Joe Shuster poses with numerous comic books of Superman, the cartoon character he and writer Jerry Siegel created in 1933 in New York on November 18, 1975. (AP Photo)
Superman co-creator has humble Canadian roots
Updated Wed. Jun. 28 2006 9:50 AM ET
TORONTO -- Joe Shuster may not have been more powerful than a locomotive, and he was certainly never mistaken for a bird or a plane.
But what's unmistakable is the enduring legacy of the Toronto-born co-creator of Superman. Together with Jerry Siegel, he "managed to direct the history of comics in North America," said Scott McCloud, an author who has written extensively about comics.
Shuster, the artist, and Siegel, the writer, sold their idea to DC Comics in 1938 - and a legend was born.
Superman has since spawned radio serials, television shows, newspaper strips, video games and several movies - including Superman Returns, in theatres Wednesday.
Though Shuster and his family left Canada when he was just 10 years old, he never forgot his connection to his birth country.
In fact, his cousin was one of the country's comic legends - Frank Shuster of the Wayne and Shuster comedy duo.
Shuster spoke at length of Superman's Canuck origins in a 1992 Toronto Star story - believed to be the last interview he did before his death a few months later. Cleveland-born Siegel died in 1996.
"After Henry Mietkiewicz did the final interview with Joe Shuster there was absolutely no doubt as to how important Joe Shuster's Canadian heritage and Canadian background was to him," said James Waley, founder of the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards.
As a youngster, Shuster was a newsboy at the Toronto Star, then known as the Toronto Daily Star.
He originally named the paper where Clark Kent (Superman's "mild-mannered" alter ego) worked The Daily Star, after his hometown paper, but it was changed in 1940 at an editor's behest to The Daily Planet.
"I still remember drawing one of the earliest panels that showed the newspaper building," he said in the interview with Mietkiewicz.
"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."
Shuster also said in the article that Superman's city, Metropolis, was modelled after Toronto, not Cleveland, where he was living at the time he first drew the superhero.
"Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was, and it was not as big or as beautiful," he said.
"Whatever buildings I saw in Toronto remained in my mind and came out in the form of Metropolis."
Other than a commemorative stamp issued in 1995 and a televised "heritage minute" featuring Joe Shuster handing a Superman drawing out of a train window in Toronto to a woman named Lois (comics aficionados generally declare the spot to be factually incorrect, but are pleased Shuster's memory was honoured), Superman's Canadian roots have been little publicized.
Never fear, there are people out to change that.
Two years ago, Waley founded an award in Shuster's honour so there would be a "heightened awareness" of the contribution this Canadian made to the world of comics and popular culture.
Waley and others on the awards committee are also planning on launching a campaign to get Joe Shuster a star on the Walk of Fame in Toronto. "He's certainly deserving," Waley said.
Superman is believed to be the first of what is now the archetypal superhero: a costumed crime-fighter with a secret identity.
"(Shuster and Siegel) created a character that really spawned an entire genre," said McCloud.
The legal and financial troubles that plagued Shuster and Siegel are another, more unfortunate, legacy.
They sold the rights to Superman to DC Comics in 1938, and after losing out on many of the millions Superman was generating, the two sued for more money in 1947 but were fired. In 1978, DC Comics agreed to give Shuster and Siegel $20,000 annual stipends and restore their creators' credits.
"Their lives are a cautionary tale in some ways because of the fact of the troubles they had with the ownership of the Superman character," Waley said. "But there's no discounting the brilliance of what they brought to the field and the lasting impact that character has had."