Return of the old invincibles

New pop-culture heroes, Superman and Batman are making millions. But not for Toronto-born Joe Shuster who created Superman and is fighting to get his brainchild back

ALEXANDER ROSS March 19 1966

Return of the old invincibles

New pop-culture heroes, Superman and Batman are making millions. But not for Toronto-born Joe Shuster who created Superman and is fighting to get his brainchild back

ALEXANDER ROSS March 19 1966

HE WAS BORN on the planet Krypton about thirty years ago, and his corporate fortunes are now a matter of sober concern on Wall Street. He is fearless, virtuous, humourless, tireless, absolutely indestructible, and, at an educated guess, worth several million dollars. He is the most popular fictional hero in the history of the literate world and the current renaissance of pop culture is making him richer than ever. His name, naturally, is Superman, and the saddest thing about him is the fact that Joe Shuster, the Toronto-born cartoonist who invented him, doesn't own a single hair on his indestructible head.

Shuster and his writing partner, Jerome Siegel, may turn out to be the most distinguished losers of the 1960s. When they sold that first Superman adventure in 1938, the comic-book company that employed them (and which, crucially, owned the copyright to all their work) was paying them the going rate for low-grade commercial art. Within two years, Shuster’s creation had attracted an estimated five million readers, was appearing regularly in more than one hundred newspapers and had aroused the sort of worldwide dither that hadn't been seen since Tarzan's heyday in the 1920s.

Superman also founded a brand-new branch of the fantasy industry — a branch that has earned, at a conservative estimate, at least one billion dollars since its inception. The June 1938 issue of Action Comics which contained Superman's first adventure was the forerunner of a new pop genre. It was one of the first true comic books: not a reprinted collection of old newspaper strips, not a continued-next-month serial, but a complete, self-contained, four-colour fantasy available on any newsstand for only ten cents.

Like Playboy magazine a generation later, Action Comics spawned a horde of imitators. There was Captain America and, as the war years heightened the republic's patriotic fervor, a spy-smashing duo called the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy. There were weirdos like Plastic Man (he was made of an early equivalent of Silly Putty); a bevy of crime-busting amazons led by Wonder Woman; and a flock of urban Tarzans, such as the Green Hornet and The Spirit, who actually were pulpy prototypes of James Bond. Most memorable of all. there was Batman and his young friend Robin, the dynamic duo who spent twenty years battling a bizarre assortment of criminal masterminds in comic books, and now arc fighting them again on network television.

They came by the hundreds during the war years, and many remained afterward. Many of them, in fact, outlasted Joe Shuster, the man who had started it all.

Shuster and Siegel stopped doing Superman in 1948, and the cause of this separation is still not wholly clear. Shuster’s former employers and Superman's present owners, National Periodical Publications Inc., say that Shuster, because of failing eyesight, was no longer able to draw the strip. Shuster confirms this, but also hints at other, unspecified reasons. (One possible factor: Shuster's roughhewn drawing style wasn't slick enough for the affluent folk hero that Superman rapidly became.)

It is certain, however, that Siegel and Shuster want a share of Superman’s present profits. In 1948 they sued the company for royalties, and emerged with a hefty settlement. As far as NPP is concerned, that settled Superman's ownership once and for all.

But now Siegel and Shuster are making another bid to recapture their creation. The Superman copyright expires this April. They and NPP have both filed renewal applications with the Library of Congress conflict that may have to be resolved in the courts.

Whether or not his claim is a serious one, Shuster can certainly use the money. Since he dropped out of the Superman game he's been scratching out a fairly precarious living as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. He is fifty and still single (“I never met a girl who matched up to Lois Lane,” he once explained) but he supports an aged mother in their home in Forest Hills, Long Island. Because he is terrified of prejudicing his claim against NPP, he won’t answer reporters' questions — not even to confirm his age. But he’s adamant about one thing: “The Superman copyright,” he says, “reverts to me on April 19, 1966.”

NPP spokesmen say he hasn't got a leg to stand on, since he and Siegel signed away their rights in perpetuity as part of the earlier settlement. “There's no dispute as far as we're concerned,” says NPP President Jack Liebowitz. “We own Superman completely — period.”

NPP can afford to be cocky, for it is sitting on top of a pop-culture goldmine. As publisher of Mad Magazine, distributor of Playboy and sole owner of nearly all the best-known superheroes, it is the Argus Corporation of the comic-book world. NPP grossed $54 million last year on everything from Superman TV serials to Wonder Woman comic books and, in the past year, its shares have almost doubled in value on the New York Stock Exchange. Superman now appears in twenty eight languages (in Lebanon he’s known as Al-battal al-jabbar). In North America alone he has a newspaper and comic-book circulation of forty million, plus fifteen million TV viewers.

