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Superman Co-Creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster Discuss The Man Of Steel’s Origins [Video]

It was on this day in 1938 that Action Comics #1 first appeared on American newsstands and wherever comic books were sold. Priced at just ten cents, the 64-page periodical contained a story called “Superman: Champion of the Oppressed” by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. This was the first appearance of the prototypical costumed superhero who was sent from another world to fight for truth and justice. Along with fearless newspaper reporter and romantic partner Lois Lane, Superman would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most beloved and enduring American pop culture icons.

Much has been written about the creation of Superman and Siegel and Shuster’s struggles for compensation, credit and respect, but it’s not too often that we get to hear Superman’s creators tell their own story in their own words. But because everything that was ever on television is either back on television or otherwise available on the Internet, we’re fortunate to have Superman: The Comic Strip Hero, an eminently watchable documentary about the Man of Steel that was produced by the BBC in 1981. The one-hour film details not just the creation of Superman and his travels through various media. It features revealing interviews with many notable sources including creators Siegel and Shuster, Joanne Siegel, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman and more.

We’ve posted these clips before, but it seems necessary to listen to Siegel and Shuster’s remarks once again on the 75th anniversary of their original, brilliant work.

  • Jerry Siegel awoke in the middle of the night with the basic tenants of Superman and Clark Kent fully formed.

  • Clark Kent was inspired by silent film star Harold Lloyd, who wore glasses and portrayed seemingly weak men who would turn the tables on their enemies.

  • Superman’s physique, poses and presence was based on silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, who played adventure heroes in films like Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro.

  • The model for Lois Lane, Joanne Carter posed for Joe Shuster in her late teens. She later married Jerry Siegel.

  • Siegel and Shuster sold Superman to DC Comics for $130, later earning $25,000 each per year for the rest of their lives — as of 1981. The legacy of this event would continue to play out all the way into 2013.

  • The film documents some of the comic book production techniques of the time, including coloring by hand, lettering and logo placement, printing, and of course drawing.

  • Interestingly, the BBC interviewer asks then-DC Comics President Sol Harrison whether Superman’s rocket could have landed anywhere but America and still produced the same man. One has to wonder if a little light bulb appeared over young Mark Millar’s head when he saw this documentary, and if it influenced the creation of his and Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett’s graphic novel Superman: Red Son.

  • The first actor to portray Superman on film, Kirk Alyn discusses the need to play Superman straight, as opposed to self-aware. “I didn’t dare lampoon him,” Alyn says in the film, for fear of disappointing the fans as well as his bosses. Indeed, so concerned was DC Comics with the image of Superman that Alyn was credited only for his role as Clark Kent. Superman was credited as himself.

  • Lauded science fiction author Larry Niven nerds the f*** out so hard with hilariously oblivious and protracted discussions of what damage Superman would do to the real world if he really existed: sonic booms would destroy all our windows, dangerous shockwaves would be commonplace, and human-Kryptonian mating would be nearly impossible, with Kryptonian sperm vaporizing human eggs as they blast through a human female at the speed of light.

  • The Adventures of Superman actor George Reeves became so identified with the television series, he was sometimes attacked by unruly viewers who wished to test whether he was the real thing. Reeves later committed suicide, presumably because of his inability to get work after the series ended.

  • Definitive Superman actor Christopher Reeve discusses the dichotomy of Superman and Clark Kent, and praises Siegel and Shuster for giving the world’s most powerful man enough of the Average Joe’s problems and pratfalls to make him relatable. Reeve also discusses the character’s transition from a ’50s macho man to a more non-threatening and generous superhero for the 1980s.

  • Feminist comics icon Trina Robbins shares her disdain for Superman and the concept of the superhero itself, specifically calling out Supergirl as “dull” and representing conformity. “Maus” author Art Spiegelmen shares similar sentiments, and suggests that America’s fascination with the superhero is connected to aggressive military action around the world.

  • Known as Britain’s Strongest Man, David Prowse betrays a high level of bitterness towards Richard Donner for not casting him in the title role in Superman: The Movie. Prowse claims that Donner told him he was perfect for the part, but that Superman had to be played by an American. Prowse was later aghast when he was hired to train Christopher Reeve, who at the time was 6’5″ and weighed just 180 pounds.

  • Notorious “Seduction of the Innocent” author Frederic Wertham makes plain his view of Superman, which is as a man who through his own will has risen above all community, lawful and moral considerations and represents only power, force and violence. One gets the impression that the filmmakers are somewhat sympathetic to Wertham’s view, and they actually open the film with “Ride of Valkyries” by Wagner, who was one of Hitler’s favorite composers.

  • The film includes a commercial George Reeves-starring commercial wherein George Reeves encourages children to invest their allowance money in U.S. savings bonds. Also included is an overtly cynical demonstration of the power of Superman merchandising on children.

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