“Jerry and I discussed it in detail. We said, “Let’s put something on the front.” I think initially we wanted to use the first letter of the character’s name. We thought S was perfect. After we came up with it, we kiddingly said, “Well, it’s the first letter of Siegel and Shuster.” Progressively, as the strip evolved, the emblem became larger and larger; you’ll notice at the beginning it was quite small.”
Joe Shuster on Superman’s iconic emblem
Co-creator of Superman
“It’s not an “S”—in my world it means hope.”
Clark Kent/ Kal-Kl/Superman (Henry Cavill)
Man of Steel (2013) written by David S. Goyer
Before there was a $ attached to Superman, and even before there was an “S” on his chest, Superman started out as an idea by two high school students in Cleveland. Keep in mind that in the late 1920s and early 30s there was no television, cable TV or Internet and sync sound was new to movie theaters. In fact, silent pictures continued to be made into the 30s.
Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel say they were influenced by H.G. Wells, Tarzan, Hercules, Samson, the comic strip Little Nemo by Winsor McCay, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Dr. Fu Manchu, Detective Dan, Popeye, Lil Abner, Alex Raymond, Burne Hogarth, Milt Caniff, Hal Foster, Roy Crane, Zorro, Robin Hood, and Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. Here’s an exchange from a 1983 interview:
SHUSTER: But the movies were the greatest influence on our imagination: especially the films of Douglas Fairbanks Senior.
SIEGEL: I read tremendous amounts of pulps; and Joe and I, we practically lived in movie theaters
SHUSTER: Jerry picked up the technique of visualizing the story as a movie scenario; and whenever he gave me a script, I would see it as a screenplay. That was the technique that Jerry used, and I just picked it up.
Q: Had you had a chance to see professionally written screenplays?
SIEGEL: Not at all
And while Shuster said Superman was modeled after many “heroes in fiction and the classics” it was the “agile and athletic” Douglas Fairbanks Senior who Siegel said was the single greatest influence in creating Superman according, adding “Clark Kent, I suppose, had a little bit of Harold Lloyd in him.”
Siegel and Shuster weren’t reinventing the wheel, just putting a new twist on good fighting evil and tapping into some universal themes:
SIEGEL: If you’re interested in what made Superman what it is, here’s one of the keys to what made it universally acceptable. Joe and I had certain inhibitions…which led to wish-fulfillment which we expressed through our interest in science fiction and our comic strip. That’s where the dual-identity concept came from, and Clark Kent’s problems with Lois. I imagine there are a lot of people in this world who are similarly frustrated. Joe and I both felt that way in high school, and he was able to put the feeling into sketches.
JOANNE SIEGEL: Most teenage boys have disappointments with girls…
SHUSTER: True! That’s why I say it’s a universal theme, and that’s why so many people could relate to it.
And, of course, in Superman’s case fighting crime (and dealing with relationship issues) turned out to be quite profitable. Siegel and Shuster recognized that early on.
SIEGEL: “One day, I read an article in some leading magazine of the time about how Tarzan was merchandised by Stephen Slesinger so successfully. And I thought: Wow! Superman is even more super than Tarzan; the same thing could happen with Superman. And I mentioned it to Joe, he got real enthused, and I walked in a day to two later, and he had made a big drawing of Superman showing how the character could be merchandised on boxtops, T-shirts, and everything.”
We put this merchandising business into one of the very early Superman stories. The publisher looked at it and thought it was a good idea, and Superman has been a terrific earner from character merchandising ever since.
SHUSTER: “We just let our imagination run wild. We visualized Superman toys, games, and a radio show – that was before TV – and Superman movies. We even visualized Superman billboards. And it’s all come true.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much Siegal and Shuster made off of creating Superman. Various reports have the two selling the rights for Superman to DC Comics back in the 30s for between $130-150. No typo, for less than $200 they cost their estate tens of millions of dollars. They did have a 10 year contract to create stories but attempts to sue and get back the rights to the Superman character failed. And though frustrated with not being involved with various film and Tv versions of Superman, at least in 1983 they seemed content when Siegel said, ”We are grateful that, in our senior years – we’re both almost 69 – that the corporation which owns Superman is treating us well.”
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