Superman's Influences

Jerry Siegel sometimes claimed the idea for Superman came to him late one summer night in 1934. He scribbled down a storyline in a frenzy, the tale goes, and in the morning, he ran nine blocks to his friend Joe Shuster’s house to tell him about it.

In more careful tellings, Siegel and Shuster explained that Superman evolved over years of work. They began inventing him in January 1933, during their junior year in high school, when the character appears in their fanzine as an ugly, bald villain. His unnatural powers came from exposure to a meteor, a precursor to Kryptonite. Later in 1933, on a mock-up comic book cover, Superman has become a hero, swooping from the air to stop a robbery (see next page). He’s an

indistinct figure, almost like a genie. Another early sketch shows Superman’s familiar bodybuilder physique, invulnerable to a tommy gun’s bullets, and he’s holding a man in the air — a precursor to his famous 1938 debut on the cover of Action Comics #1 in which he is hoisting a car above his head (see bottom left).

The final breakthrough came that night in 1934, soon after Siegel and Shuster finished high school. “The concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do,” Siegel said in a 1983 interview. The story’s heroine “would think he was some sort of a worm, yet she would be crazy about this Superman character.”

This figurine is modeled on Superman’s look from comics’ Golden Age, in the 1930s and 1940s, when Siegel and Shuster created him.

Beth Segal
Superman’s spit curl may have come from Johnny Weissmuller (bottom right) or, Ricca speculates, Benny Friedman, the 1924 Glenville High football star. (Also note Friedman’s square chin.) He quarterbacked the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927 on his way to becoming the first great passer in pro football. “Everyone loves him,” Ricca says. “He has dark hair and a skin-tight cost- ume. He’s the hero of the city.”
Cleveland Public Library
Shuster and Siegel loved Tarzan, who shares Superman’s unusual strength and powerful figure. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in several movies, performed in the Aquacade at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition in 1937. Note Weissmuller’s heroic physique, smile, square-ish face and the curl dangling from his slicked-back hair.
Collection of Brad Ricca
Shuster loved bodybuilding publications, and Ricca believes he used images from them as models for making Superman’s poses lifelike. For instance, Superman’s pose as he lifts a car in the iconic cover image of Action Comics #1 appears to mimic the model’s pose on the cover of a popular physical fitness manual of the day.
The “S” seal on Superman’s outfit was inspired by fashions of the time, Ricca says. Large monograms were popular in the 1930s, often in the center of the chest in a diamond shape. Ricca has even found an ad in the Cleveland Shopping News in which a spring blouse is monogrammed with an S inside a triangle. Siegel and Shuster may have seen the ad, he says, since they delivered the Shopping News and tried to get their comics published in it.
Share this story: