When I first heard the idea that the story of Superman is, at its heart, an immigrant’s story, it resonated like a bell. Kal-El, or Clark Kent as he is called on Earth, is a character who left his home—albeit sent as a baby from the planet Krypton rather than traveling from another country—and lives a new and different life here in America. While the events of the story that led to Superman’s immigration are tragic, the United States and the world benefit from his unique abilities and his rich Kryptonian culture.
This idea of the immigrant story made even more sense when I read about the lives of Superman’s Jewish American creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, making them great subjects for this Jewish American Heritage Month blog post. As someone whose grandparents came to the United States in the 1920s, I can easily imagine the stories Siegel and Shuster were told about the “Old World.” Due to the limited and time-consuming ways of traveling long distances, Europe might have seemed as far away as a distant planet with customs that would feel drastically different from the American culture they personally experienced.
Siegel’s and Shuster’s families took different paths to eventually settle in Cleveland, Ohio. Shuster was born in Canada in 1914 after his father and mother emigrated from the Netherlands and Ukraine, respectively. Deciding to move again, the family arrived in Cleveland in 1924. Siegel’s parents arrived in New York in 1900 after leaving Lithuania to escape rising anti-Semitism. Coincidentally, Siegel was also born in 1914 after his parents moved to Cleveland. Siegel and Shuster subsequently met in high school, forming an historic friendship and creative partnership.
When the pair first created Superman, he was originally a bald villain. When that concept failed to take off, they revamped him into the more familiar caped hero that was first introduced on April 18, 1938, in Action Comics #1. The authors outlined Superman’s origins on the first page of the comic. We learn he was sent by his scientist father to Earth to escape an unnamed dying planet. While he exhibited superhuman strength as a baby, only as a young adult does he discover he can leap tall buildings—he can’t fly in the original comic!—and decides to use his powers to help mankind.
This mirrors the struggles of immigrants who came to the United States in the early twentieth century. Some were fleeing countries due to extremism, war, or famine to an unfamiliar place and for unknown new lives. Others, like my grandparents, had to leave most of their families behind. Once in America, the road was not always easy because of economic hardships and the lack of opportunities due to racism. Immigrants sacrificed, adapted their own talents, and worked extremely hard in sometimes crushing jobs to improve the lives of their families and communities.
The tale of Superman is also one that involves copyright. The Copyright Office features works related to Superman as part of our Find Yourself in Copyright exhibit. The artifacts include a DVD box set of the first season of The Adventures of Superman and a Superman button created for Kellogg’s in 1946.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge another aspect of copyright that directly impacted Siegel and Shuster: the 1938 sale of their rights to the character of Superman to Detective Comics, Inc.—which later became DC Comics—for just $130. By selling their rights, they transferred to the publisher a copyright holder’s exclusive rights, which include the right to control the reproduction, distribution, and public display of the work and to make derivatives, which are new works based on the original. The publisher continues to make new Superman works to this day, and over time, the story has been adapted into TV shows, movies, and other products. Siegel and Shuster sued several times in subsequent decades to try to win back their rights. After several unsuccessful attempts, the pair ultimately settled for a lifetime stipend and the reinstatement of their byline on the comic.
Born from the creative minds of the sons of Jewish immigrants, Superman is an American institution that still inspires people around the world today. There is so much more to learn about Siegel and Shuster than what’s covered here. Fortunately for you and me, you don’t need superhuman strength or x-ray vision to learn more about the character or his creators.
Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. You can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. You can also explore the exhibit’s companion website.