"Boys of Steel": The History of Superman - For All Ages

Nobleman on "Boys of Steel"

Do you really know the origin of Superman?

A new all-ages picture book from Random House, Boys of Steel The Creators of Superman, aims to tell a new generation of readers what really led to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s most famous creation. Written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ross MacDonald, it tells the true story of the events leading up to two teenagers’ creation of a character that would change the course of popular culture.

In a conversation that’s probably many times longer than the actual book, Nobleman spoke with Newsarama about what went into Boys of Steel, another book on a comics legend that he’s working on, and several urban legends about Jerry Siegel that his research disproved. Read on…and you might be surprised by what you’ll learn.

Newsarama: Marc, how did Boys of Steel come about?

Marc Tyler Nobleman: Well, I’ve been a Superman fan since age six, when I saw Superman: The Movie. So that’s where the Superman part started. The Siegel and Shuster part probably happened when I was in high school – that’s when the 50th anniversary of Superman happened, and when I first heard the story. It wasn’t until years later, when I graduated from college, that I decided I wanted to tell their story, and at first I thought I would do it as a screenplay.

I was told by one of the people who I contacted that Jerry Siegel, who was still alive at the time, was very hard to reach, and would probably not be willing to talk about the story. So I gave up, which I would never do today, but back then, I was much more easily swayed.

So then I got into children’s publishing, and it was a few years after that that I decided to tell the story as a picture book. And my goal was to tell it to a new audience in a new format, so whether it was a screenplay or a picture book, it would have the same result in my mind.

NRAMA: Why a children’s book?

MTN: You know, I don’t even think of it as a children’s book. I think of it as an all-ages book, because Superman, of course, has fans of all ages. And this is the first of its kind; it’s the first biography of Siegel and Shuster in this format, and it’s actually the first stand-alone biography of them. They were, of course, a key part of Men of Tomorrow, but they were not the only focus.

And I thought that telling it visually was a great way to reach two groups of people – not just the adult fans, but also the kids. I felt like if I told it as just prose, kids wouldn’t pick it up, and…well, the other way wouldn’t work. So I felt that this would double…well, if not my audience, then at least my market opportunity. (laughs)

NRAMA: How did you come to the decision to emphasize the events leading up to the invention of Superman?

MTN: Actually, when I first wrote it, it was just about that one night, the night of Jerry Siegel’s epiphany, and the next day, when Joe drew it. The whole story was just that one 24-hour period. But thankfully, an editor – not one who wound up working on it, but another editor – suggested that I expand it a bit.

I wanted to focus on the creative side, and end on an upbeat note. Now, if you read the afterword, you know I get into the tragedy that happened afterward, and the friction. But once I cut all that out (of the main story), I was left with about 10 years worth of events, 1930 to 1940. Because I’d lived with the story for almost 20 years, I didn’t have to struggle over what to leave in and what to leave it. It seemed like all the key beats were there.

NRAMA: It’s interesting that you focus about how long you had the story in your head, because what comes across in the book is the importance of holding on to your creative aspirations.

MTN: Yeah, I would agree with that. These boys were not used to succeeding – they were not successful academically, they were not successful socially. But something inside them kept them going creatively. And this was an era where they had no reason to think that they would ever make it – well, every era is different, but none of us do when we’re starting out. But they had no reason to think that they could do it – they weren’t go-getters in their lives in any other way.

The fact that they were able to go through three and a half years of rejection and still keep at this is incredible to me. I don’t write books to impart lessons – if there’s a lesson that’s in there, great, but I just think it’s a very important character trait that kids should be reminded of – that you’re going to get turned down, but that doesn’t mean you should stop.

NRAMA: You mentioned different eras – one of the interesting things about the book is the way that it shows the era where Superman arrived, really reintroducing the cultural context to show how it made an impact when there was suddenly a character who could repel bullets and fight crime in the days of the Depression and WWII. It’s something that’s easy to forget, the impact a character like Superman can have on a cultural level.

MTN: Yeah, it’s interesting you mention that. I used to think there was too much emphasis on the era when he was created, because I don’t think every character is necessarily a strict product of his time or the mindset of the current era. It was the combination of these two boys, these various influences, and, I think it’s safe to say, of Jerry Siegel’s “private pain,” as Gerard Jones called it in Men of Tomorrow.

I don’t think that the Depression was a dominant force in Superman’s creation. I do think it was a dominant force in his success. The character lifted people so far out of the doldrums – the Depression and the threat of war was so extreme, and Superman was so extreme in the other direction. I think there was a connection between those things.

NRAMA: How did you come to work with Ross MacDonald on this…obviously, he’s not the detective novelist…

MTN: Obviously! (laughs) Actually, I’ve never met Ross. The way it works with children’s books when you don’t have a writer/illustrator is that the publisher matches you up. For us, it was a long process. I sold the book in March ’05 to Random House, and we didn’t begin the search for an illustrator for half a year or more.

