Eighty years ago, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the iconic comic book character Superman, but it took several years of rejections before they finally sold him to Detective Comics Inc. in 1938. The distinctive superhero made his first appearance in the comics in June 1938 — and since then has appeared in radio dramas, TV shows, video games, newspaper comics and countless films.
How has the Man of Steel evolved over the past eight decades — and what has made him so popular? Those were the questions that intrigued biographer Larry Tye, whose book Superman tells the story of the red-and-blue-clad icon who Tye calls "the longest-lived American hero of the last century."
"Americans embrace Superman partly because he captured so many things that are part of our psyche and part of our sense of ourselves," Tye tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "... He gave us an unwavering sense of right and wrong. He sweeps in to solve our problems. He was a bit like a Messiah in that he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. And unlike all these other heroes — the dark Batman or the fraught Spider-Man — Superman was out there, always like a clear sign of light."
The story of Superman was created by Jerry Siegel, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland and was often teased as a child.
"Every day, when he'd go out on the school playground, kids would yell at him, 'Siegel, Siegel, birds of an eagle,' " says Tye. "And he wished he would fly away. The only thing he could do was to escape into a world of fantasy and create his own kind of characters that could fly away."
Siegel's earliest comics involved a character called The Super-Man, who was a bad guy trying to control the world. Later on, he dropped both the word 'the' and the hyphen — and changed Superman into a heroic character trying to save others from bad guys.
"He stayed up with a pencil and paper that he had brought to bed with him, and suddenly, in the course of the night, this vision of a 'hero of light' came to him. And he jotted down the story, and then next morning, he ran down the street to his neighbor Joe Shuster's house ... and he said, 'Here's my story. Make it work on paper. Draw something.' "
Shuster drew precisely the kind of hero that Siegel had in mind: a bold, chiseled superhero dressed in blue, yellow and red. After a self-titled series was launched in 1939, Siegel wrote all of the Superman stories and Shuster drew all of the art. But Shuster's eyesight soon began to deteriorate, and other artists stepped in to help with the artwork.
Tye says Shuster's poor eyesight did come in handy: It provided Superman's creators with a viable story for why Superman never served in World War II. (They thought having Superman serve — with his actual superpowers — would undermine the strengths and sacrifices of the actual troops.)
"They had Superman in the disguise of Clark Kent taking his eye test when he was about to be inducted into the Army, only he failed the eye test," says Tye. "And how could he fail the eye test? Well, he was using his X-ray vision not to read the screen in front of him, but to read the screen two examining rooms away. So what happened was, he ended up not being inducted into the Army but doing just what DC Comics wanted him to do: He stayed home, he rallied everybody against saboteurs on the home front, he was part of the bond drive — but he was never there undermining the troops."
And yet, says Tye, most of the ration kits shipped overseas during World War II contained a copy of Superman's comic book.
On why people love Superman
"He was the story of a foundling, a sole survivor of a doomed planet, and for the same reasons we love Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist, we love Superman. There was this brilliant love triangle connecting Clark and Lois and Superman, and that had a side for everyone, whether you're the boy who can't get the girl, the girl pursued by the wrong boy or the conflicted hero. And this wasn't just any hero, but he had the very powers that I would have loved to have had."
On how Superman was different from other superheroes
"While most heroes were a mortal disguising himself as a superhero — the way Peter Parker did with Spiderman or the way Bruce Wayne did with Batman — Superman was the hero, and the disguise was Clark Kent. And what that meant was that he was really comfortable doing all the heroic things that he did because that was who he really was. I think his disguise as Clark Kent was meant to suggest that he was reaching out to us and trying to understand humanity and trying to be as human as he could."
On why Superman might be Jewish
"Jerry called his character, as he came down from Krypton, 'Kal-El' which [means] 'a vessel of God' in Hebrew. So we have this character coming down, being put down in space by his parents to try and save him, and being rescued by two gentiles in the middle of the Midwest somewhere in America. If that's not the story of Exodus and Moses, then I've never seen that story told well. This was a time when we were on the eve of World War II, and the Nazis were on the brink of coming to power in Germany. ... I think this idea of this baby being rescued was a sense of what was going on in Europe, where Jerry's ancestors had come from. ... And it's a rule of thumb that when a name ends in m-a-n, the person whose name that is, they're either a superhero or Jewish or both."
