Date: July 1st, 2004
Fans hear time and again about how Superman is an American icon. Some of you will be surprised to know then that Superman is part Canadian, one half to be exact. But of course, this will come as no great shock to Canadians.
If you have ever read up on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, a biography of Shuster will generally start out with something like, "Born July 10, 1914 in Canada, his family moved to Cleveland Ohio when he was ten..." One would assume from such biographies that nothing happened to Superman's first artist in his earliest years! But a lot did happen, and events in his childhood would result in some of the classic elements of his and Siegel's creations. Following is a biography of Joe Shuster, focusing more on his years in Canada and early days as an undiscovered artist rather than attempting to properly tell the story of his life.
Joe Shuster was indeed born in Canada on July 10, 1914. Joe was born and raised in Toronto, a metropolitan city to rival any in the world. His father Julius was a tailor, and would delight his young son by setting him on his lap and reading to him the comics out of the Toronto Star, 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' being Joe's favourite. Joe Shuster said in a 1992 interview, his last interview, to that very newspaper:
"My sharpest memory is of little Nemo. It was a very imaginative strip and it even had a touch of science fiction in it. It had marvellous scenes, Winsor McCay's depiction of the city of the future, the planets, all the things I loved. That was among the things that turned me on to fantasy and science fiction... Later on, I began to read the comics myself and I had hopes of someday drawing a comic strip of my own."
Joe started honing his artistic skills at a very young age. His sister Jean Peavy recalled that Joe, somewhere around the age of four, had drawn murals on the walls of the family's apartment. While children nowadays might do this to be mischievous, Joe might have drawn his art on the wall out of sheer necessity! Paper was a luxury when he was a child, so when Joe was old enough to go outside on his own he would scrounge for scrap paper and cardboard that businesses had thrown out. Premium paper to him was the white paper used to wrap up meat from the local butcher's shop (the paper that wasn't soaked in blood, that is). One day Joe hit the jackpot when he came across several rolls of discarded wallpaper. Joe said, "The backs were blank, naturally. So it was a goldmine for me, and I went home with every roll I could carry. I kept using that wallpaper for a long time."
It would be remiss of me not to mention Joe's cousin, Frank Shuster. Non-Canadians may not be familiar with the popular comedy duo Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, more commonly known as just Wayne and Shuster. They started out as young friends with common interests (much like another young pair), went on to comedic radio, then in World War II entertained troops before moving on to stage and television and remaining there until the late 1970's. Wayne and Shuster hold the record as the most recurring guests on the Ed Sullivan show with 67 appearances. If you are fortunate enough to get CBC broadcasting, check the listings and you'll still be able to catch them and point out Joe's cousin. But before either Joe or Frank rose to prominence, they were young cousins and best friends that liked to see movies together. Joe later said that Superman's face and build were designed on actors he had seen on cinema screens in Ontario.
The Shuster family, while never living in destitution, were a poor family that did have problems paying rent. So it was not unnatural for Joe at a very young age to work at a job of his own. He became a newspaper boy for the Toronto Star, and quickly learned the lay of the land in Toronto's downtown, amongst both its high rising skyscrapers and more modest business and residential districts.
In 1924 the family moved to Cleveland Ohio for new business opportunities. In 1930 Joe Shuster met Jerry Siegel, and their common interest in fantastic stories led to a fast friendship. They worked together to produce their own science fiction magazine, and in that very periodical in 1933 they created their first Superman story. 'Reign of the Superman' featured an earth man gaining godlike abilities, but then squandered them in an effort to acquire power and wealth. The story itself mentioned that the superman could have used his powers to aid humanity, and a few months later Jerry thought a benevolent superman protecting humanity would be a fantastic character. Also a change from the previous attempt would be to turn the stories into a comic book format, a relatively new type of publication. The new incarnation again starred a man from earth who was granted unbelievable powers. This second Superman story was rejected from all publishers, and in a fit of frustration Joe threw all but its cover page into a fire.
