Millions of Americans will flock to movie theaters to see “Man of Steel,” which opened this week, in which Superman is once again called upon to save the world from the menace of General Zod. But back in 1975, Superman’s Jewish creators found themselves broke, nearly homeless and desperately in need a hero of their own. It’s a story with the pathos and drama of a graphic novel — and it has a happy ending.
As teenagers growing up in Cleveland’s mostly Jewish Glenville neighborhood in the 1930s, writer Jerry Siegel and his artist friend Joe Shuster created Superman, the mighty costumed hero who has been a fixture of American pop culture ever since.
Siegel later wrote that he and Shuster were influenced by a combination of “being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear,” and “hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany.” Superman emerged from their “great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow.”
Comics historians have compared Superman’s origins to both the Jewish immigrant experience and the biblical story of young Moses. With the planet Krypton on the verge of destruction, desperate parents send their infant off in a rocket ship to Earth, where he is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who take on the role of Pharoah’s daughter. Whether disguised as the mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent, or as an Egyptian prince whose Jewish roots are hidden, our hero would prefer to quietly assimilate into his surroundings but his outrage at injustice propels him into the role of rescuer.
Not realizing the fortune Superman would reap, Siegel and Shuster sold their first 13-page Superman comic strip — and the rights to the character — to National Periodicals (later known as DC Comics) for $130.
Within a few years, the character had branched out into movies, cartoons, a weekly radio show and a daily newspaper comic strip. Siegel and Shuster took no steps to reassert ownership of their creation. They were making a good living as the full-time creative team on the Superman comic book and decided not to rock the boat.
In 1941, Siegel pitched DC the idea of “Superboy,” a series based on their hero’s adventures as an adolescent. DC turned down the proposal. But when Siegel and Shuster returned from service in World War II, they were stunned to find DC publishing a Superboy comic book, for which they received no credit or royalties. They sued DC and won a $400,000 judgment.
But it was a bittersweet victory. Most of the money was eaten up by their legal expenses, and comic book publishers grew wary of hiring them. By the early 1970s, Siegel was working as a $7,000-a-year clerk and Shuster, who had been working as a messenger but gave it up because of failing eyesight, was boarding with relatives.
Enter Neal Adams. Bursting onto the comics scene in 1967, Adams’s powerful and ultra-realistic style of illustration — rooted in his background in the world of advertising art — quickly won him the admiration of his peers and the adoration of comic book fans.
The innovative and articulate Adams was soon elected president of the Academy of Comic Book Arts. It was then that he learned what had happened to Siegel and Shuster. “It was shocking,” Adams says. “Joe was sleeping on a cot in front of a taped-up window. They didn't have a proper pension or health coverage. And these were the guys who had basically created our entire industry.”
In one early conversation, Shuster told Adams about a new Broadway show featuring his creation. “Joe described to me how he would watch all these celebrities going to see a show based on his character, movie stars and politicians and other famous people. He was so proud and flattered. I asked him, ‘Joe, what did you think of the show?’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t afford to see it; I didn't have enough money,’ ” Adams recalls.
Adams knew that from a legal perspective, Siegel and Shuster did not have much of a case for reclaiming Superman; they had knowingly signed away their rights, no matter how a bad a decision that was. “But something doesn’t have to be legal to be right, and it doesn’t have to be right to be legal,” Adams says.
Instead of going to court, Adams decided to go to the court of public opinion. It was not an easy fight, in part because Shuster was not especially forceful in advocating their cause. “Joe was just such a nice guy,” Adams says.
“One time he was on the "Tomorrow" show with Tom Snyder, and Snyder asked him how he felt about what had been done to him, and he answered that it was hard to feel bad when millions of children were reading comic books with his character. Which is very sweet, but it’s no way to win a fight.”
Siegel and Shuster needed a strong voice—someone from inside the industry who could also reach out beyond the comics world. Adams, who was the most popular artist at DC and the cover artist for Superman, became that voice. Even though it meant going up against his own employer, Adams launched a series of media appearances, press conferences, and meetings to drum up support for the Superman creators.
“It carved four months out of my life,” Adams recalls, “but they were pretty good months.” He was fighting the good fight — and he won. DC finally agreed to provide Siegel and Shuster with financial assistance and medical benefits. They were also credited, by name, in every subsequent Superman comic. Siegel (who passed away in 1996, at age 81), and Shuster (who died in 1992, at 78) were able to live their remaining years with dignity.
For Adams, it would be just the first in a series of campaigns for underdogs.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, he won a long battle to convince both major comics publishers, DC and Marvel, to return pages of original artwork to the artists. This reversal of industry policy was a remarkable victory for creators’ rights.
In recent years, he has led the effort to pressure Poland’s Auschwitz State Museum to return portraits painted by Dina Babbitt when she was a prisoner in the Nazi death camp. A comic strip drawn by Adams about Mrs. Babbitt’s plight was published by Marvel. Mrs. Babbitt herself passed away from cancer two years ago, but her family is still battling for return of the paintings.
Adams is now illustrating “They Spoke Out,” a series of animated shorts about Americans who protested against the Holocaust, with Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The first six episodes will be released on DVD this summer by Disney.
Siegel and Shuster created a fictional hero devoted to truth, justice and the American way, and this week, Man of Steel will bring that story once again to movie screens around the world. Neal Adams, for his part, continues to bring those ideals into his own real-world struggles for truth and justice.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org  and coauthor, with Craig Yoe, of the forthcoming book, Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.