Jerry Siegel, the teenage co-creator of Superman, an internationally beloved and lucrative comic book character more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and faster than a speeding bullet, has died of heart failure. Siegel was 81.
He died Sunday at Los Angeles’ Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, the New York-based DC Comics, which publishes Superman comics, announced Tuesday.
Siegel and classmate Joe Shuster, both science fiction fanatics, were students at Cleveland’s Glenville High School when they began conjuring the prototype of comic book superheroes in 1933. Siegel was the writer and Shuster, who died in Los Angeles in 1992 at age 78, was the artist.
Initially, Superman was bald and villainous with mental rather than physical powers. But within a year’s time, the duo developed him into his current muscular version, modeled, they said, on their movie hero Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Siegel put the “S” on Superman’s chest to make him instantly recognizable and gave him the red cape to add drama.
“We were shy little kids with glasses--the kind who read the comic book body-building ads,” Shuster told The Times in 1975. “Superman was our wish fulfillment. He was everything we weren’t and wanted to be.”
Superman was given a secret identity as mild-mannered Clark Kent, a newspaper reporter who worked with Lois Lane and gruff editor Perry White at Metropolis’ Daily Planet. The infant Superman fell to Earth from the planet Krypton, a name Siegel pulled from the periodic chart of chemical elements.
Siegel and Shuster sold the character to DC Comics in 1937, signing away their rights for $130. Superman debuted in Action Comics 1 in June 1938 and proliferated, with Siegel and Shuster writing and drawing the comic for the first decade. The original issue was translated into several languages and is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
But when the creators sued for more money in 1947, DC Comics fired them.
Siegel was reduced to supporting himself as a mail room typist and Shuster worked as a janitor.
In the late 1970s, after the first of four “Superman” films starring Christopher Reeve proved a box office hit, DC Comics agreed to give Shuster and Siegel $20,000 annual stipends for life (later increased to $30,000) and restored their creators’ credits.
“Jerry and Joe invented a character who today survives and flourishes in every entertainment medium,” said Gerald M. Levin, chairman of DC Comics parent company Time Warner Inc. “Superman brought hope to millions during the Depression and World War II. He lives on.”
Siegel also created the Spectre, which is still published by DC Comics.
The writer is survived by his wife, Joanne, who was the model for Lois Lane and who is writing a book about her role with the cartoonists over six decades.
Siegel is also survived by two children and two grandchildren.