On how Superman changed once he became a big business
"The editors in New York over time started to exercise their editorial control. They saw this as both a character and a business. They would go down to the level of dictating just what his forelocks looked like. They could be too curly. His arms should be shorter and less 'ape-like.' And Joe should get rid of his hero's 'nice fat bottom.' His editor told him that he worried that that made Superman look too 'la-dee-dah.' And they were really concerned about the image of the character. They had a sense of what Lois [Lane] should be. She should be attractive but not too attractive, that Superman ought to make sure that he never lost his manliness and that the character ought to look like what they were getting a read on, on what would sell the best."
On the editors worrying about Superman's appearance
"They were worried that he looked too gay. This was an era and these were publishers that weren't willing to take chances with anything that they saw as risky, and certainly not with their No. 1 money-making character Superman."
On the early Superman TV series starring George Reeves
"As ridiculous as the fight scenes looked, what topped them was the flying scenes. What he was doing was jumping off a small trampoline and going up into the air as high as he could go, trying to jump through a window. And then they would have him up in this crazy contraption where he was being held above the ground. And once it actually dropped him, it looked about as much as flying as the early movie serials where they have cartoon characters flying. The flight scenes were incredibly ridiculous, and yet we bought it all because we wanted to."
On the 'Superman curse'
"The Superman curse suggests that a couple of things happen to people who play Superman or who are involved with the character at all. The curse actually started with George Reeves as a concept, but it goes back to Jerry and Joe signing away the rights [to Superman] for $130. It picks up with the filming of the 1978 big Christopher Reeve movie where people were hurt on the set: People had accidents, people fell. All things seemed to happen to people who played Superman, including the tragic accident where Christopher Reeve falls off a horse and essentially severs his spinal cord. And it was partly a sense that bad luck happened to these people, and it was partially a sense that anyone who was cast as Superman was typecast and couldn't go on and enjoy a career later on — but it became known as the Superman curse."
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Golly, It's Superman.
GROSS: Golly is right, a guy in tights and a cape who can fly, see through things with his X-ray vision and overcome evildoers with his super-strength. Who created the Man of Steel, and how has he managed to find a place in American culture since his first comic book adventure in 1938? The answers to that and more are in Larry Tye's new book "Superman."
It's a history of the character and the stories of the artists, illustrators, publishers and performers who gave him life, helped him adapt to changing times, and fought over ownership and money. Tye is a journalist who wrote a bestselling biography of pitcher Satchel Paige.
Superman has been brought to life in comics, cartoons, radio, TV and movies. Let's start with a scene from the first of the 104 TV episodes. Superman has just rescued a man who was hanging from a rope on a blimp about to fall to his death. The man told the story of his rescue to Clark Kent. In this scene, Kent, reporter Lois Lane and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen are in the office of Perry White, the editor of the newspaper The Daily Planet. The rescued man speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN")
UNDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Just like I told Mr. Kent, there I was hanging there for what seemed like years.
JOHN HAMILTON: (As Perry White) Then your hand slipped from the rope.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) A thousand feet up. I knew I was a goner.
HAMILTON: (As White) That's enough pictures, Joe. Get him on metal for the next edition.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Well, then I thought I must have flipped my lid from being so scared because right then, this guy in a red and blue costume comes flying through the air and catches me.
HAMILTON: (As White) It's ridiculous. There can't be any such thing as a man who flies through the air.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Well, I know it, Mr. White, but it happened. I'm here, ain't I, and I'm alive.
NOEL NEILL: (As Lois Lane) It happened, all right, chief. Just as we got to the airport, we saw something streak across the sky and catch this man.
JACK LARSON: (As Jimmy Olsen) We thought we were crazy, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) My brain was whizzing around in my head, and the next thing I knew, this super guy landed me behind one of the hangars like on a featherbed. Then I made like a schoolgirl and passed out, fainted.
HAMILTON: (As White) And when you came to, Kent was there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Yes, sir, and he hustled me around by the side of the administration building and got me into a cab. Then we came straight here.
HAMILTON: (As White) Pretty smart, Kent. We've got a clean beat over every other paper in town.
GEORGE REEVES: (As Clark Kent) Does that mean I get the job, sir?
HAMILTON: (As White) There's your answer, son.
REEVES: (As Kent) Oh thank you, Mr. White. Thanks a million.
GROSS: And at this point, Perry White has just shown Clark Kent that his byline is on the front-page story about Superman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN")
NEILL: (As Lane) There are one or two things I haven't got quite straight in my mind, Mr. Kent. For example, how did you leave here later than we did and beat us to the airport?
REEVES: (As Kent) Is that all?
NEILL: (As Lane) Not quite. How come you found the man behind the hangar at just the right moment to get his exclusive story when every top experienced reporter in the business was breaking his neck...
REEVES: (As Kent) Or her neck...
NEILL: (As Lane) Or her neck to get that story?
