The high-flying history of Superman

First aired on The Current (01/08/12)

Since the late 1930s, Superman has been, and remains, one of the most iconic superheroes in history. His story is well known: a surviving member of the doomed planet Krypton, he arrived on Earth as a baby and was raised by a human family to have human values. He eventually discovers his incredible alien powers and chooses to use them to protect his adopted home. But the story of his creation is just as fascinating. With a new Superman film called Man of Steel set to be released next summer, journalist and lifelong Superman fan Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, joined The Current recently to shed some light on this character's very human -- and somewhat tragic -- origins.

Superman was the joint result of collaboration between two imaginative kids: Toronto-born Joe Shuster and Clevelend-born Jerry Siegel. When Shuster was a child, he and his family moved to Cleveland, where he struck up a friendship with Siegel at Glenville High School. Both kids were shy types from Jewish families who stuck together in the face of bullying.

"[They were] two kids who were a little bit too short, a little bit too round, and a little bit too nerdy, and who every day in the playground would have to fend off kids who would come out and tease them," Tye said.

Siegel in particular found escape in his own stories, which he drew at night with a pencil and paper pad. In an early incarnation of the Man of Steel, Siegel dreamed up a powerful individual he called The Super-Man, who fought back against the people who bullied him. But The Super-Man wasn't a force for good, only for revenge.

superman-tye-125.jpgThis changed after Siegel experienced a life-changing family tragedy. His father Michael owned a used clothing store in a rougher part of Cleveland. One day, some men came into the store, tried on some suits, and then took off with the clothes. The theft upset Michael so badly it led to a heart attack and he collapsed to the floor and died.

Tye said soon after the younger Siegel went to his friend Joe's house to make a critical change to The Super-Man character they had been working on: he would now only use his great strength to fight injustice. To foil robberies like the one that led to Michael Siegel's death.

"[It was] essentially doing what Jerry and Joe couldn't have done on their own, in terms of intervening in the way they would have liked to in the world that wasn't treating them very nicely."