Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

Though it was published in 2012, I’ve just discovered Larry Tye’s biography of Superman, though I’m a bit disgruntled to have paid £19.99 for a copy of the import edition when I could have picked it up through Amazon for less than £3.00.
Tye is an experienced journalist and writer of non-fiction who’s best known for his previous book, Satchell, the biography of Satchell Paige, the first black pitcher in American baseball. In his Introduction he explains why he wanted to write about the Superman story, and how this book would be different from those that came before it, and would follow.
The outcome is an interesting and decently comprehensive of Superman’s career, from his birth in comics to his expansion into other media: cartoons, radio, movie serials, television, big budget films. Tye has researched thoroughly and presents a clear picture of each stage of Superman’s career.
That’s the thing about this book, though. Tye is interested in the phenomenon of Superman, in his colonisation of so many different spheres, and his study is about them. The first three chapters deal with Superman’s background: his creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, their background and personalities, the artistic influences that they synthesized to create the Man of Steel, and the route by which he took into first publication.
There is even a chapter upon how Superman, despite his assumption of Christian characteristics, is at heart, and not even secretly, Jewish, like his creators, his publishers and virtually the entire Comics industry.
So far, so simple. But once Tye has gotten this background out of the way, his concerns are solely with Superman’s colonisation of succeeding differing media: radio, cartoons, Saturday morning serials, television, the Broadway stage and blockbuster films. What happens to Superman in his only truly natural home, in the comics, becomes a matter of indifference to Tye, a subject to which he returns only intermittently and, except in one instance, with faint distaste.
Because from start to finish, it is clear that Tye has little or no time for creative individuals. Tye only respects success, which is measured in dollars and cents, and to him the true heroes are not those who create stories, who exercise their imagination to thrill, enliven, astonish or move, but with those who exploit a property to its fullest commercial sense.
The standard narrative, which hones to the truth, portrays Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster as naive, inexperienced, lacking in social skills, full of dreams and desires that they have no means of fulfilling. Out of their shared needs and inadequacies, they create Superman, the great adolescent wish-fantasy, the more than man, perfect, brave and strong, the idealisation of everything they would want to be, who hides his light under the bushel of a mild, meek, Caspar Milquetoast coward, especially from the woman he loves, who loves the superman and despises the alter ego. It’s a very deep well of psychological urges and fears and is a fundamental reason why Superman spoke to so many people from the very beginning, and why he is still relevant and popular seventy five years later.
So Seigel and Shuster, these nebbishes and proto-geeks, invent a near-Universal symbol that has expanded through nearly every medium there has been created, and made uncountable billions of dollars in every conceivable format and licencing product.
But at the very outset, Seigel and Shuster – young innocents without legal advice – are given no option but to sell their character to two practiced sharks in Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, who take ownership and control for a mere $130. That Donenfeld and Liebowitz were sharks is beyond disagreement: they own the comic book company that will publish Superman because, though it was a profitable enterprise for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, they manipulate him into a cash-flow crisis at the wrong moment, that forces him into bankruptcy, out of which they buy his company for a song.
At the hands of Donenfeld, Seigel and Shuster, who have created this money fountain, who have created not just Superman but the superhero per se and the entirety of the comics industry that has existed for seventy years, get a fixed pittance of that income. They cannot control their own creation but have to follow the orders of people who do not have even the creative capacity the boys possess. Though they have an exclusive contract to supply Superman pages, from almost the beginning DC try to get round that, undermine and undercut them. Eventually, they are dismissed from consideration at DC, without even the page rate they were earning. Much of their lives are spent in poverty and misery.
As comics writer and historian Mark Evanier perceptively noted, Seigel and Shuster’s story is the contravention of the American Dream.
Tye acknowledges all this as a matter of historical fact. But throughout this book, it is plain that his sympathies lie not with the exploited but the exploiters. His enthusiasm lies in what Donenfeld and Liebowitz – actually, the more chummy sounding Harry and Jack – did to promote Superman (at the least possible cost and most profitable terms for themselves). And in due course, he is equally awed by legendary Superman editor and all round offensive human being Mort Weisinger, who completed the job of levering Superman out of Seigel and Shuster’s hands and into his own.
Indeed, it’s clear that Tye holds Seigel and Shuster in contempt. He cannot bring himself to mention Shuster – who was next to legally blind throughout his entire career, who found drawing physically difficult and who increasingly directed the work of assistants who he paid from his own income – without sneering about his ‘work ethic’.
And though he recognises that advantage was taken of the pair, Tye is dismissive of Jerry Seigel’s insecurity and fear of being exploited by those with more power than him, which the historical record demonstrates was very real. Seigel was paid a comparative pittance compared to the money Superman brought in, and Tye’s attitude is clearly that he should have been grateful for it and stopped bothering Leibowitz.
And he shouldn’t have kept bringing lawsuits.
This displacement of sympathy towards the excessive winners instead of the exploited losers runs through all the book. Even Weisinger ranks higher in Tye’s lexicon than Seigel and Shuster, because despite being a truly monstrous person, he made Superman sell. Tye tells stories of Weisinger abruptly sacking Wayne Boring after nearly thirty years and callously dismissing him with “Do you want a kick in the stomach to know when you’re not wanted?”, and condescendingly crediting Seigel as being the best Superman writer (after originally forcing him out by claiming Seigel had so little idea about his creation he would destroy it).
And these stories are told with approval fo Weisinger.
When he has to, Tye acknowledges the comics career of Superman. He covers the Wertham-inspired attacks of the early Fifties, the rebooting of Superman under John Byrne, and the early Nineties Death of Superman sequence, but even then he can’t but sneer at the fact that Superman’s audience in comics is very tiny in comparison to his reach in any other media. He describes the comic book world as insular and dependant upon detailed knowledge of characters and history that drives away new readers (which is true, but which Tye sweeps away as unworthy of consideration).
Overall, Tye acts as if he would really rather that the comics Superman might disappear and let me concentrate upon more important things.
Good as it is, well-researched and comprehensive, especially with regard to the non-comics Superman, I really can’t get on with this book because of this essential dichotomy. Tye’s respect lies in too many wrong places for me and his fawning over Jack Leibowitz in particular is too much for me.
There’s a genuine argument to be made for a dispassionate study of Leibowitz’s business success, which would be interesting, but this isn’t it. Tye’s contempt for creative individuals cannot be ignored (there is a passing reference to writer Harlan Ellison, author and social activist, writer of short stories, screen and teleplays, columns and commentary: Tye refers to him as a ‘pop culture maven’). It’s an attitude that wholeheartedly describes the attitude that comic book professionals have had to their freelance minions throughout the entirety of the industry: businessmen who couldn’t write or draw a line are far more important than those who provide the comics people read.
Not to me.