REEVES: (As Kent) Maybe I'm a super man, Ms. Lane.
GROSS: Larry Tye, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a book about Superman?
LARRY TYE: There were two reasons. The serious reason was because I was intrigued by why America embraces the heroes that it does. I had written about Satchel Paige. I had written about the ultimate manipulator of images, Edward L. Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, and I thought what better way to understand how we embrace the heroes that we do than to look at a guy that I think is the longest-lived American hero of the last century, Superman.
So he was a lens into not just what made him so special but what made us love him and love heroes. So that was the serious answer. The real reason that I wanted to write this book was because I wanted to be 10 years old again, and for the last two years, I have felt that way working on "Superman."
GROSS: So in answer to your first question, what's the answer, do you think? What do you think you learned about why Americans embraced the character Superman?
TYE: It's partly that he captured so many things that are part of our psyche and part of our sense of ourselves. He was the story of a foundling, a sole survivor of a doomed planet, and for the same reasons we love Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist, we love Superman.
There was this brilliant love triangle connecting Clark and Lois and Superman, and that had a side for everyone, whether you're the boy who can't get the girl, the girl pursued by the wrong boy or the conflicted hero. And a lot of the powers that we sort of take for granted today, when we go to the movies and we see all these superheroes, like the ability to fly and like the X-ray vision and all these things, they were really special and unique at the time that Superman had them, which was in the 1930s, when there really weren't any superheroes around.
But what I think was really the most important thing was that he gave us an unwavering sense of right and wrong. He was a bit like John Wayne, in that he sweeps in to solve our problems. He was a bit like a messiah, that he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. And unlike all these other heroes - the dark Batman or the fraught Spiderman - Superman was out there always as the clear sign of light.
And while it may sort of look clunky and overly familiar, it was really reassuring to have him there.
GROSS: This story of Superman was created by Jerry Siegel, who was born in 1914, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland. And the way you tell it, the creation of Superman is connected to a most unfortunate incident when he was in first grade, when he asked his teacher for a pass to the bathroom and didn't get one. What happened, and how do you think that relates to the story of Superman?
TYE: What happened was, unfortunately he ended up peeing in his pants, and this was one of many humiliations that he suffered when he was in grammar school and throughout the years of grade school and high school. And he told us about these in a memoir that was never published, that was left behind, that just became available when I was doing the book because of a lawsuit that his heirs filed against the owners of Superman.
But basically they showed a tormented little boy who, every day when he'd go out on the school playground, kids would yell at him: Siegel, Siegel, birds of an eagle, and that he wished he would fly away. He really felt like the girls were watching him being tormented, and there was nothing he could do, and the only thing he could do was to escape into a world of fantasy and create his own kind of characters that could fly away.
GROSS: So was he writing stories, even when he was a kid?
TYE: He was writing stories when he was a kid, and the initial stories that he wrote were of a bad guy who was trying to actually control the world, and it was a character called The Super - S-U-P-E-R - hyphen - M-A-N. And over the years, the story evolved, and it evolved particularly after something really traumatic happened in Jerry's own life.
He was the youngest of six kids of an immigrant - a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, and his dad ran a used clothing store in a seedy part of Cleveland, Ohio. And one day, three guys came into that store, they tried on a suit, and they walked out without paying for it. And as his dad, Michael Siegel, tried to stop them, he had a heart attack, and Jerry's dad dropped dead there. He didn't even make it to the hospital.
And so suddenly this little boy's hero and mentor, his dad, was gone. And this sort of gave him a clarity that the character that had had a hyphen and was a bad guy suddenly dropped the hyphen and dropped the bad-guy routine, and in the first drawing that we have of that initial rendition of Superman as hero, we have a Superman who was coming in trying to save a guy who looks suspiciously like Jerry's dad, who was being attacked by robbers.
And this hero of Jerry's did what Jerry couldn't do: He saved his dad.
GROSS: And in that first story that you're talking about, did Jerry Siegel do the illustration himself?
TYE: He didn't. He actually, as he told the story in his memoir, he stayed up late at night with a pencil and paper that he had brought to bed with him, and suddenly, in the course of the night, this vision of the hero of light came to him. And he jotted down the story. And the next morning, he ran down the street to his neighbor's house, to Joe Shuster - who like him grew up in this Jewish, poor neighborhood in Glenville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
And he ran down to Jerry's, and he said: Here's my story. Make it work on paper. Draw something. And Joe drew precisely the kind of hero that Jerry had been envisioning in his nighttime pencil-and-paper rendering of this hero.
