Interview: Author Larry Tye on Superman and the American way
Superman is celebrating his 75th anniversary this April and way back in 1938 no one could have imagined the enduring impact that the ultra-strong man-in-tights would have on the world. Whether you call him Superman, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, the Big Blue Cheese, Clark Kent or the Metropolis Marvel, there’s no denying that Supes is arguably one of the most recognized characters on our planet.
Spawned from the humble imagination of two Depression-era teens, the story of Superman’s creation, from the hard streets of Cleveland, Ohio to his multi-million dollar big screen film productions, is one of the most fascinating tales in pop culture history. New York Times bestselling author Larry Tye has documented the story of Superman’s cultural journey in his very detailed and entertaining book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.
While researching and writing his Superman biography, Mr. Tye interviewed “hundreds of historians, clerics and psychologists” and “read the unpublished memoirs of Jerry Siegel and Jack Liebowitz, Superman’s creator and patron.” To help us celebrate the hero’s anniversary milestone, Mr. Tye recently answered a few questions for NERDVANA about Kal-El’s origins, his pop culture life and his ever-evolving future.
April 18, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. What is it about this hero that has made him so popular, generation after generation?
Partly it’s the way he has evolved as much as the fruit fly — from a butt-kicking New Dealer in the 1930s when that’s what America needed, to helping take us to war in the ’40s, fight the Reds in the 50s, and, well, giving us just the hero we needed in every era since.
The other [thing] is his constancy. He’s the one hero who instinctively knows the difference between right and wrong and does what’s right. That may seem clunky and too familiar but it’s also reassuring, especially in these days of darkness.
There do not appear to be many details as yet, but it looks as though DC Comics has a new credit reading, “By Special Arrangement with the Jerry Siegel Family,” attached to their Action Comics title. (See the recent DC Comics newsletter.) Do you have any insight on this and do you think the Siegel estate has finally gained some legal ground?
Not sure, but I suspect it’s an outgrowth of the federal appeals court panel earlier this year telling the two sides to settle the way it looked like they would more than a decade ago. Hope that they do for Superman’s sake, and ours.
Your book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, describes the young Jerry Siegel as a writer who was very keen to retain the rights to his creation; and yet he still experienced the Superman license being ripped out from under him. Were Siegel and Schuster just naïve or were they bamboozled by their crafty publishers?
A bit of both. They weren’t just naive; they were desperate for a publisher and willing to take whatever terms were offered. Jack and Harry offered what seemed like a lot to two callow youths and might have been if Superman hadn’t soared. But he did, they had to accept those terms since they’d said they would, and we all know the battles and recriminations that followed.
Why do you think that, even more than Captain America, Superman is tied so closely to “the American way?”
It started with the child psychologist his publishers hired during World War II, to give them a link to the war effort that would resonate across America. It worked, brilliantly, and the American Way became the third element in the old Truth, Justice motto. It worked not because of the jingle but because Superman, even more than Captain America, resonated with kids and their parents and grandparents because of his storylines and drawings and the way we needed just the hero he gave us.
Who better than a hero who looked like us on the outside — a bumbling albeit well-meaning fool — but inside was a superhero, just like you, me, and every kid in America.
What are your thoughts on Superman renouncing his U.S. Citizenship in Action Comics #900?
Superman always has been a blend — part all-American, part global. DC has had fun through the years pushing him in one direction, then back in the other.
Superman seems to constantly be evolving. How do you feel about the changes made to the hero in DC Comics’ “New 52” series, which in some ways harkens back to Siegel & Shuster’s original Man of Steel?
Again, he’s always changing — sometimes getting too far away from Jerry and Joe’s original, relatively modest model, then getting pulled back to the original kid-like conception.
What are your thoughts on Superman’s recent “New 52” romance with Wonder Woman, as opposed to the traditional attraction to Lois Lane?
I love it. Lois is great, and I promise you she’ll be back, but why not try out a new, super-charged romance.
Do you have a favorite Superman story arc, or other favorite Superman memory from his past 75 years?
I love when he married Lois — then woke up to find he hadn’t. And when he first learned to fly. And when he learned about his roots on Krypton. But best of all, to me at least, was when he died, then was reborn in the 1990s — reminding us why we had first fallen for him and how we perhaps took him too much for granted.
Which is your favorite Superman film and why?
The first Chris Reeve one, Superman: The Movie, when director Dick Donner showed us he understood better than anyone what made Superman, Christopher and Margot special.
How different do you think our pop culture landscape would look today were it not for Siegel & Shuster’s Superman?
There wouldn’t just not be a Superman; there might not be a Batman or Spider-Man or any of our cherished superheroes.
Join NERDVANA as we celebrate Superman’s 75th anniversary all this week with amazing articles and incredible information about the history of the Man of Tomorrow.