Siegel and Shuster did not confine themselves to merely the superman concepts, however. They worked on over half a dozen different stories, comic book and comic strip ideas. In 1935 the friends created two new characters, the all but forgotten French soldier of fortune, Henri Duval, and the premier private investigator of the supernatural, Dr. Occult (who can still be seen from time to time going on mystical adventures with other DC characters, even his brother by mutual creators, Superman). Siegel scripted the adventures while Joe drew them on the back of the wallpaper he had collected and saved from Toronto! They submitted their work to National Periodical Publications, who accepted their work but told them to use proper paper and to ink their work. It was then that Joe Shuster asked his parents for money to invest in proper, if bare boned, artist tools. Another character that preceded the final version of Superman was Slam Bradley, who, like Dr. Occult, still makes his rounds in DC comics.
So what inspirations led to those final touches to the Superman we know? Where did the alien heritage, the costume, and the mild mannered identity come from? To explain all that might take a whole other article, but the short answer is that Jerry Siegel simply came up with most of those crowning touches. Don't think that Joe Shuster didn't play a vital role, though. Joe, being the artist, of course came up with a significant portion of the costume. Getting to the knitty-gritty of who came up with what gets darn near impossible, particularly the 'S' shield. It is known that Joe suggested the cape, because it could better illustrate Superman leaping and descending in the sky.
It is common knowledge that Siegel was the one who invented Lois Lane, as well as the love triangle between Superman, Lois, and Clark. Siegel once said, "I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed. So it occurred to me: What if I was really terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?... The heroine, who I figured would be some kind of girl reporter, would think he was some kind of worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character who could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow whom she loathed."
There's no doubt that Jerry Siegel could identify with mild mannered Clark Kent, but once again getting to the knitty-gritty, Jerry seemed more as the second tier to the Clark personality- Clark in relationship to Lois Lane. Meanwhile, Joe Shuster is Clark/Superman at his core, a mild mannered person able to explode with extraordinary power. Joe was described as looking like a ninety pound weakling by his cousin, and he even acted a lot like Clark as he quietly worked at his drawings, but at the same time Joe lifted weights, training hard to make his body strong. He never even showed off his strength to play sports, instead usually drawing or working out alone, but he had power all the same. While Jerry might have been the one to write about them, Joe served as the embodiment of the central Superman/Clark Kent dynamic.
Joe Shuster was frequently visited by his cousin Frank during summertime. His last trip to Canada was in December, 1941 when he was the best man at Frank Shuster's wedding. Just like his noble fictional character, Joe did not squander his newfound notoriety. Shuster drew an original Superman drawing that was the highlight of a charity auction in Toronto, the proceeds going to needy children.
As I said, I'm glossing over a lot of Joe Shuster's life here. I could talk about him leaving National Publications, or his legal battle with DC, but instead I'll leave with him in 1992. Mr. Shuster, not having good eyesight for years and by then nearly blind, lived in Los Angeles with an array of pictures, magazines, and products all related to his and Siegel's most famous creation. Joe took great pleasure in listening to classical music, acquiring all the latest technology over the years as it came available. Even in his last year of life, he donated thousands of dollars worth of stereo equipment to the visually impaired.
This is what Joe Shuster had to say on visually creating Metropolis.
"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."
That's right. Metropolis, so often identified with New York, was originally modelled after Toronto.
True aficionados will be able to tell you that the Daily Planet was originally known as the Daily Star, but do you know who named it, and why? When Siegel and Shuster required a name for the newspaper that Clark and Lois were employed by, Joe thought back to his fond memories of both reading the Toronto Star and selling it as a young lad. Thus, he named it their paper the Daily Star.
Early on Siegel and Shuster were told by an editor to rename the newspaper the Daily Planet for unknown reasons. I must admit, the ringed planet on top of a building is much more stylish than either having nothing or a giant star. So while the Daily Planet is the famous name now used for Joe's idea, the name of the Daily Star has shown up time and again in the comics. During the Silver Age the Earth-2 Superman rose to become the chief editor at the Star, while today one of the Planet's rival newspapers is known as the Daily Star.