GROSS: So Superman's creators, the writer Jerry Siegel, the illustrator Joe Shuster, were both Jewish. And you see Superman as Jewish in some ways. What are those ways?
TYE: Those ways start with the idea, the hint that Jerry gave us, by calling his character, as he came down from Krypton, his Kryptonian name was Kal-El, K-A-L - hyphen - E-L, which to any of your listeners who speak Hebrew, they understand that the rough translation is a vessel of God.
And so we have this character coming down, being put out in space by his parents to try and save him and being rescued by two gentiles in the middle of the Midwest, somewhere in America, named Martha and John Kent. And if that's not the story of Exodus and Moses, then I've never seen that story told well.
It was also, I think, the fact that this was a time when we were on the eve of World War II, and the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. And I think what was going on in terms of the explosion of his home world and the idea of this baby being rescued was a sense of what was going on in Europe in terms of the explosion of the world that Jerry's ancestors had come from.
And Jerry, like his character, came to America, I think, with a certain amount of survivor's guilt, and that was something that plagued Superman throughout his history.
But if there was one last clue that we had in terms of what Jerry was giving us as, I think, a playful hint on Superman's ethnic origins, it's a rule of thumb that when a name ends in man, M-A-N, that the person whose name that is, is either a superhero or Jewish or both.
GROSS: That's so true. No, I know. I know, it would be like Superman.
GROSS: If it was a Jewish name, or Batman.
GROSS: Yeah, that's so true. Is there anything in the unpublished memoir that the creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, wrote that corroborates your Jewish backstory?
TYE: There isn't. Over the years...
GROSS: Oh wait, my favorite, but the way, is Spiderman.
TYE: Spiderman, exactly, Spiderman absolutely, exactly.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
TYE: There is nothing in his memoir that specifically corroborates that. There were just sort of hints over the years. When I went back and tried to understand his own ethnic origins, and it turned out that on the one hand he was a very assimilated Jew, and his parents were not religious. And yet their sense of who they were - they were immigrants from Eastern Europe, they were incredibly bound up in that identity.
And everything that Jerry did in later life suggested that his Jewish roots really mattered. His last character, the guy that he tried to sort of bring to life after Superman, was a guy named Funnyman, whose named ended in man, who looked a whole lot like Danny Kaye and who was clearly a Jewish hero who had a great sense of humor and was much more overtly Jewish than Superman was.
And I think that he saw Superman as the assimilated Jew, and he saw his later character Funnyman as a Jew that could be more free to sort of express his Jewish origins.
GROSS: The illustrator of Superman, Joe Shuster, had eye troubles. Did that relate to the X-ray vision?
TYE: I think it related to the X-ray vision in that Joe was super-sensitive from a really young age to just how difficult his eye troubles were, that he wore glasses that were like those old Coke-bottle glasses, incredibly thick and really difficult for him to see anything. And over the years, his sight got worse, and I think he was particularly sensitive to just how important eyesight was to anybody, to an illustrator and certainly to a superhero.
So that probably had something to do not just with Superman's X-ray vision but with the scheme they came up with, the creators of Superman came up with to explain why he never fought in World War II.
GROSS: Oh, I'm so - tell that story. That's my favorite story, I think, yeah.
TYE: Everybody decided at DC Comics that you had to have Superman involved with what was going on in Europe in the 1930s and the 1940s. And he was taking on Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin long before America went to war. But when it actually came to America going to war, they on the one hand knew that he had to be involved, and yet they knew if he got involved that he could single-handedly win the war, and they felt that would somehow undermine the strength and the qualities and the sacrifices of actual troops.
So what they did is they came up with a brilliant scheme. They had Superman in the disguise of Clark Kent taking his eye test when he was about to be inducted into the Army, only he failed the eye test. And how could he fail the eye test? Well, he was using his X-ray vision not to read the screen in front of him, but to read the screen two examining rooms away.
And so what happened was, he ended up not being inducted into the Army but doing just what DC Comics would have had him to do, which was he stayed home, he rallied everybody against saboteurs on the home front. When they were having a drive to raise newspapers and metal and collect all these things that were important to the war effort, Superman was out in front. He was part of the bond drive when the government was trying to sell bonds. But he was never there undermining the troops.
And yet in every ration kit that they got overseas, the troops also got a copy generally of the Superman comic book.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. His new book is called "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the history of Superman. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So Superman was initially published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. What kind of magazines did he publish?
TYE: He was trying to reinvent the pulp fiction of his era - the penny pulps of his era - in a new form of original comic books. There had been comic books around, and they were just compilations of what had been in the newspaper comic strips. And this was a guy who had a great vision.