Whence comes this eerie, universal appeal? According to Mort Weisinger, an NPP vice-president who has edited Superman comics since 1941, it is simply because the Man of Steel is the most all-inclusive vehicle for wish fulfillment ever created. “We’ve all read fairy tales where the hero gets three wishes,” he says, “but with Superman you have thousands of wishes. You can span the solar system, you can get rich quick, you can practically have immortality. Superman is every wish anyone could conceive of, all rolled into one.”

Weisinger deserves much of the credit for Superman's continued popularity, for he is uniquely ingenious at inventing new dangers for a super-being who, almost by definition, can’t be harmed by anything. It was Weisinger, for instance, who gave Superman his own Achilles’ heel: when exposed to fragments from the planet Krypton, Superman loses his unearthly powers and must rely on mere native cunning to pull him through. Weisinger has also rung endless changes on the efforts of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter who is really Superman, to protect his secret identity. In one recent episode Kent was almost exposed by a Seven Days-type television interviewer. In another, he kept his secret only by enlisting the aid of President Kennedy — a fictional ploy that required real-life clearance from the White House.

Some aspects of Superman's management smack of high diplomacy. When he started out in 1938, for instance, Clark Kent was working for the Daily Star — a nostalgic tribute, Shuster says, to his own early days in Toronto. A few years later, when Superman was being widely syndicated, presumably to several other newspapers called the Star, Clark Kent switched jobs. He became and has remained a dutiful employee of the Daily Planet. For next May, Weisinger has scheduled a development which, to those of us who have been following Superman’s love life for the past twenty years, seems radical in the extreme. He's marrying off Lois Lane, the girl reporter who's been pining for Superman from the beginning, to a reformed mad scientist named Dr. Lex Luthor. “In the Superman saga,” Weisinger sunnily explains, “change is our most important product.”

But shrewd editing can’t explain all of the current comic-book revival. There is also the strange cultural phenomenon known as Camp, which has made yesteryear’s juvenile claptrap the object of a hyper-fashionable intellectual cult. Two years ago, when Susan Sontag's now famous Partisan Review article first crystallized the trend, Camp was essentially a coterie enthusiasm, like flower arranging or kathakali dancing. But this year, with Batman on television, Camp came to the people.

Batman, of course, is the supreme Camp figure. He is so preposterous that no one could possibly take him seriously — and since the whole point of the Camp exercise is to treat the trivial seriously and vice-versa, Adam West plays him utterly straight. When a discotheque dancer who’s been corrupted by the bad guys falls into the nuclear reactor that powers his Batmobile, West delivers an unsmiling epitaph: “Poor deluded creature,” he intones. “What a way to go-go-go.”

You either dig this sort of thing or you don't, but the fact is that a great many people do. When the ABC television network launched Batman in mid-January, the first programs drew the largest ratings since the premiere of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In other words, we have now entered the massCamp era. Macy's of New York is already negotiating for a new, twenty-five-thousand-dollar Superman-shaped balloon to adorn its annual Christmas parade. Harold Prince, who’s already made his first million as a Broadway producer, is launching a new musical late in March called Superman. French intellectuals are crazy about a Freudian comic strip fantasy called Barbarella. Jules Feiffer's nostalgic book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, has sold twenty thousand copies at ten dollars each. A new animated Superman TV series will debut on CBS this fall. NPP is now negotiating with Twentieth Century-Fox for yet another comic-strip TV series, this time about Wonder Woman. And to lend official sanction to the whole thing, Canada’s own cultural czarina, Miss Judy LaMarsh, has a pop-art painting of Batman and Robin hanging in her office in the Parliament Buildings.

It’s more than a fad. The super-creatures that Joe Shuster inspired will probably go on forever. Superman and Batman may be high Camp to adults, but to children they’re simply glorious entertainment. When those children grow up the cycle probably will be repeated.

This is quite an achievement for Joe Shuster, the boy from Toronto who was always crazy about science-fiction. Without ever planning it that way, he helped to father a cultural revolution. And now, while his lawyers try to ensure that he and Siegel will be paid something extra for their trouble, he’s devoting his free time to a hobby that somehow seems profoundly appropriate. He’s trying to paint pop art — serious comic strips — and hopes eventually to promote a one-man show in some chic Manhattan gallery.