Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice

Visit the Midday Edition homepage

The History of Superman

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

July 10, 2012 12:46 p.m.

Guest: Larry Tye, author of "Superman: The High-Flying History Of America's Most Enduring Hero"

Related Story: Is Superman Jewish?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. With the start of Comic-Con right around the corner, what better than a biography of one the best known comic book heroes? Superman still has a few new tricks up his sleeve. Larry Tye examines the history and mystery of this superhero. Superman, the high-flying history of America's most enduring hero. Welcome to the show.

TYE: Great to be on with you.

CAVANAUGH: What is it about Superman that's made him last so long? He's nearly 75 years old, right?

TYE: He is. He just celebrated last month his 74th birthday. And I think there were two sources for his longevity. He's involved with the times, I like to say more than the fruit fly. He starts out in the 1930s going after slumlords and wife beaters. In the 1940, he helped take America to war. He was out there, the grabbing by the scruff of the neck, Hitler and Stalin and hauling them off to a court of justice before America got into the battle. In the '50s, he was as anticommunist as you can get. In every era, he has given us just the kind of hero we needed.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't there something about his personal story though? The fact that he basically came here to earth as an orphan.

TYE: He's also this wonderful of the orphan. If we loved little orphan Annie as the consummate story of the orphan, who better can you get than one who came from another planet and is truly all alone here?

CAVANAUGH: You're absolutely right. And a whole subculture developed when we learned superboy's story of how he grew up.

TYE: They felt that Superman might be getting lonely, so they sent his cousin, supergirl to earth, his childhood form in superboy, and even gave him a dog named crypto.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, the two young men who created Superman. They were not exactly superhero types themselves, right?

TYE: They were kids who went out on the playground today, and in borrowing a term from today's lexicon, they were bullied. Guys picked on them, girls dismissed them as just uninteresting, and they both felt from the time that they were born and growing up in a very poor section of Cleveland Ohio, they felt that if people could only see deep within them, they would see that there was behind this Clark Kent shrubby looking exterior, a Superman inside. So they played it out in their fantasy life. Jerry would sketch out his notion of a hero every night. And he had all kinds of different heroes he was playing with. But one day, his dad who owned a used clothing store in Cleveland had three guys come into the store, walk out with a suit without paying, and his father had a massive heart attack. And certainly Jerry had lost his hero and his dad, and he had a moment of clarity. One night when he went to bed with that paper in pencil, the hero he envisioned, and the hero that his buddy, Joe, first drew, was a guy who could come down from the sky and save a man who looked special like Jerry's dad from robbers. So the story of Superman is partly the story of two bereft young boys who needed a hero, and they created this hero at the perfect moment. America was mired in the great depression, we were about to go to war oversea, and we needed a hero at the same time the boys did, and never has a story been published with a more receptive audience for it than the story in 1938 of Superman.

CAVANAUGH: That's really very touched, linked to the personal history of these two young men. Now, in your book, Superman, Larry Tye, you pose the question of whether Superman is Jewish. And it seems as if the two guys who created him were Jewish. So where does that all tie in with superman's story, with his story line and how he was created?

TYE: When he came from the planet krypton, his name was Cal-El. And that for anybody who speaks Hebrew means a vessel of God. The Superman story in terms of his parents watching their planet be destroyed and wanting to save their sun, and floating him out in the atmosphere is Moses.

CAVANAUGH: It is Moses!

TYE: And the two gentiles who adopted him, Martha and Clark Kent in the middle of the midwest. But if there's any last piece of evidence we need, it's the fact that any name that ends in the word MAN is either a Superman or Jewish or both. Lives

CAVANAUGH: That's a very good point! Now, in addition to your Comic-Con appearances here in San Diego, you're going to be speaking at a couple of San Diego Jewish congregations this week. How is this idea, the speculation about Superman being Jewish, how is that flying in the Jewish community?

TYE: Jewish speakers, speakers at synagogues and the community center like I'm going to be doing, generally come with pales of woe. The diaspora Jews are in a crisis because of intermarriage. Israel is having difficulties. Jews love celebrating happy, funny stories and stories about Jewish heroes, and we don't get many of them. So I've been shocked at how receptive the community is to what I'm writing.

CAVANAUGH: It's one of the biggest American heroes of all, Superman!

TYE: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the comic caught on really quickly. And the editors began to regard Superman as big business. In your book, you talk about the kind was things they were concerned about, and the way his appearance was, and all that.

