February 8, 1996
I noticed a brief paragraph in an obscure column of the Oklahoman the other day about the death of Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman. That set off a chain of World War II memories from more than 50 years ago when I shared desk space with Jerry on the Pacific edition of the Stars & Stripes, the military's daily newspaper written and edited by servicemen for servicemen and women.
Jerry was a quiet, unassuming little man with a ready smile and a gentle sense of humor. He wrote a daily column for the feature page entitled "Take a Break," with illustrations by Cpl. Clyde Lewis, who had been a nationally syndicated cartoonist before the war. Jerry had an Army tech 4 rating, the equivalent of a buck sergeant. His column consisted of witticisms and funny anecdotes aimed at a military readership.
All the staff members knew Jerry's story. In the late 1930s, during the Great Depression, he and a friend named Joe Shuster conceived the idea of a superhuman hero who fought and conquered evil at every level. Siegel and Shuster were teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe was the artist and Jerry supplied the dialogue and story line. They gave their creation the dual personality of a meek, bespectacled newspaper reporter who slipped into telephone booths and emerged as a caped crusader with invincible powers. They named him "Superman" and offered the idea to Detective Comics, a magazine publisher. That was the start of the craze for comic book superheroes which goes on unabated today.
Unfortunately, Jerry and Joe were very young, in their early 20s, and they had no idea their brainchild would turn into such a phenomenally popular fad. So they sold their rights to it for a pittance -- a grand total of $130. They thus lost out on millions when Superman took off. They spent the rest of their lives trying to stake a claim in the megabucks it generates, and for the most part they were unsuccessful. When I worked with Jerry on Stars & Stripes in 1944-45, he spent every offduty hour writing letters to lawyers and others in a futile attempt to establish his share of ownership in the Superman bonanza. It was a sad spectacle for those of us who had come to know him as a colleague.
Jerry and Joe continued their efforts into civilian life after the war. Finally, in 1975, when Warner Communications owned the rights, the two men's bylines were restored and Jerry and Joe were given annual stipends for life. By then the two had drifted into near poverty, according to Time magazine. The amount of their stipend was far short of what they felt was due them. Their own naivete and youth lost them millions. What they received was a mere drop in the bucket when you think of the royalties they might have received from decades of comic book sales, merchandising spinoffs, movie and TV versions, and countless other things. They made nothing from all that.
After learning of Jerry's death, I dragged out my old bound volumes of the Stars & Stripes from a half-century ago and re-read some of his columns. This item from 1945 caught my eye. Jerry wrote: "Joe Kretcel spent an hour digging through refuse of a Park Avenue apartment building, where he is employed, to find two letters containing checks for $114,000, lost by a woman tenant. She rewarded him with -- fifteen cents." What an appropriate little anecdote for Jerry Siegel, who died of heart failure at the age of 81 at his home in Los Angeles with none of the fortune or acclaim that should have come to him.