Justice (Part 1): How Mitchell Siegel's Murder Gave the World Its Greatest Hero

Tue, March 14th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Stuart Max Perelmuter, Guest Contributor

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Jerry Siegel Joe Shuster
The murder of Mitchell Siegel will never be solved. Still, the greater mystery in regards to pop culture concerns the effect of this senseless killing on his young son, Jerry. How deep was Jerry's sense of outrage when he dedicated his life to truth and justice in co-creating the world's most legendary fictional hero?

Jerry's life revolved around school - where students mocked and ridiculed him - and home where his worrying mother babied him1. His solace came only from books, trashy pulps and magazines (ironic but necessary that the inventor of the modern comic book would have none to read as a child). Only his father, on weekends and nights home early from his haberdashery, provided any tolerable human contact; someone to ask about his interests and take him to a picture - usually "Zorro" starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. 2

But Mitchell was under no illusion: His son was weird. Mitchell and his wife Sarah had two sons prior to Jerry and knew boys to be athletic, outgoing, and hard-working. Even their three daughters had worked in the family store and played outside. 3 But Jerry was friendless, jobless, and had no interest in extracurricular activities. He was not particularly good in school, like so many other introverted second generation Americans - in fact he and his cohort, Joe Shuster, were forced to repeat their final years of high school while their classmates went on to college and jobs, though it is safe to say that they were not missed by their peers, and the feeling was mutual. 4

It's clear from his later work that Jerry admired, even idolized, physical prowess - speed, strength, certainly leaping abilities - yet he never strove to compete athletically or to sculpt his body - whereas tiny Joe would spend hours in the weight room to look more like his drawings. 5 Surely, the boy who would prevail through years of publishing company rejections was not afraid of failing at new endeavors. 6 Jerry stayed off the football field, not for fear, but due to an innate sense of identity - he wasn't an athlete or a student, he was a science fiction expert, a writer! And his sense of self came front and center when he first became aware of his father's displeasure with him.

The original design of Superman's "S" Shield, courtesy Superman's Shield and its History!
Mitchell, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was proud of the life that he had built in America; proud of his family. He was genuinely loving and supportive to all of them, including the one who read trash all day long. But with his enigmatic youngest son, the pride was misplaced. With no sports, no friends, and most importantly no job, what was there to take pride in?

Wishing to please his father, Jerry set out to make the family some money. It never occurred to Jerry to alter himself, to betray his true self, to get a job in the store as his siblings had done. Jerry would please his father, but he would do it on his own terms: telling stories.

His teachers had recognized a talent in him, but could not comprehend why he would write such tripe, this new "scientifiction." They urged him toward a more conventional, broadly appealing direction. Again, the thought of changing himself never seemed feasible, and he wrote more of those "silly" stories.

He wrote the stories tirelessly, day and night, and used a variety of pseudonyms in order to create the illusion that his pamphlet was filled with the work of several authors. He cut class in order to make mimeograph copies on school equipment and soon was ready for business. He peddled before, during, and after school to anyone who crossed his path. But nobody was buying. 7

The passion and creativity that lay behind the stories were not accessible to people's basic sensibilities. In his "Cosmic Stories," 8 young Jerry's creativity presented itself with a flourish, but the governing humanity that inspires the reader's empathy was conspicuously absent. From a marketing stand point, a severely disliked salesman never helps move merchandise either.

However, that humanity would not be absent long and Jerry would soon have little trouble selling his stories, but he would never have the chance to prove his worth to his father. When Mitchell was found murdered one night in his haberdashery, Jerry - just a teenager - lost more than his best and only friend. 9 He lost the force behind his drive for success. But just as the death of Thomas Wayne was to be an inspiration to his son, Bruce, this murder was not the end for Mitchell Siegel's son, but a new beginning.

Jerry continued writing and he did so with a frenzy of productivity that could only be fueled by his nightmares. If he could not bring justice to his father, he would create a world where justice was wrought with a heavy fist. He and Joe Shuster - an equally disliked Jewish Canadian immigrant who quickly became Jerry's best friend and illustrator - created a world of good and evil, with no room for grey area. 10 For in addition to a profound sense of self, the murder of his father had, with a single stroke, painted a detailed moral code. It was a code to live by, a code to write stories by and a code with which the masses found empathy. After all, how does one argue with truth and justice?

After "Action Comics" gave the world Superman in 1938, Mitchell's influence on Jerry's work grew. Though Jerry's stories could border on silly, and he took great pride in the gags, his themes deepened at a determined pace that comes when one is faced with the impossible task of pleasing a ghost. Superman began as a fun loving vigilante, showing off and toying with society's underbelly. Toward the end of his first tenure with DC in the mid-'40s. the wildly popular Max Fleischer cartoons were nothing more than formulaic spectacle, and the years immediately following Siegel's departure were a comical caricature of his prior work. 11 But while Jerry's stories frequently flared with absurdity, many also delved deeper into politics, poverty and domestic abuse. 12 His insistence that Superman fight Nazis was greeted by DC with skepticism; too political for a mainstream, family friendly periodical. But to Jerry, this horrendous injustice was too important to ignore. He eventually won out - one of the few battles with DC where he came out the victor - and whenever he crushed the Nazis like steel in his bare hands, Superman always yielded the credit to "our nation's real secret weapon, the unflagging courage of her men." 13

At the age of 24 Jerry gave the children of the world a desire to do good. It was a desire that had lain dormant in Jerry himself as a child, but drove him through his entire adult life as he struggled to win approval from a man long dead. But without a doubt, Mitchell would have been pleased to see how his son used the sensibilities - unlocked by his sudden and tragic death - to create Superman, Earth's greatest champion of justice.

Bibliography

  1. Siegel, Jerry "Happy anniversary Superman" http://theages.superman.ws/siegel.php

  2. NEMO: The Classic Comics Library, issue #2, August 1983, pages 6-19

  3. biography.ms "Jerry Siegel"

  4. Daniels, Les "Superman - The Complete Story" DC Comics 1998: 12

  5. NEMO

  6. Waid, Mark "Superman in Action Comics Tiny Folio" Abbeyville Press 1994

  7. NEMO

  8. NEMO

  9. biography.ms

  10. Coville, James "Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Superman" http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8580/super.html
  11. Waid

  12. Kramer, Blair "Superman" Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/superman.html
  13. "Superman" [comic compilation] National Press 1970 p. 163 (reprinted from 1943)

 
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