TYE: The two guys who started publishing Superman started out making their living from pornography. They decided that that was a risky business, and if they could appeal to hundreds of thousands of kids that this would work well. And yet they were worried, they didn't want to have any sex in Superman. They didn't want to have too much violence. Superman lived by certain extraordinarily strict ethical rules. No killing, no matter how bad the enemy was. Use your brains as much as you can, and not your brawn. Be a Dudley do-right character. We had enough dark heroes in batman, and enough fraught heroes like Spider-Man. So they kept Superman chained to a strict set of guidelines that got down to the level of just how big a character's breast could be or behind. These guys really very specific and wanted to maintain a quite control. And this is ironic because these were two guys who were in fact pornographers.

CAVANAUGH: And there was some concern that Superman shouldn't look terribly gay. What was the concern about that? He's in a superhero costume. Was it a concern about the way his hair or body looked?

TYE: It was about both of those. It was again about his entire anatomy. And this was in an era in the 1950s when in addition to the red square and the McArthy movement, we had what became known as the comic book scare. Everybody was out to convince America that comic books were polluting the minds of their youth. And this was also a time of homophobia that we had never really seen before. So they were concerned that there not be anything, even the spit curl that he was famous for, that that somehow could suggest that this guy was not a macho man. It was just really crazy, but it's a wonderful insight into what that time was like, and the things that people were afraid of.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to talk about the whole Clark Kent, Superman, Lois Lane love triangle. Did Jerry and Joel come up with that romantic tension too?

TYE: They did. And I interviewed for a book the a woman who is new 96 years old living in a nursing home. She was Jerry's model for the real Lois Lane. She was somebody Jerry had a crush on. Of I uncovered a 150 page memoir that was never published that Jerry wrote. It was clear he had trouble with girls, it was clear that he had particular trouble with a girl that he had a crush on named Lois Amster. So this notion of her having no clue who he was, Jerry seeing himself as a hero, it is to me the best love triangle in American history, even if it only has two people in it.

CAVANAUGH: Right! One of the saddest stories you tell in this book is the idea of who owns the rights to Superman or rather who sold the rights and for what amount.

TYE: In 1938, Jerry and Joe are too young men about 20 years old who were so desperate to find somewhere to publish their book that they agree with the forerunners of DC comics they came and offered them a grand total of $130. That didn't just buy the rights to the first comic book, it bought the rights to the character forever. So a character that would make billions would sold for $130. On the other hand, the two publishers ended up hiring Jerry and Joe and paid them what amounted to 1s of thousands of dollars a year and made them famous. But there was this push-pull on who was out to get whom. This is a lawsuit that continues to this day and is going to be decided by a judge in Riverside California.

CAVANAUGH: There are a number of fascinating stories about Superman in this book, how he was sort of not allowed to fight in World War II. And some people were the Superman TV show. Tell us how they managed to make Superman fly.

TYE: They managed to do it by having an audience of young kids like me who so loved the character that the fact that George Reeves was jumping on a trampoline and sort of hanging from the air in this crane, we were so adoring of this character that we would buy anything, including that this clunky looking Superman really was flying.

CAVANAUGH: It's really something if you see those old programs!

TYE: It really was.

CAVANAUGH: Now, just last month, DC comics releaseded a new animated DVD, Superman versus the elite. Next year, the man of steel comes out. Are we going through a Superman renaissance?

TYE: I think we're going through a superhero craze generally. And any time we do that, batman and Spider-Man look good, but the king of the comics always was the first big superhero, Superman. And he's also the one, for all we like dark and anxious hero, we like most of all heroes that tell us what right and wrong are really like.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite Superman movie?

TYE: I do. Everybody's Superman movie that's their first is their first, and I love Christopher Reave in that first movie when Dick donner was directing. The marketing line for the movie would you'll believe a man could fly. And for the first time, the reality lived up to the hype.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you will at Comic-Con this in in San Diego.

TYE: I'm on a couple panel, one on Siegel and Shuster, one on super secret, things that each the most avid fans didn't know, and looking at issues like whether Superman was Jewish.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm just wondering, how are they received? I would imagine that there's a big attendance when you speak about this.

TYE: The wonderful thing is to see that it's not just the 15-year-old kids who might be reading comic books, but it's their fathers and grandfathers who fell in love with this character and still are in love. So in anything I've ever written, I've never gotten a greater age diversity than with Superman.