Superman I: Secret Origins

Tags: Henry Ward Beecher’s Bowflex; what Batman, beefcake, birth control, and bootleg liquor have in common; “this looks like a job for Spicy Man.”

Tarzan, wasn't a ladies man...

Secret origin? What’s so secret about it? You all know the story. Even if you’ve never read a comic book in your life, you’ve probably heard the tale. Gotham City, in the days of film-noir fedoras and Hupmobiles. A young boy–bookish, awkward, a dreamer–goes to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, and falls in love with the idea. A costumed hero who masquerades as a timid milquetoast, then bursts forth to battle crime and injustice with superhuman skill! Plot thickens: the boy loses his parents, shot dead in a mugging gone wrong. The crime is senseless, random. The boy’s life is shattered. He vows revenge, not on the thug that did his father in, but on crime itself. He vows he will become…

Hold on. Here’s the part you might not know. The city is not fictional Gotham but real life Cleveland. The boy is not millionaire Bruce Wayne but working class schlemiel Jerry Siegel. His father Michel, who immigrated from Lithuania in the first decade of the century, was murdered while closing his Woodland haberdashery in 1928. The police never found his killer. Ten years later, Jerry Siegel and his high school buddy Joe Shuster wrote and illustrated the first true “superhero” story for Harry Donenfeld’s Action Comics. This is not Batman’s secret origin, it’s Superman’s.

(Tangent: Joe Shuster, the cousin of Canadian “comedy” “legend” Frank Shuster, was born in Toronto. On this slender thread hangs the shibboleth that Superman is somehow Canadian. This dubious claim is even the subject of a Heritage Minute, the pinnacle of kitsch Canadiana.)

I’ve been thinking about Superman lately. That’s mostly because I like Superman, but also because I’ve recently read two pretty good books on his origins: Gerard Jones’ nonfiction Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, and Tom De Haven’s novel It’s Superman! So much writing about superheroes is so rotten that finding two pretty good books in a row on the subject is something worth mentioning.

Jones’ book is a history of what comics fans call the Golden Age, or, more precisely, a social biography of a handful of its key players, sort of a nonfiction version of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. Jones sets his sights higher than the score-settling and cataloging that usually passes for comic book history. He’s after big game–the Secret Origins of Geek Culture, more on that later–and while he doesn’t quite convince me that he’s found the source of that Nile, he’s written a solid, serious chronicle, rich with insight and detail. It’s a history of comic books I’d recommend to people who don’t read or care about comic books, and that’s saying something.

“History is written by the winners–sometimes,” Jones begins. “The history of the comic book has been written by those who got rooked and by those who sympathize with those who got rooked.” He’s too right. The standard histories of the genre are tragic tales of naïve creators–stand-ins for the comic fans that read these books–getting screwed over by venal money men. Men of Tomorrow doesn’t deny the flim-flammery that went on, but it reminds you that the first “businessmen” in this crazy who-woulda-thunk-it funny book “industry” were just dreamers and outcasts too, hustling for their piece of the American dream and holding on to Superman’s cape for dear life.

That’s why my favorite character in the book is Harry Donenfeld, the jovial huckster and semi-pornographer who co-founded DC Comics and first published Superman. Jones situates Donenfeld in the tradition of Jewish entrepreneurs who made their fortunes at the unrespectable edges of American life–vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, early film and radio–and basically created the twentieth century’s popular culture by locating uptight Protestant America’s unruly id and selling it right back to them. Donenfeld printed a crazy range of underground magazines–true crime pulps like Police Gazette, “art nudies” like Gay Parisienne, “smooshes” like Tattle Tales or Bedtime Stories, and genuine weirdies like Strange Suicides or Medical Horrors. His first big hit was a “smoosh,” or sex pulp, called Spicy Tales, so he flooded the market with Spicy Adventure Stories, Spicy Mystery Stories, Spicy Westerns, and Spicy Detectives. It’s actually kind of surprising the last son of Planet Krypton wasn’t called Spicy Man.

Speaking of sex, Jones is pretty good at spelling out the unarticulated adolescent urges that run through so many superhero comics. He finds a way of acknowledging their importance without turning into Frederick Wertham. Along the way he turns up this in-house oddity–in which Harry Donenfeld gives Kal-El a spanking–commenting, “the little boys don’t know, but the publishers understand.” Indeed.

Men of Tomorrow pinpoints Donenfeld’s early distributor Eastern News as “a major nexus for an important, undocumented alternative culture in early twentieth century America,” one that linked feminists, fitness fanatics, social visionaries, gangsters, and girlie mags. The trucks that carried Donnenfeld’s “spicies” also distributed Margaret Sanger’s (then illegal) birth control, Al Smith’s campaign literature, and Frank Costello’s mob liquor. Eastern News handled Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” stories and Bernarr MacFadden’s body-building magazines, each a parent to Superman and the superhero in their own way. I like that notion a lot–the alt-dot-culture of the 1920s and 1930s, a crucible of cheap magazines and disreputable ideas–and I wish I knew of more good writing on the area. If you haven’t noticed, I’m very fond of unexpected historical connections, especially when they reach into the weirder corners of Americana.

