It may not have been his intention, but Larry Tye’s new “biography” of Superman, SUPERMAN: THE HIGH-FLYING HISTORY OF AMERICA’S MOST ENDURING HERO, raises more questions than it answers.
Intended as an exploration of the cultural impact of Siegel and Shuster’s landmark creation while at the same covering its history in all media, HIGH-FLYING HERO winds up instead leaving its reader more morally confused than ever about the rights and wrongs of the storied battle over ownership of Superman, with none of the parties coming off as particularly sympathetic or having a moral high ground.
Tye extensively covers the early days of Superman’s publishing career, of the character’s creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of the beginnings of Detective Comics (later National Comics, and still later the more familiar DC) under the control of partners Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, and of the decades-long struggle between this quartet as Superman’s fortunes rose, as did the fortunes of all concerned, to varying degrees and at least for a while.
Much of the material regarding Donenfeld’s shady past was news to me, as was much of the insight into Liebowitz’s character. But what I came away with more than anything was a far less sympathetic perspective on Siegel and Shuster. Everyone has heard the famous $130 figure as the amount the two Clevelanders sold the rights to Superman for. What isn’t as often reported, is the amount Siegel and Shuster earned for their work on the Superman comic books, newspaper strips and other appearances in the decade between Superman’s first appearance and when they filed their lawsuit against National Comics in 1947: just over $400,000, which in adjusted dollars comes to around $5 million, split between the two. Where did that money go? While the answers aren’t spelled out explicitly, Tye seems to imply that it was high living and foolish spending.
The pattern repeats over the years, with Siegel and Shuster (usually spearheaded by Siegel, who comes across much worse than his partner) repeatedly returning to court despite repeated settlements that always seem to include a promise not to seek further legal action, which then gets ignored when the money runs out. You wouldn’t think it would be possible for a book about the creation of Superman to make Siegel and Shuster look like the bad guys, but Tye, whether he meant to or not, comes remarkably close. Siegel in particular is painted in a most unsympathetic light, obsessed with the grievances that life (primarily in the form of Donenfeld and Liebowitz) had piled against him, while at the same time completely abandoning his son from his first marriage, who emerges only at the very end of the book’s narrative, all but forgotten and mystified at his father’s seeming total lack of affection for him. Siegel’s second wife, Joanne, is also painted in a less than flattering light, returning to Warner Brothers again and again in Siegel’s final years and after his death, sending poison-pen letters to demand increases to the creators’ stipend, with the constant threat of bad publicity if Warner didn’t comply. The revelation that she had also been taking 20% of Joe Shuster’s annual stipend from Warner Brothers, to the tune of $1200 a month, for acting as his “agent” was also a disappointing one.
Donenfeld and Liebowitz take their licks as well, with Donenfeld coming across as a shameless huckster and publicity whore, while Liebowitz’s abusive treatment of Siegel as seen in passages from correspondence is absolutely shameful. Of all of them, the hapless Joe Shuster is the least unsympathetic, struggling with failing vision his entire life, going along with Siegel’s continued legal battles with National much to his own detriment, and at the end of his life frittering away an $80,000-a-year pension on compulsive spending and overgenerosity to everyone he knew.
As illuminating (if disappointing) as these elements of the book are, Tye fares much worse when covering Superman’s publishing history and cultural impact. It’s clear that Tye himself is no lifelong Superman fan and approached the subject fairly cold, accounting for the occasional error or omission here and there. Tye tries overly hard to make Superman rife with Jewish symbolism and meaning, yet fails to show any real proof of that intention from any of the feature’s creators. He struggles mightily to connect Superman’s publishing history with the cultural era surrounding it, but his attempts are so hamfisted that they fail to connect. For example, he credits the success of the ABC LOIS AND CLARK TV series on the fact that “America needed a hero in the fall of 1993,” due to events like the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco and the Rodney King trial, which was why American audiences gravitated to “fantasy” fare like MURPHY BROWN, ROSEANNE, GRACE UNDER FIRE and LOIS AND CLARK. Even if you buy the ridiculous argument, MURPHY BROWN and ROSEANNE are “fantasy”?
His coverage of SUPERMAN in other media is spotty at best. His best work comes in his discussion of the SUPERMAN radio show, serials and the 50s TV series, but he spends far too much time on the failed musical and LOIS AND CLARK, while the Warner Brothers Animation SUPERMAN series of the late ’90s garners barely a mention. He also devotes too much attention to the asinine notion of a “Superman curse.” To be fair, Tye does shed some new light on the Christopher Reeve films, particularly the somewhat shady business dealings of the Salkinds; it actually feels like there’s a whole book to be told there.
SUPERMAN: THE HIGH-FLYING HISTORY OF AMERICA’S MOST ENDURING HERO is far from the perfect biography of the Man of Steel. Longtime students of SUPERMAN history will definitely learn a few new things: they just may be things you didn’t want to know.
Scott Tipton just tried to watch SUPERMAN IV again. Don’t do it. If you have questions about Superman or comics in general, send them here.