He was a guy, he was a major in the cavalry. He had been a hero in early escapades in American adventures overseas. And he wanted to bring his sense of adventure and this wonderful sense of what was going on in terms of original stories in the comic strips to the comic books.
And so one of the first things he did was he signed up these two guys who couldn't find a publisher anywhere, named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. And he published a number of their early stories, and he told them that he was intrigued and would someday publish Superman.
And the good news for them was that they got excited, and they felt they would have a home finally for their Superman story. The bad news was that he went into bankruptcy before he could actually do that publication.
GROSS: And his operation was taken over by two people you describe as sharks. Who were they, and how did they take over his operation?
TYE: They were two guys named Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, and they were guys who had grown up in the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side of New York, grown up in a really hardscrabble life, and they were making their money, essentially, by pornography.
Only pornography came with some threats of a crackdown, and he decided that instead of just reaching this adult audience that he was trying to reach with his pornography, maybe he could do something by trying to do something with this new format of comic books.
And so he and his buddy Jack Liebowitz, who had come from a union background and came in with some quite leftist politics, they took over Major Wheeler-Nicholson's publication, his whole publishing operation. Major Nicholson's heirs say that Donenfeld and Liebowitz essentially swindled him out of his legitimate publishing business. They say that he was just a bad businessman, and they picked up the pieces after he couldn't hold it together.
And I think the truth is probably somewhere in between then, but these clearly were sharks, and they clearly recognized just how good Superman could be, and so they, instead of the major, were the first ones to publish Jerry's Superman story.
GROSS: And they made a deal with the creators of Superman that seemed like a good one to the creators of Superman at the time. It was a terrible deal. What was the deal?
TYE: It was, in a way, the original sin in the comic book world and maybe the art world generally. It was a deal where they bought, forever, all the rights to Superman for the grand total of $130, split equally between Jerry and Joe. The good news to the boys were these were teenagers who had been trying to sell this for years, and they finally had a buyer, and they knew that they would be hired, and they'd be the writer and the illustrator of it, but they didn't quite understand the rights they were signing away.
GROSS: What were the long-term implications for their, for Jerry and Joe's finances?
TYE: Well, the good news for them, only they never saw it this way, was that they did have jobs. As long as they wanted to keep drawing and writing this character, they were making the equivalent, in today's terms, of starting out about $100,000, and it ended up being considerably more than that every year for the work that they were doing.
And this let them buy homes, live a kind of lifestyle that they were never used to. They moved back and forth between New York and Cleveland, and they were living the high life. They had national publications writing about them, and it was really quite a world of celebrity.
The bad news to them, and what they continually dwelled on over the years was, that they didn't own their character, which meant they didn't have editorial control, that Jack and Harry could tell them the way they wanted Superman to look, what powers were OK and what weren't, and most importantly, most of the royalties, whether it was radio and cartoons, or movie serials and actually movies, the profits went to Harry and Jack and later, to Time Warner.
GROSS: And the creators of Superman sued and didn't win.
TYE: They sued several times and didn't win several times, and their heirs have a lawsuit now that's pending.
GROSS: OK. So once Superman became big business, the plots of each story had to be sent to New York for vetting. Why don't you describe some of the things they insisted on in terms of how Superman looked and how Lois Lane looked.
TYE: So the editors in New York over time started to exercise their editorial control. They actually - their operation as sort of a symbol of what it representing they called Superman Incorporated. And they saw this as both a character and a business. And they would go down to the level of dictating just what his forelocks looked like: They couldn't be too curly.
His arms should be shorter and, as they put it, less ape-like. And Joe should get rid of his hero's, as his editor told him, nice fat bottom, that he worried that that made Superman look too la-dee-dah. And they were really concerned about the image of the character.
They had a sense of what Lois ought to be, and that she ought to be, on the one hand attractive, but not too attractive. Superman ought to make sure that he never lost his manliness and that the character ought to look like what they were getting a read on, in terms of what would sell the best.
GROSS: Well, you say in that paragraph, too, that the editors were basically worried Superman looked too gay.
TYE: He - absolutely. They were worried that he looked too gay and that they were - this was an era and these were publishers who weren't about to take any chances with anything that they saw as risky and certainly not with their number one money-making character, Superman.
GROSS: Larry Tye will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Superman." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Larry Tye, the author of the new book "Superman." It's the history of the superhero and the stories of the writers, illustrators, publishers and performers who gave him life. The creators of Superman, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, signed away all rights to the character for $130 to the publisher of "Action Comics." So when Superman was first published in 1938, his creators lost editorial control of their own character.
