By JAMES PARKER, Published: July 5, 2012
“Superman!” gasps Lois Lane, freshly scooped from beneath the nodding carbines of a South American firing squad. “Right!” says the boxy blue-and-red figure who holds her in his arms. “And still playing the role of gallant rescuer!” His mouth is set in a kind of grimace, but with dimples. Is he frowning? Tautly grinning? And what can he mean by “still playing the role”? This is only the second Superman comic ever, from July 1938, and already our hero — caped and airborne, with Lois coiled against his unbreachable bosom — is carrying a freight of super-irony.
Then again, as we learn from “Superman,” Larry Tye’s exhaustive and engaging book, irony attends every phase of this story. Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel (writing) and Joe Shuster (drawing) — were a pair of Cleveland geeks whose underdoggery was purer almost than the alpha-male prowess of the pulp heroes they adored: Tarzan, Hugo Danner, Clark (Doc) Savage Jr. and so on. Both the sons of immigrant Jewish tailors, Siegel and Shuster were uncool, and they were girl-less. They had no money. Shuster, the artist, was horribly nearsighted. And how they toiled, through lost nights of teenage-dom, at their secret weapon: their made-up ultrabeing, their hero to out-hero them all. First, in a misfire, he was naughty (a mind-reading tramp called “the Super-Man”), then he was good. Then very good. At last, on what Tye calls “a hot summer night of divinelike inspiration,” it happened: the elements fused, and the 19-year-old Siegel, scribbling madly in his bathroom, came up with the doomed planet Krypton, Lois Lane, Clark Kent the mild-mannered reporter. . . .
Four years later, after many rejections, the boys finally got a Superman comic onto the newsstands: Action Comics No. 1, June 1938. The comics writer Grant Morrison, in his 2011 book “Supergods,” describes the cover image as looking “like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall 10,000 years from now.” Superman, his body flexed with a terrible rectitude, is hoisting a car over his head and crushing its front end against a boulder. In the foreground a man flees wildly, “clutching his head,” as Morrison observes, “like Edvard Munch’s Screamer, his face a cartoon of gibbering existential terror.” And no wonder: this Superman is dynamically angry, an avatar of decency outraged, bashing through doors and tossing goons over the treetops. “Don’t get tough!” growls an interrupted wife beater. Says Superman: “Tough is putting mildly the treatment you’re going to get! You’re not fighting a woman, now!”
Equally potent are the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” shenanigans of poor Clark Kent, his alter ego, heartily scorned by Lois. Sad, really, that this magnificent and double-natured figure had already been sold, rights, image and all, to the publishers of Action Comics for $130 — a deal that Tye, with hyperbole worthy of a Golden Age comics editor, calls the “original sin” of the comics industry and “a swindle on the order of the Dutch West India Company’s 1626 purchase of Manhattan from the natives for $24.” (In “Supergods,” Morrison takes a soberer view: “Superman was a foot in the door. . . . I’d suspect that both Siegel and Shuster imagined they’d create other, better characters.”)
And so he was launched — not flying yet, still leaping in eighths of a mile, but with the wind beneath his cape. He proliferated and diversified into different lines of comic books. A slow and fantastical increase in powers was witnessed, as the collective reader-mind became absorbed in his possibilities. Tye (whose previous books include a biography of Satchel Paige) is very good on this, on the steady daydreamlike magnification of Superness: “His million-decibel yell had enough intensity and pitch to topple tall buildings. What if a building fell on him? A tickle at most. His nostrils were super-acute. His typing was super-fast. . . . His gaze was intense enough to hypnotize a whole tribe of South American Indians at once. He could converse with a mermaid in her native tongue and beat a checkers expert his first time playing.” He was a champion of the oppressed, and his values were solidly New Deal — he took down slumlords, arms dealers and random unincorporated bullies. In real-world court he successfully faced first Wonder Man and then Captain Marvel (“the World’s Mightiest Mortal”), charging them with being Superman knockoffs.
But he was a lonely, lonely man-god. Was he even a real superhero? On his native Krypton (now destroyed) he would have been normal, after all: it was only Earth’s “slighter gravity pull” that gave him his superstrength. And Lois might dote upon the all-conquering Superman, but she despised Clark Kent. Was there anyone out there who could love them both — love him, that is, in the totality of his being? Displaced religiosity swirled, still swirls, around him. He is Christlike in his virtue and singularity. He is also, according to Tye, Jewish, from his Judaic-sounding real name, Kal-El, to the Moses-on-the-Nile echoes of his infantile voyage to Earth. Tye diagnoses Superman’s “lingering heartsickness” as “survivor’s guilt” and adds, “A last rule of thumb: When a name ends in ‘man,’ the bearer is Jewish, a superhero or both.”
Tye’s account of Superman’s 1946 run-in with the Ku Klux Klan is slightly muffled, perhaps because it has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. (The radio show “Adventures of Superman” took on the Klan in a 16-episode series called “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”) But he makes up for it with a sizzling portrait of the extraordinary Mort Weisinger, a brutal, obese bottom-liner who was also, in a crowning Supermanic irony, the franchise’s most fabulous and poetic editor. When Weisinger fired a well-respected artist in 1966, and said artist then asked if he’d heard right, Weisinger said, “Do you need a kick in the stomach to know when you’re not wanted?” And yet it was the Weisinger years that gave us Brainiac, Bizarro, the full terror of kryptonite, a gorgeous, pulsing sprawl of Superman mythology. “He divined a fairy-tale universe,” Tye writes, “with its own laws of nature.”
For me the story lessens in excitement the closer it gets to the present: the predictably gritty reboots of the comic book, the megabucks ’70s and ’80s movies. As a reading experience, this all represents a bit of a petering-out. It’s in the middle of Tye’s book, in the thick of it, that you find the luscious old-school moments — as when George Reeves, less than thrilled to be TV’s first Superman, introduces himself to Phyllis Coates, the new Lois Lane, and says, “Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.” He’s quite wrong, of course: Superman will be 75 next year, and his barrel is apparently bottomless. Mighty, solitary, wearing his underpants on the outside as if in an endless anxiety dream, he flies on.