I’m also curious about the importance of Jewish identity to this story. Jones and Chabon remind us, if we need reminding, that most of the key figures in the origins of the superhero are Jewish. I sometimes wonder how much all of geek culture is a discourse on Jewishness in America. Not just the superhero thing, which is pretty obvious–nebbishy immigrants transforming into Nordic supermen to fight crooks and Nazis. I mean the whole cultural edifice of nerddom, from Amazing Stories to The Matrix. “A man is not a man until he owns land, Duddy.” The suspiciously Wagnerian epics of Tolkien and Lucas. Jewish-American Henry Winkler in Italian-American juvie-face as the Fonz. “The insult that made a man out of Mac.” The whole geek-jock “just you wait until our 25th high school reunion” baggage that so many skinny (and fat) bespectacled kids carry around in their psyches. Is it all a secularized, de-ethnicized mastication of Philip Roth?

[Edit: I’ve been chastised, in comments below, for tossing J.R.R. Tolkien into that melting pot of American Jewish geekery, a fate he might have found more horrifying than Mount Doom. Edit Edit: And then I was corrected for implying that Tolkien would have minded. Obviously, Tolkien was neither American nor Jewish, and my half-baked theories about geek culture probably need some more baking before they can accomodate him, and I should stick to my own subject area. In the meantime, I could revise that sentence to say “the epics of Asimov and Lucas,” though Asimov’s epics were really less Wagnerian than… what should I say… Thucidydean? Gibbonian?]

Anyway. My geekier readers are probably familiar with Hugo Gernsback already, but Bernarr MacFadden really deserves a post of his own. He was a loincloth-wearing wrestler who roared like a lion (he changed his name from Bernard to “Bernarr” to make it sound like a lion’s roar), grew his hair long in imitation of Hercules and Sampson, and built an empire on mail-order masculinity: diet and exercise advice, tirades against the “pill-pushing” medical establishment, and lots of pictures of beefcake in tights. He was convicted of an obscenity charge for publishing frank discussions of venereal disease, but was pardoned by President Taft (that noted physical fitness devotee). Superman’s look, his strong-man tights the template for every superhero to come, was pure Macfadden.

If the secret origins of weightlifting and fitness culture intrigue you, I recommend Robert Ernst’s biography of Macfadden, Weakness is a Crime, and Carolyn Thomas de la Pena’s The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American. De la Pena’s book is especially good. Who knew that Henry Ward Beecher did celebrity endorsements for the Health Lift Machine like an antebellum Chuck Norris pimping BowFlex? Who knew that Harvard’s Hemenway Gym, where I myself did many a feeble bench press as a grad student, was a crucial site for the promotion of muscular masculinity in Progressive Era America? Who knew that jazz babies in the 1920s gulped glow-in-the-dark cancer-causing radium cocktails in a quest for vim and vigor? Well, you know now.

Secret origins. You’ve got to love them.


  1. A great post, of course. I’d looked at the Jones book recently and wondered if it was worth reading. I will now add it to my pile based on your recommendation.

    But as long as we’re talking about being geeks here, it’s Kal-El getting the spanking from Donenfeld, not Jor-El. Actually, if it is 1943, it is arguably Kal-L even.

    Yes, that last paragraph has filld me with shame.

  2. Great Caesar’s Ghost! You’re ashamed for knowing, I’m ashamed for forgetting. Of course it’s Kal-El. Or L. (Edited.)

  3. J.R.R. Tolkien was neither American (an eminently English academic and Oxford don) nor Jewish–but an Englishmen of partially German (and eminently Christian German) descent. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing in an otherwise interesting commentary on Jews and geek culture in America.

  4. Yes, you are right of course. And I knew writing it that Tolkien is quite the opposite of American or Jewish (he comes by his Wagnerian echoes much more honestly than George Lucas, you might say), so it was probably sloppy of me to toss him in there. He’s just so central to the geek mythos as I see it that any half-baked theory on geek culture has to find some way to accomodate him. I did try to keep that paragraph speculative, since my thinking on these subjects is very tentative.

    Thanks for reading, though, and thanks for the comment.

  5. Speaking of Tolkien, in his collected letters there is a fine letter from the late 1930s, when the Hobbit was being translated into German. As I recall it, he was asked to certify for the German publisher that he was “Aryan,” ie non-Jewish, to which he replied that he had no idea what the term “Aryan” meant linguistically, and that he’d be quite proud to be Jewish, though he wasn’t. So Tolkien would probably be “surprised” to be lumped in with the folks discussed above, but not necessarily “horrified.”

  6. Rob, thanks for a great post.

    mb, the letter you’re thinking of is Tolkien’s draft of a letter to the Potsdam publishing house Rütten & Loening Verlag, from 25 July 1938. It’s reprinted in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #30; cf. also letter #29 to his English publisher Allen & Unwin). In the reprinted letter he wrote “I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

    I have more (including some background a full copy of the excerpts reprinted in Letters) at G 2006-04-27: From the geek archives: Jews, Tolkien, and a parting note to some ruddy little ignoramuses.

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