It took us maybe another year to find an illustrator, which is not at all common from what I’ve heard. I gave them a list of people I would like, a wish list, and they read through it, and some of the people they had to eliminate because they weren’t free, or weren’t available, or they weren’t affordable…or maybe they just weren’t interested, I don’t know.

Ross was someone the publisher pitched me, and I had already noticed his style, which was so suitable to this Art Deco period. And he also loved superheroes! So it seemed like a great fit, but we never met. I gave my editor a list of scene-by-scene suggestions, and she passed it on to Ross, but we never worked together directly. The publishers don’t want that – they want everybody to go through the editor.

So that’s how we got Ross, and I’m thrilled that we did. He’s gotten nothing but high praise from everyone who’s heard that he’s done this book. He’s a lot more experienced than I am, and a great guy, and I am just blown away by everything he’s done for the book.

NRAMA: When you were doing the book, what were some of the limitations, particularly in terms of using the Superman name and likeness?

MTN: I wrote this speculatively, on my own, and when I heard from Random House the first time, my editor said, “We have to do this carefully because this is a licensed character.”

So Random House’s lawyers took care of it with DC’s lawyers, and I was not privy to that. Within the book itself, we’re telling the story of people’s lives, which isn’t owned by anybody. Everything in the book, with the exception of the last page or so, takes place before Superman was a DC property.

NRAMA: Have you been in contact with any of the Siegel and Shuster families?

MTN: I have not been in touch with any of them. Well, I have been in touch with one of Jerry’s cousins. But I didn’t interview any of them for the book. I wasn’t out to bring out some big revelations; I just wanted to tell this story in a new format to a new audience.

Although…as it happened, after I completed my manuscript and began my photo research, for which I went to Cleveland, that’s when I made a few discoveries that were actually new, and found their way into the book as well.

I did not feel that I needed to interview anybody, because I had read a lot of primary interviews with Jerry and Joe themselves. In fact, as I mention on the copyright page, that’s where all their dialogue comes from; it’s not made up.

I hope I get to meet their relatives as I move forward.

NRAMA: You just mentioned you found some new things in your research – what were some of them?

MTN: Well, the first one was that there’s recurring story that Hitler banned Superman, or Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, proclaimed Superman a Jew and denounced him. It’s in Men of Tomorrow; Jerry Robinson says it in a catalog he wrote for a museum exhibit about Jewish comic creators.

And I asked both of them where they got that, and neither had a source! It’s just a story that’s been batted around. I said to myself, “If it’s a true story, then it would have appeared in a non-comics-related WWII book as well.” So I rolled up my sleeves and looked through all these books about WWII and German propaganda – and there weren’t that many books on propaganda, actually – and found nothing.

So I emailed a bunch of professors at the big universities who specialized in German history and Nazi-era history and so forth…and one by one, they wrote me back and said they’d never heard of that, and they also didn’t think it was very likely.

Finally, I came across a guy named Dwight Decker, I forgot how I found him, but he’s a writer for Alter Ego, and he’d already done some research on this. His theory was that it never happened – the Nazis kept such meticulous records of things that that would have long ago been unearthed.

He also thought that in the crucible of war, Hitler would not have wasted time singling out a comic book character. Pretty much all Western and pop-cultural imports across the board were banned, they didn’t single anything out.

Dwight’s theory was that this story comes from a 1940 Nazi newspaper article about Jerry Siegel, which was basically just making fun of the fact that he was Jewish. It didn’t say that Superman was a Jew, as far as I can remember, it was basically just humiliating Jerry Siegel’s Jewishness. Dwight thinks that that’s where the story came from. My book is actually the first that sets the record straight and says that Hitler never explicitly banned Superman, but this is where it came from, thanks to Dwight Decker’s help.

NRAMA: Who were some other comic historians you spoke with directly?

MTN: Well, as I said, when I was doing research myself, I didn’t talk with anybody – it was all primary materials, interviews with Jerry and Joe. My book was not so expansive that I needed to talk to a lot of people. Most of the people I spoke with were after the original manuscript was done, and I did make one or two tweaks as a result of it, but the only major people I spoke with were people who helped me with archival research in Cleveland, not comic historians or anyone like that.

It’s much different with the work I’ve done since on Bill Finger, which is not yet out or sold – I’m working on it right now – where there is so little information about him that I contacted more than 200 people and interviewed several dozen of them, including some big comics people like Joe Kubert and Jerry Robinson and Alvin Schwartz and Arnold Drake before he passed away, just a bunch of people.

But I didn’t have to do that with this book, because there was already quite a bit of material that I thought was enough for a framework for the kind of story that I wanted to tell.

NRAMA: So are you going to be doing a series of books on classic comic creators?

MTN: Well, I did consider going beyond these two, but I didn’t find anyone I was enthusiastic enough to write about. Not all of them have a story like the Siegel and Shuster story, which has a lot of narrative elements that are interesting. It’s got friendship, it’s got underdogs, it’s got scenes like the one of Jerry running to Joe’s, which is such a simple scene, but to me, it’s a lot of fun to write that.

