Historicist: It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

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Historicist: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!

Every Saturday morning, beginning today, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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Covers of Superman #1 (Summer 1939), Superman #6 (September-October 1940) and Adventure Comics #103 (April 1946), all pencilled by Joe Shuster. All characters depicted above copyright DC Comics.
For a 70-year old, Superman looks good for his age. Since his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the Man of Steel has stood as one, if not the key, icon of the fictional genre his success spawned. His appeal has been summed up as the fight for “truth, justice and the American way.”
Yet his origins have a Toronto twist.
2008_05_17s%26s-caricature.jpgJoe Shuster (1914-1992) spent the first decade of his life living in a number of locations surrounding Kensington Market, as family finances dictated a succession of moves. From an early age, he was interested in the comic strips that his father, a tailor, read to him. By the age of 9, Shuster brought in money as a newsboy for The Toronto Star. The family moved to Cleveland in 1924, though many relatives stayed in Toronto. One was Joe’s cousin Frank, who later earned fame as one half of Canadian comedy institution Wayne and Shuster.
During high school, Shuster became friends with Jerry Siegel, an aspiring writer and fellow fan of pulps, comic strips and the emerging genre of science fiction. The pair, who several accounts depict as the Depression-era equivalent of nerds, published their own magazine and attempted to sell a number of ideas to strip and pulp syndicates, including prototype versions of Superman. After half-a-decade of development and failed sales pitches, the character was picked up by National Comics (soon identified by their “DC” logo). In a decision both later regretted, ownership rights to Superman were sold to National for $130.


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Aerial view of Toronto looking north from Royal Bank Building, September 22, 1915. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 928.
Toronto left a lingering impression on Joe that he incorporated into his sketches for Superman, which he noted in a 1992 interview with his former employer.

Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was, and it was not as big or as beautiful. Whatever buildings I saw in Toronto remained in my mind and came out in the form of Metropolis. As I realized later on, Toronto is a much more beautiful city than Cleveland ever was…I guess I don’t have to worry about saying that now.

The Star even found its way into the strip. “I still remember drawing one of the earliest panels that showed the newspaper building. We needed a name, and I spontaneously remembered the Toronto Star. So that’s the way I lettered it. I decided to do it that way on the spur of the moment, because The Star was such a great influence on my life.” Not until 1940 would Clark Kent’s employer suddenly switch its name to The Daily Planet.
The popularity of the character translated into a high volume of work. Combined with vision problems that affected Shuster’s drawing, the pair opened their own studio to produce a steady stream of Superman stories for National. Dismayed by how much money they could have made had the initial rights not been sold so cheaply, Siegel and Shuster served National in April 1947 with a lawsuit for $5 million and the return of ownership rights for Superman. A year of litigation resulted in a ruling against the claim. Both agreed to an offer where National would pay $100,000 as long as the pair surrendered all future claims to ownership of Superman and the recently-introduced Superboy.
After the settlement, the pair attempted to launch a new character, Funnyman, which flopped quickly. The studio soon dissolved and both found work sparse in the 1950s. While Siegel returned to writing the Man of Steel in the early 1960s (as long as he didn’t acknowledge his part in the character’s creation), Shuster’s increasing eye problems curtailed his career. He became a source of urban legend in the comics community about the level of poverty he had fallen to, as he worked odd jobs to support other members of his family.
Siegel and Shuster were finally able to receive some compensation for their creation in the mid-1970s. Aided by industry peers, the pair capitalized on the hype around the upcoming Superman movie by publicizing their cause. The result was a comfortable pension from the corporate parent of DC Comics and a “created by” credit in future uses of Superman. Shuster spent his later years in California and rarely granted interviews, though he appeared with Siegel in a 1981 BBC documentary.
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In 2005, the city honoured Shuster by endowing his name on the main side street of a residential development at King and Dufferin. Joe Shuster Way offers great photographic views of the Gladstone Hotel and the downtown skyline. One can imagine the Man of Steel zooming by the CN Tower while on patrol…
Picture of Joe Shuster Way by Jamie Bradburn. Shuster interview excepts from The Toronto Star, April 26, 1992 edition.

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