Years before Superman could be easily spotted in the sky among the birds and planes - or in motion pictures, or on billboards or lunchboxes or the many other pop-cultural artifacts he now occupies - his co-creator Joe Shuster met him in person on the street.
In 1945, some seven years after he had been regularly illustrating Superman adventures written by his partner, Jerry Siegel, Shuster encountered a young man who looked exactly like the Superman character as he imagined him. He asked the man, named Stanley Weiss, if he could draw him, resulting in some sketches that have gone largely unseen for nearly 70 years, as well as some insights into the origins of this long-lived American champion.
Shuster's pencil sketches of the square-jawed Weiss, who strongly resembles a certain Kryptonian immigrant and his earthly alter ego, Clark Kent, will be shown publicly at the Center for Jewish History in Chelsea, at a Jan. 27 event celebrating the 75th anniversary of Superman.
The event, "Superman at 75: Celebrating America's Most Enduring Hero," will also feature a discussion with comic book writers like Denny O'Neil and Jim Shooter; Jenette Kahn, the former publisher of DC Comics; and Stanley Weiss' son, David.
In response to email questions, David Weiss wrote that his father had found Shuster's drawings "amusing but not a big deal."
Stanley Weiss was 24 at the time he met Shuster, either in New Jersey or at a resort in the Adirondacks called Green Mansions; he worked as an accountant and later helped run a family furniture and appliance business. Superman himself was appearing in comics and radio serials, but had not come into his full, ubiquitous bloom.
"I remember the sketches hanging on a wall in the house
for a while, and I'm certain that was my mother's doing," said David Weiss, whose father died in 1978. "Then they were put away. It seemed a bigger deal to her, but that still doesn't mean that either of them considered it a big deal. The Jewish and family culture I grew up in had a fundamental modesty."
Larry Tye, the author of "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" and a participant in the Center for Jewish History event, said in a telephone interview that Siegel and Shuster, who were both the children of European Jewish immigrants, drew upon many sources when they created Superman in the 1930s. They looked at classical heroes like Samson and Hercules, pulp characters like Doc Savage and, of course, themselves.
"What Joe Shuster said was that he would look in a mirror, and when he was drawing Clark Kent and Superman, that was what he saw," Tye said. "And if you looked at Joe Shuster's picture, either he wasn't a very good drawer, or he was having fun with us."
Siegel "thought that he was Clark Kent," Tye said, "to the point where he had been an aspiring young journalist, and he thought if you looked deeply enough in him, you would see a Superman."
Tye said that Siegel and Shuster wanted their Man of Steel to represent them in at least one other crucial way.
"They were planting little hints as to his ethnic heritage and the fact that he was Jewish," Tye said. For example, Superman's arrival on Earth as an infant in a rocket ship parallels the biblical story of baby Moses being delivered to Pharaoh's daughter in his papyrus basket. And his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, sounds like the Hebrew for voice or vessel of God.
"It was not just the creators and the publishers and all the people around them that were Jewish," Tye said. "And I love the idea that the first guy that he comes across, who looks just like Superman, is Jewish as well."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service