So since we were just talking about some of the editorial standards for drawing Superman, let's talk about more standards that were forced onto the creators of Superman. And I'm talking about the Comic Book Code, which was in effect in 1955. This was a code to prevent sexuality and violence in the comics, to prevent comics from being a bad influence on the young people who read them. So what are some of the things the code didn't allow Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to do in "Superman"?
TYE: So we're back in the era of the 1950s and the same time that there was the Joe McCarthy red scare in America, there was also what became known as the comic book scare, and it was outfits like the Parent Teachers Association and various clergy and a number of psychologists coming along and saying that comics were bad for the kids. And they had an incredibly strict code.
And among the things that they couldn't put in comic books were there were no vampires or werewolves. There were no references to physical afflictions or exaggerations of the female anatomy. No illicit sex. No ads for liquor, tobacco, fireworks or weapons. It was basically a kind of self-policing that had editors and writers worrying that anything that they did could be subject to having their comic book taken off the racks.
And so they went even further than the code did, and all through the Comic Code period, on the one hand they toned him down a bit, but on the other hand, they maintained Superman as a vibrant, live, popular character throughout the 1950s.
GROSS: So when the publishers, Harry and Jack, adopted their own standards of editorial purity, some of the standards that you describe in the book really surprised me, like the inclusion of females was discouraged.
TYE: It was extraordinary. They actually publish their own set of guidelines, which at times seemed to go further than the code. They said things like having females in there all was something to be avoided, because that might get to the issue of some contact between the male and the females. Their guidelines said heroes should act within the law and for the law. And so Superman, who had started out as this wonderful, New Deal social crusader taking on everybody from slum lords to wife beaters, he suddenly became much more of a defender of the status quo.
GROSS: OK, another editorial guideline for Superman: the use of chains, whips or other such devices were forbidden. Anything having a sexual or sadistic implication was forbidden. Were there sexual and sadistic implications in "Superman" before this code was instituted, and were chains and whips used in such a way that they had sexual or sadistic implications?
TYE: There were no chains. There were no whips, and there was no sex in "Superman" before the editorial standards. And all of this comic book scare came into place, and there was none afterwards. Superman, ironically, was the most Dudley Do-Right character of anybody in the comic books. He never killed his enemies. He was much less violent than any of these other superheroes out there, and yet he became even more sanitized during this era.
GROSS: One of the things that's funny about all of this is at the same time that the publishers are instituting an editorial policy that's stricter than the Comic Book Code, they're trying to get distribution rights to "Playboy" magazine.
TYE: Harry and Jack were not just trying to get the rights to distribute "Playboy" magazine - and they did get those rights, and they very successfully distributed it - but these were two old pornographers who, during this era, had some of their old pornography magazines still going. So these are two guys who are giving us a sanitized Superman that can't have women in the comic book, and yet they're veteran pornographers.
GROSS: Lois Lane was still allowed to be in it, right?
TYE: She could stay in it as long as she didn't look too sexy.
GROSS: And she often did not. I mean, those, like, suits that she wore were not exactly fetish attire.
TYE: She - sexy's not a word you would have associated with her in that era.
GROSS: Another irony here is that Joe Shuster, the illustrator of "Superman," the co-creator, he had a secret life that was recently revealed, drawing S&M fetish art for fetish magazines.
TYE: What happened was a guy named Craig Yoe was at some sort of a yard sale, and he discovered all these old fetish magazines. And he looked at them and he said, God, those characters, like, the people in - with the whips and chains and being tied up look a whole lot like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane and even Superman. And he thought, this is really strange. They looked like the early Joe Shuster drawings. And what happened was he ended up writing an entire book about this. And I've talked to lots of experts who know Joe's drawing better than anybody, and they confirm that those, in fact, were Joe's drawings.
And there are two theories why he did what he did. One is that he was so desperate for money, that his combination of bad eyesight, bad hands and no job after all the lawsuits, that he needed money and that a neighbor of his in New York was a pornographer and got him to do these drawings, and that it was done under some sort of duress - at least financial duress. The other theory is that he just liked this stuff and that this was an excuse to do it, and that maybe he'd been doing it all along, and we just never saw it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. We're talking about his new book "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about Superman. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. We're talking about his new book "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero."
Well, let's skip ahead to the TV series, which starred George Reeves. I think one of the most difficult things you have to contend with once Superman goes to television is making a real human being, a real man, look not ridiculous wearing the cape and the tights and the briefs. You know, it's one thing in an illustration. It's another thing on the radio, where you're not even seeing it. But how did they deal with how ridiculous it could look, as opposed to, you know, heroic?
