By Robyn Marcs, Grants Manager at the Western Reserve Historical Society
A few weeks ago, I was driving home from the West Side Market with a friend who is new to the area. During one of our conservations on the road she asked, “Did you know Superman is from Cleveland?” Of course I did! I think it’s one the first things that every Clevelander is taught, especially since my grandmother grew up only two miles from Jerry Siegel’s house on Kimberly Avenue.
Was it fate or an intervention from Kryptonians that brought the Shuster family from Toronto to Cleveland in 1924? Whichever it was, it was certainly to pop culture’s benefit that the two young men who were, as The Saturday Evening Post once wrote, “two small, shy, nervous, myopic lads who can barely cope with ordinary body-building contraptions … [they were] the puniest kids in school picked on and bullied by their huskier classmates.” It was said that their mutual love of science fiction started their now-famous friendship, which isn’t hard to believe. Siegel was the creative brains behind the Superman character and Shuster brought his vision to life with his impressive character designs. According to Jerry Siegel, it all came down to one fateful night in 1932 when he couldn’t sleep “when all of a sudden” the idea of a strong man the likes of Hercules and Samson came to his mind. He wrote it down and the next morning when Shuster came over, he told him all about his new character—Superman. Jerry himself served as the model for Superman and his future wife, Joanne, was the model for Lois Lane when Joe Shuster first drew them in 1935 at the Siegel home in Glenville.
Siegel and Shuster’s big break came in 1938 when they sold their first Superman comic to Action Comics for $130 for 13 pages. This deal, of course, would come to bite them in the back since they essentially sold their rights to what would become one of the most famous comic book characters in history. However, to Siegel and Shuster, they were just two young men who were elated to have their comic in print. In fact, The Plain Dealer, their hometown rag, would be one of the first papers to publish the comic in the 1940s.
Siegel and Shuster were both the sons of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants who escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe around the turn of the twentieth century. Their families settled in the Jewish neighborhood of Glenville, and Jerry and Joe attended Glenville High School where they met. In 1941, Siegel and Shuster, proud of their Jewish heritage, attended a benefit for The Temple (today The Temple-Tifereth Israel). Shuster drew pictures of Superman for attendees while Siegel answered fans’ questions about their famed character. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver even attended this event. During World War II, Siegel and Shuster drew Superman defeating Hitler, even Nazi Germany saw this comic and said that “Siegel was attempting to push his Jewish agenda.”
By the 1970s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were shadows of their former selves. Shuster, the artist, was going blind in one eye and Siegel was working a dead end job at Marvel Comics. However, Clevelanders were always very proud of their native sons. Today, the Jerry Siegel’s childhood home has an Ohio Historical Marker. Where Joe Shuster once lived is now a vacant lot, but there is a fence commemorating him with Superman comics surrounding where his apartment building once stood. Regardless, these two young Jewish men gave our city and the nation what we needed – The Greatest American Hero.