Neil Gaiman, Adam Rogers, Wired, May 25, 2006
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Today's article in Wired tells a story about Superman. "His real-world origin is more humble: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, created him as a character in a newspaper comic strip. But the strip didn't sell, so they reformatted it and flipped it to a publisher hungry to buy content for one of the first comic books... It's a classic American success story on a couple of levels. Two outsiders create a new art form, and Superman 'an alien in a strange land' takes off."

Wired is reiterating the myth. The reality, though, is more illustrative. The story of 'Superman' probably begins with Nietzsche's Ubermensch and the name is popularized in Shaw's Man and Superman. Canadians know that Joe Shuster was born in Toronto and moved to Cleveland as a child. He and Siegel first introduced the super character as a villain in "the Reign of the Superman" in a role reminiscent of Nietzsche: "He determines what is good and what is evil, not allowing religion or society to determine these things for him."

To 'flip' (as Wired puts it) the comic in the 1930s (as today) meant giving it away. "A common practice at the time of Superman's first appearance was for the publisher to retain all rights to the character." The pair sued DC Comics twice, once in 1946 and again in 1978 in an attempt to recoup some of the hundreds of millions the publisher made from the idea. The settlements were paltry, less than they would have made as employees. "Joe Shuster, nearly blind and very bitter about his treatment from DC died in 1992 just short of his seventy-eighth birthday."

If it is, as Wired says, "a classic American success story," then it is a sad commentary on how the creative talent is treated in a world of publishers and copyrights. But in reality, the classic American success story is a myth.
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