TYE: They dealt with it first and most importantly by finding a guy who somehow didn't look ridiculous in the Superman - as he called it, his uniform. And this is George Reeves, a character that we knew - if anybody is a movie buff, they will recognize that he was one of the Tarleton Twins in "Gone with the Wind."
But basically, he was a B-level actor, and he came in, and somehow when he put on a uniform that looked even more ridiculous than it does today - in terms of it being really heavy and made him sweat a lot, and they had to have fans going perpetually behind him to stop him from sweating and he had to change his uniform - and somehow he believed in it enough to make kids like me, who grew up with him in the 1950s and with this TV show, not just believe that he was Clark and Superman, but believe that he looked elegant and magisterial in this uniform, rather than like a guy who was wearing his underpants over his tights.
GROSS: And because, you know...
GROSS: My producer and I, Sam, we were just watching one of the fight scenes in "Superman," and it actually looked so ridiculous, because, as Sam pointed out, like, the bad guys are shooting at Superman and the bullets are just kind of, like, jumping off of Superman's chest because he's the Man of Steel. And the villain kind of gives up and throws his gun at Superman, and Superman ducks. Like, why would he have to duck if the gun's just going to like bounce right off of him?
And then, like, everybody's running up and breaking a chair over his head or, you know, like, throwing things at him, and the things break. And then finally, Superman just kind of like punches all of them into unconsciousness.
TYE: So that was all partly a reflection on just how rudimentary TV - these were in the earliest days of TV. And as ridiculous as the fight scenes looked, the only thing that topped them was the flying scenes. What he was really doing was jumping off a small trampoline and going up into the air as high as he could go, trying to jump through a window. And then they would have him up in this crazy contraption, where he was being held above the ground. And once it actually dropped him, and the - it looked about as much like flying as the early movie serials where they used cartoon characters flying, that the flying scenes were ridiculous, the flight scenes were incredibly ridiculous, and yet we bought it all because we wanted to, because we believed in Superman.
GROSS: So let's hear a scene from the TV series, "Superman." And this is - I think this is a fairly famous episode, where Lois and Clark are at a court - you know, because they're reporters - when a cooperating witness named Wagner starts acting really paranoid. He runs away, hijacks a stalled school bus, where the driver has been working on it on the side of the road, and Lois and the driver arrive after Superman has saved all the children on the school bus. And Wagner, the guy who was paranoid and hijacked the bus, is passed out at the wheel of the bus. Here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN")
PHYLLIS COATES: (as Lois Lane) Superman.
REEVES: (as Superman) The children are all right, Miss Lane, just a little shaken up.
COATES: (as Lois Lane) Oh, thank goodness. And Wagner, what about him?
REEVES: (as Superman) See for yourself.
COATES: (as Lois Lane) Is he dead? How did it happen?
REEVES: (as Superman) I believe his mind was destroyed.
COATES: (as Lois Lane) His mind? I don't understand.
REEVES: (as Superman) Someone destroyed his ability to think and reason. The brain itself was fatally injured.
COATES: (as Lois Lane) Why, that sounds fantastic. How is it done?
REEVES: (as Superman) Clark Kent can probably tell you that. Can you fix those brakes?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Oh yeah, yeah. Sure, I can.
REEVES: (as Superman) Good. Then I suggest you stay with the children until the brakes are fixed.
COATES: (as Lois Lane) All right.
REEVES: (as Superman) Good-bye, Miss Lane.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: OK. And apparently, there was some kind of, like, mind machine that was tampering with people's minds, like Wagner's mind. So what do you have to say, hearing that scene? What memories does it bring for you?
TYE: It brings back the wonderful memories of how I was willing to buy into lousy scripts and...
TYE: ...mediocre sound effects and so-so acting to believe in this character. I mean, mind machines and the idea of anything that he couldn't answer, he'd put off to Clark Kent, and Clark Kent would come along later and answer it. And it was all simplistic, and yet beautiful. And it was, for me and the millions of kids who are watching at that time, this was the best TV we had, and this was the best hero that we had. And it was great for us, and not so great for George Reeves.
GROSS: Yeah. It must've been really hard on George Reeves.
TYE: It was a nightmare for George Reeves. It was a nightmare because he grew old in the role, and he had to, in the later days, get his hair dyed and wear a girdle, and he physically wasn't up to the task at the end.
It was a nightmare for him, because he felt he was being stereotyped, and he was watching his serious acting career go by. It was a nightmare because he was reading in the newspaper stories of little kids who believed they could fly and who would injure themselves jumping off a roof or sometimes kill themselves, and he blamed himself for that. And so all of this was happening at a time when everywhere he would go, kids identified him as Superman, and he was a hero to a million kids and saw himself as a failure.