Some people are over zealous. I know fellow Canadians that will insist that Winnie the Pooh is Canadian, darn near forcing the fact on others. I mean, it's true, the bear fondly called Winnie is named after Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the real life bear came from Canada, but to ignore A.A. Milne's and E.H. Shepards' (author and illustrator of the tales respectively) nationality would be wrong. Yes, a bear from our country inspired the stories, and yes, without that bear there might never have been those stories, certainly not with the name Winnie at the very least.
And, if you can believe it, some Canadians would like to blurt out that Superman is in fact not American, but Canadian. Maybe they're getting confused and are thinking Joe Shuster was the driving force behind the team of Siegel and Shuster (see the next section), and that Siegel just helped him out. And, I kid you not, some people like to put a unique spin on the fallout between Superman's creators and DC. I have heard people allude to the fact that DC (interchangeable with the entire country of the United States) bought the rights to Superman for some measly sum and that if fate had gone a different way, Superman might be stopping villains north of the border. Once again, you can see how people like to believe what's wishful thinking to them rather than pay attention to facts, like that DC buying the character had nothing to do with nations and everything to do with money and rights, or that Siegel was American and with Shuster having already lived in the states for long enough, they probably would have set the Superman adventures in the states anyways.
What do I think, though? I'm proud that Superman has numerous Canadian connections. I mean, one of the creators and the very first artist was Canadian, plus he at least partly inspired Clark Kent, complete with the hidden strengths of Superman. I'm not fooling myself- if we're going to talk sheer volume of who contributed more to the Superman mythos, both at the start and later on, Jerry Siegel was the man. That kind of goes with the writer's territory. On the other hand, Metropolis and the Daily Planet both being inspired by Toronto and the Toronto Star is quite significant. I think the city needs a statue of Superman. You can never have to many statues of Superman in the world.
I want to point out something to everyone. We've all heard, "Superman fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way." Did you know that when that phrase was first used, it stopped at "truth and justice?" It comes from Jay Morton, who wrote it for the original Superman cartoons produced in 1941. I'm not mentioning this to try and cheat America out of its great hero, nor am I ignoring his often symbolic status to the states. I believe Superman is an international character, and a global hero. The U.S. and Canada both have certain claims to him, as do countless other countries thanks to the many people of different nationalities and cultures that have worked on Superman in one way or another. Superman is every nation's hero, everyone's hero.
Many a Canadian will be familiar with these historical short films shown during commercial blocks, if not this very footage. Historica is a company that promotes and educates Canadians about our country's rich history, and this particular short was shown during the early to late 1990's, primarily on CBC and CTV. I don't think this particular one has been on any channel for a number of years, but they like to rotate these films so it may come back again someday.
This film takes place in 1931, and Joe Shuster is being bustled onto a train by a woman named Lois. He's telling her about this fantastic character he's created, and, well, you'll just have to watch for yourself. Notice that the script just had to mention Frank Shuster in there.
Poor Historica though. Try as they might to educate people about the past, this super-short film is really inaccurate. Just for fun, try to spot all the problems. Answers are available at the bottom of the page, but don't look there until you've watched the film!
In 1949 Superman built what would be his home until the mid nineteen-eighties. The Fortress of Solitude was constructed by Superman for him to get away from it all, even his life as Clark Kent. It sported a super gym, incredible facilities for scientific research, and halls upon halls devoted to trophies and friends. All of this was housed underground at the North Pole, just close enough to Metropolis that you can go there or back in under a few minutes, yet isolated enough so that meddling villains don't show up at your doorstep every other day.