NRAMA: You mention the appeal of the Siegel and Shuster story – that’s one that’s been looked at from some different angles in the last few years – Men of Tomorrow being one, and Brad Meltzer’s doing a thriller that touches on the death of Jerry Siegel’s father. Why do you feel people keep going back to that story, and why do you feel that people are able to look at it from so many different perspectives?

MTN: I didn’t know that about Meltzer! I’ll have to check his website.

The Siegel and Shuster story is the Genesis in the Bible of comics history. Of course, there were plenty of major characters before Superman; there was Popeye and Tarzan and plenty of pulp influences such as Buck Rogers, but Siegel and Shuster are the genesis of the comic book side of the story.

And so, it’s natural that we’re going to go back to that again and again. It just so happened that it was a story that had everything but sex. (laughs) I guess it didn’t really have violence either, strictly. But it does have people succeeding against the odds, real-life friction between the underdogs and the big corporations, people copying other people…a lot of elements we like to read about in any circumstance.

Now, you mentioned the death of Jerry’s father…that’s another thing I found out that was new. Men of Tomorrow was the first publication that broke the story of what happened to Jerry’s father, and that was a big deal, and (Jones) did a great job. Except…he got one detail wrong. Michael Siegel didn’t get shot. He did die during a robbery, but it was a heart attack.

I didn’t set out to challenge that notion, because why would I think otherwise? But when I was in Cleveland, I came across Michael Siegel’s obituary, which says he died of heart failure. So my book is also the first that sets that record straight – it doesn’t make it any less tragic, a boy still loses his father, a family still loses their patriarch, but it changes it a little bit.

To make sure the newspaper was accurate, I also got a copy of Michael Siegel’s death certificate, and the coroner’s report. So I’ve got a lot of information that’s not in print before, and I’ll be blogging about that, but he was not shot to death.

NRAMA: What else are you working on, besides the Finger book?

MTN: I’m doing some other picture books. My focus is two-fold: I look for stories that have an accessible angle but a mysterious backstory. The accessible angle for Boys of Steel, obviously, is that everyone knows Superman. The mysterious backstory is that very few people outside of comics know anything about how he was created. That draws people in and keeps them there because people want to know the secret solution to the mystery.

I’m also working on a WWII story that’s about a famous first that’s actually not so famous because very few people have heard of it. It’s about a Japanese fighter pilot and something he did that had never been done before.

Another book I’m working on is about a girl in Afghanistan. And I won’t say more than that.

I also like to write about stories that haven’t been told before in book form, so I’m filling some kind of gap in the marketplace.

NRAMA: Would you ever want to write any comics yourself?

MTN: Yes, I’ve tried! I’ve been in touch with DC on and off for five years, talking to different editors, but so far, no luck!

NRAMA: Well, keep trying! Sometimes it happens.

Any final thoughts on your book, or anything you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

MTN: I’m very excited to share this story. Part of my job is speaking at schools, and I’ve been talking about this book since January, when the cover for this book first went online.

It’s exciting to see kids respond to this, and adults too, because not everyone is a die-hard Superman fan, but in our hearts, everyone has a fondness for Superman on some level – at least modern Americans do. So it’s been really fun to see them completely amazed at what happened – they never even realized they’d never thought about it before.

Not every modern character has such a compelling origin. Most modern cartoons just start as an idea in someone’s head, and then he writes a pitch and sells it. But this is a story about uncertainty and the unknown, and the fact that they were teenagers really makes it interesting to people.

I’ll talk to kids in elementary schools, and say, “raise your hand if you have an older brother or sister in high school.” And of course a few will raise their hands, and then I’ll say, “That’s how old the boys who created Superman were when they created him.” And that, to them, is like a jolt. They don’t think of anyone who’s still in school doing something like that.

And actually, here’s a fun little fact…in the book, guess how many times I use the word “Superman.” In the manuscript, not in the afterward.

NRAMA: I think I counted it once…

MTN: It was actually never! I never say the word “Superman.” I say the word “Super,” but never “Superman” in the story proper. It’s a fun little trick about the power of observation and the power of picture books. I had an illustrator to show it, so I never had to say “Superman” even once.

You read it like you do comics themselves – you read the art over the words, and it worked so well that even my editor agreed to go along with it.

Finally, I want to say that I hope this gets into classrooms. It’s a nice little side-lesson for teachers who are doing Great Depression or breakout of WWII units – a nice little way to get kids interested, to bring them into an era on their terms, to bring them into the discussion.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is in stores now. For more on Nobleman and his research for the book, check out his blog at: noblemania.blogspot.com

Related:

Journey Into Comics: The Supermen of Metropolis (IL)

Journey Into Comics: Michael Siegel: Superman’s Silent Son

SDCC ’08 – “Superman: Man of Tomorrow” Panel

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