GROSS: So, George Reeves was found dead in 1959. And the circumstances of his death have been very controversial. I think most people say it's a suicide, but there's always been, you know, like the rumor that it was really a murder. What did you learn?
TYE: I learned that there are as many conspiracy theories about what happened to George Reeves as there are about what happened to John F. Kennedy. And I learned that when I went back to talk to the current county coroner in L.A. County, where he died, and went back and looked at the records and took all of those records and gave them to today's best forensic experts in terms of understanding what we could say about what had happened to him, I learned that as wonderful as all the theories were on his being murdered and all the people who could have murdered him, that he almost certainly committed suicide.
And he committed suicide in a really tragic way. It was a combination of his drinking too much, his being on a number of painkillers, his suffering from what I think probably today would be diagnosed as depression. And you add all of that up, and the idea that he would one night reach into the drawer next to his bed, pull out a gun - a German Luger - and shoot himself in the head was understandable. And yet for me and for all the kids who were watching him on television, the idea that this could happen was not only too horrible to believe, but certainly Superman couldn't kill himself, even if he wanted to.
GROSS: So George Reeves' suicide spawned the idea of the Superman curse. What is the Superman curse?
TYE: The Superman curse suggests that a couple of things happen to people who play Superman, or who are involved with the character at all. The curse actually was something that started with George Reeves as a concept, but it goes back to Jerry and Joe signing away the rights for $130. It picks up with the filming of the 1978 big Christopher Reeve movie "Superman: The Movie," where people were hurt on the set. People had accidents, people fell, all kinds of things seemed to happen to people who played Superman, including, as we know, the tragic accident where Christopher Reeve falls off a horse and essentially severs his spinal cord.
And it was partly a sense that bad luck happened to these people. It was partly a sense that anybody who was involved with Superman was typecast in a way that they couldn't go on and enjoy a career free of Superman later on. But it became known as a Superman curse.
I happen to think that it's a wonderful, whimsical way to look at some of these things that happened to people, but there were so many people involved with Superman over the years that the chance that these kinds of bad things as well as all the great things would happen to them is certainly a matter of chance.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. His new book is called "Superman: The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero." We can't cover nearly the amount of Superman history that you cover in your book so I'm going to skip ahead to the deaths of the creators of Superman, the writer Jerry Siegel and the illustrator.
Tell us a bit about how they died and under what circumstances they lived the ends of their lives.
TYE: They lived the ends of their lives not the way that they would've wanted to. They were, on the one hand, acknowledged in the comic books, acknowledged in the movies, as having been the creators of Superman but they thought that they ought to die wealthy men and men who were celebrated for having created what I argue is the longest-living hero in America in the last century.
And that's not the way they went. They went in sort of a sad and forgotten way. They were living within a short distance from one another in Southern California. They were living, thanks to an annual annuity that DC Comics and Warner Brothers gave them, they lived with substantial resources but not with the wealth that you would have thought would have accrued to people who invented a character that made a billion or more dollars for their owners.
And they saw themselves as heroes, as heroic characters themselves, and they lived in the ends of their life and died in a way that was anything but heroic.
GROSS: So you write a little bit about the 1966 musical, Broadway musical, "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!" with songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who also wrote "Bye Bye Birdie." That's actually going to be revived by the City Center Encores series next season. So I thought we'd end with a song from the original cast recording. Did you ever see the show?
TYE: I didn't, but I spent a lot of time with Strouse and with Hal Prince, who brought it to Broadway and with the guy who played Superman, Bob Holiday, and it was - everything that I could see in reading the script and watching old film from it, it was really a wonderful show that unfortunately was done in by the "Batman" TV series, which was so successful that Superman sort of got driven from the playing field in those days.
GROSS: All right. Well, Larry Tye, it's great to have you back on FRESH AIR. Thank you so much.
TYE: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Larry Tye is the author of the new book "Superman." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S SUPERMAN")
PATRICIA MARAND: (as Lois Lane) (Singing) Oh, how I wish I weren't in love with Superman. A wasted life is all I've got with Superman. To hope that it could ever be is just a schoolgirl's fantasy. Oh, is there no one else for me but Superman?
Does he ever hold me? Has he ever told me he could care? Tell me, please, when will he learn it's not some silly fly-by-night affair. I know that I should find myself another man. Someone to give my love to as I know I can, a homey type who'll stay around, a guy with both feet on the ground. But till he comes my heart is bound to Superman.
GROSS: That's a song from the original cast recording of "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.