I WAS an eyewitness at the birth of none other than this century's greatest mythological hero, Superman. The world mistakenly marks 1988 as the year of his 50th birthday - actually, it is his 53rd - and through all these years he has been offering his exemplary good deeds to a stubbornly unrepentant world. Now that he is being honored as one of our most illustrious citizens, it is time to offer an account of the precise time, place, and manner of his origin.
It concerns 17-year-old Jerry Siegal, who created him. The event actually took place during the school year 1933-34, when Jerry and I were schoolmates at Glenville High School in Cleveland. He was a junior and I, a senior.
I knew Jerry as a slightly built, slope-shouldered fellow. Quiet and self-deprecating, he barely made a shadow. His chief characteristic was a wry, sheepish grin. Except for a certain knowingness in that grin, he was the model for what was to become Superman's self-effacing alter ego, Clark Kent.
One day during study hall, some months before Superman first became a gleam in Jerry's eye, he showed me a letter addressed to a Hollywood film studio. He proposed the creation of a syndicated newspaper comic strip featuring the popular comedians, Laurel and Hardy. It was to be done in partnership with his even more reticent artist friend, Joe Schuster. In time the answer sadly came in the form of a curt, no-explanation rejection.
Perhaps to soothe his disappointment, Jerry joined me and my close friend Sol in entering a short story contest sponsored by the Torch, the school paper. Four prizes were offered. During those years Glenville High served a moderately lower-class, largely Jewish section of town. The school had achieved scholastic excellence and the paper had earned journalistic prestige.
I recall that Jerry's tale was a science-fiction fantasy, that Sol's was a social satire, and that mine was an echo of Edgar Allan Poe. We won, in some forgotten order, second, third, and fourth prizes. First prize, to our dismay, went to a sophomore girl whose story, printed in the paper, we scorned as pitifully contrived. Yet how well I remember it after the passage of half a century.
During those months together in seventh-period study hall, I observed Jerry hunched over his desk, mysteriously scribbling, doodling, and audibly sighing. And then one day, for my eyes to behold, the golden moment arrived. Jerry turned to me, hands outstretched, and Superman stepped out of the very first sheaf of crisply drawn strips.
In retrospect, I like to believe that this revelation was for America something akin to the phenomenon of the goddess Aphrodite emerging full grown from her seashell out of the sea.
A few weeks later Jerry, in his usual offhand manner, but with his eyes shining, informed me that he and Joe had received an offer of a contract for Superman with a comic book syndicate.
The school year ended soon after this momentous development. That autumn I enrolled in college. Almost the whole year passed before I next heard about Jerry and Joe.
The enterprising pair had prospered indeed, and the evidence of this was demonstrated in dramatic style. One bright morning Jerry and Joe did not walk to school as usual.
Instead they appeared at the front door, each in identical brand-new, resplendently gleaming Buicks. There they sat in quiet assertion of their earned right to command respect. The entire student body surely must have buzzed that day - I trust with pride and admiration.
It is well chronicled how Superman fared during those early years. In addition to the sale of the comic books, a whole industry began to mushroom of costumes, toys, the radio program, and movies.
And, yes, it was not long before naivet'e and misjudgment disenfranchised Siegal and Schuster of their creation.
I last saw Jerry a year after his graduation at a neighborhood public swimming pool. It was a hot summer day, and the pool was brimming with a boisterous populace. I spotted Jerry seated uneasily at the edge of the pool. As he greeted me I noticed that prosperity had not diminished his apologetic, gently ironic manner.
He informed me that he was contemplating two about-to-happen events. One was his marriage the next month to a girl whom I vaguely remembered as a round-faced, chubby classmate.
The other was an appearance that coming Sunday as a celebrity on the stage of Cleveland's Palace Theater. It was for a gala occasion: The first Superman movie short was to be on the program. What, he asked me, could he possibly say to the audience?
I don't remember what my reassuring words were. Perhaps I suggested that he take the people into his confidence and just tell them all about how his daydreaming hours in seventh-period study hall had led him, in the weaving of time, to the pretty fix he was in now, just standing there in heroic misery before a doting multitude.