Superman celebrates 75 years: Marking the Man of Steel's birthday in his home town

By Michael Sangiacomo, The Plain Dealer
April 05, 2013 at 8:00 AM, updated April 05, 2013 at 9:18 AM

Superman is an orphan again.

Jerome Siegel, of Marina Del Rey, Calif., who created the Man of Steel with Glenville High School buddy Joseph Shuster, died Sunday of heart failure in a suburban Los Angeles hospital. He was 81.

Siegel's wife, Joanne, said he had been ill for several weeks. "He had a weak heart and on Sunday it just gave out," said Joanne, the Cleveland woman who was the original model for Lois Lane. "He had been in and out of the hospital since Jan. 5 and was home for a week," she said.

The simple character dreamed up by two gawky 16-year-old Cleveland boys became an icon and started an industry that would earn billions. Superman flew higher and faster than anyone could have expected in comics, toys, clothing, cartoons, television shows, movies and even the Broadway stage.

There are few places in the world today where the name "Superman" does not evoke a smile of recognition.

Friends said that the man who wrote about a character with enormous power was a gentle man. "Jerry was a quiet man, a grandfather who just enjoyed playing with his grandchildren, who are 5 and 7," said Martha Thomases, a spokeswoman for his publisher, DC Comics. "I think that says a lot about the man."

Those who knew him said the bespectacled Siegel bore more than a casual resemblence to Superman's mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent.

A thin, unathletic teenager with a penchant for dime novels, he grew into a prolific author.

He enjoyed the role of comic book elder statesman, though he rarely made public appearances, preferring to live quietly with his wife.

Joanne still remembers placing an ad in The Plain Dealer offering to be an artist's model in 1932. Shuster, the artist, hired her, but she fell in love with Jerry Siegel. Siegel married another woman, but after a divorce, he married his "Lois Lane" in 1948 at the Lakeside Courthouse.

Siegel and Shuster wrote about hope at the tail end of the Depression and near the time when a frightening evil force evil was rearing its head in Germany.

They wrote about a baby cast adrift into the ocean of space by his parents to escape a doomed world. He landed on Earth and was adopted by a kindly couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. When he exhibited "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men," the Kents taught him to use those powers for the good of mankind.

Unlike many of the modern comics whose heroes are as violent as the villains,Superman still fights for "truth, justice and the American way."

"You can't change him much," said Michael Carlin, editor of the Superman comics line for DC. "Jerry got it right the first time."

Siegel and Shuster shopped their character around for six years before selling the concept to National Allied Periodicals (later to become DC). The first adventures ofSuperman appeared in "Action" No. 1 in 1938 and have been published continuously there and in "Superman Comics" ever since. A mint copy of "Action" No. 1 was valued at $125,000 in 1995. Only four perfect copies are known to exist.

But even though Superman was a huge, international hit, the creators saw little of the profits. Siegel and Shuster sold their rights to Superman to DC Comics in 1938 for $138 and were drawing salaries for writing and drawing the comics. After years of legal wrangling, they received a settlement of $30,000 each in 1975 from DC Comics' parent company, Time Warner Inc., and "generous cost of living bonuses each year since," according to a DC spokesman.

Siegel continued to write for comics at DC through the 1970s, though much of his work was not credited.

There are maybe five or 10 writers in the last 1,000 years of the English language whose works are known around the world, said Paul Levitz, vice president and publisher of DC Comics. "Will Jerry end up in that category? Who knows. But he's the best shot this medium will ever have."

Carlin said he was nervous about Siegel's reaction when he decided to kill Superman in 1992.

"We met with him just to see what he thought," he said. "He was very supportive of the radical move we made in killing Superman and then bringing him back - a trick that only works in comics. He understood what we were up to and he gave us his blessing. He said, `I love what you guys are doing,' and it didn't matter what anyone else thought.'

In addition to his wife, Siegel is survived by a daughter, Laura Carter Larson of Los Angeles; a son, Michael; and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Siegel said memorial services were being planned for New York and Los Angeles by Time Warner Inc., as the copany did for Shuster when he died in 1992.