The North Pole is a part of the Dominion of Canada, making Superman a resident of the country (whether legally or not). While Clark Kent's birth certificate might say he's a citizen of the United States (and only we know that he's actually a naturalized citizen), if Superman's permanent residence is in the North Pole, has he ever gained Canadian legal status? I'm guessing not, because I've never heard of him paying taxes on the fortress. Ouch, and Environment Canada isn't going to like the fact that he dug up the ground without their permission.
For movies and television, Smallville has been filmed in Canada more often than the states. Alberta was the province of choice for the 'Superman' movies. A young Clark Kent attended primary school in Barons (near Lethbridge), and high school in High River Primary School (that's more than a bit ironic). Lana Lang's house was in High River, as was Smallville's town square, coach station, WheatKing Headquarters, and more.
The television show 'Smallville' is filmed in and around Vancouver, British Columbia of all places. The Talon is in reality the Clova, a movie theatre in Cloverdale. The Kent farm is a private residence in Langley, and the stately Luthor home is Hatley Castle, a building for Royal Roads University and a former residence of the Lieutenant Governor of BC.
Born 1909 in Hamilton, Ontario. Robert Beatty played the captain of a tanker in 'Superman III' and the U.S. president in 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.' Interestingly, in 1982 he took part in a television movie 'Man and Superman' adapted from the play of the same name. The comedy was written in 1903 and therefore is strictly discussing Nietzsche's superman, but from what information I found this particular production also slided in some references to DC's Superman.
Born 1916 in Sainte-Christine Quebec. Glenn Ford played Jonathan Kent in the first 'Superman' movie. Of interest is the fact that he acted in the 1940 'Blondie Plays Cupid' alongside Jonathan Hale.
Born 1891 in Ontario. Jonathan Hale appeared in several 'Adventures of Superman' television shows as Professor Roberts, including three episodes that were put together to form the 'Superman in Scotland Yard' movie. Hale performed in another series of films based on comics- he was Dagwood's boss Mr. Dithers in the 'Blondie' movies. Jonathan Hale shares another unfortunate distinction along with star George Reeves apart from both being in the same television series, both men committed suicide (Hale in 1966).
Born 1931 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Robert Ito has voiced supporting characters in 'Batman: The Animated Series', 'Superman: The Animated Series', and 'Justice League.' He is probably best known, though, for playing Sam, the assistant at the coroner's office on the hit show 'Quincy.' In a strange bit of Canadiana, there's a song devoted to "Sam, the guy from Quincy" written and performed by Canada's premier comedy singing troupe, the Arrogant Worms.
Born 1948 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Margot Kidder played Lois Lane in the seventies and eighties' 'Superman' movies. She has suffered from chemical imbalances in the brain resulting in mental health problems, but she has persevered and in addition to continuing her work as an actress Ms. Kidder educates and speaks as an advocate for mental health awareness.
Born 1950 in England, the Byrne family moved to Canada in 1958. This artist and writer is especially noted for having revamped Superman in 1986 with the 'Man of Steel' mini-series. I have been unable to find if he is a Canadian citizen.
Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Tom Grummett is an artist who has drawn for 'Action Comics', 'Adventures of Superman', 'Superboy', and 'Legion of Superheroes,' as well as non-Superman related comic books. Tom Grummett was one of the contributors to 'Superman: The Wedding Album.'
Born in Toronto, Ontario. Stuart Immonen spent time self-publishing and working with small companies before hitting the big time with drawing a Martian Manhunter story for DC. Since then he's done 'Legion of Superheroes', 'Adventures of Superman,' and both drawn and written for 'Action Comics.'
Born in Quebec. Denis Rodier has drawn for such DC heavyweights as Batman and Wonder Woman. Much of his notoriety comes from drawing Superman, as he contributed art for both 'The Death of Superman' arc and 'Superman: The Wedding Album.'
If you need to read this bit then you haven't been paying attention! Joe Shuster was born 1914 in Toronto, Ontario. He is one of the co-creators of Superman, as well as being the first artist of the series. He died in 1992.
How many incorrect facts did you spot? To catch them you needed to keep in mind that the year is supposed to be 1931. Here they are in order: