It was Thursday night, about 8:10 p.m., and Mitchell Siegel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was in his secondhand clothing store on the near East Side. According to a police report, three men entered. One asked to see a suit of clothes and walked out without paying for it. In the commotion of the robbery, Siegel, 60, fell to the ground and died.
The police report mentions a gunshot being heard. But the coroner, the police and Siegel's wife said Siegel died of a heart attack. No one was ever arrested.
What happened next has exploded some of the longest-held beliefs about the origins of Superman and the two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who invented America's best-known comic-book hero.
Past accounts suggest Siegel and Shuster, both 17, awkward and unpopular in high school, invented the meek Clark Kent and his powerful alter-ego, Superman, to attract girls and rise above their humble Cleveland beginnings.
But now it appears that the origin might have been more profound — that it was the death of Jerry Siegel's father that pushed the devastated teen to come up with the idea of a "Superman" to right all wrongs.
"In 50 years of interviews, Jerry Siegel never once mentioned that his father died in a robbery," says Brad Meltzer, a best-selling author whose novel, The Book of Lies, due Sept. 2, links the Siegel murder to a biblical conspiracy plot.
"But think about it," Meltzer says. "Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world's greatest hero. I'm sorry, but there's a story there."
The first 'Superman'
The evidence for such a psychological underpinning is strong.
It was just a year after Mitchell Siegel's death, 1933, that writer Siegel and artist Shuster came up with "The Superman," a grim, flying avenger they tried to sell to newspaper syndicates and publishers for five years. In the oldest surviving artwork, this early Superman, whom they call "the most astounding fiction character of all time," flies to the rescue of a man who is being held up by a masked robber.
Was it Jerry's alter-ego flying to rescue his helpless father?
"America did not get Superman from our greatest legends, but because a boy lost his father," Meltzer says. "Superman came not out of our strength but out of our vulnerability."
The more Meltzer looked, the more intriguing things became. A letter published in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer on June 3, 1932, the day after the robbery, denounces the need for vigilantes in the harsh days of the Depression. The letter is signed by an A.L. Luther.
"Is that where (Superman foe) Lex Luthor came from?" Meltzer says. "I almost had a heart attack right there. I thought, 'You have to be kidding me!' "
In search of answers
Meltzer was not the only one looking. Comic-book historian Gerard Jones first disclosed the fact of the robbery in 2004 for his book, Men of Tomorrow, after interviews with Siegel's cousins.
"It had to have an effect," Jones says. "Superman's invulnerability to bullets, loss of family, destruction of his homeland — all seem to overlap with Jerry's personal experience. There's a connection there: the loss of a dad as a source for Superman."
Although they never went public, the father's side of the family was told for decades that the elder Siegel had been shot in the robbery. That's the dramatic angle Meltzer takes in his conspiracy novel. Siegel was shot twice in the chest at his store, he writes, and "a puddle of blood seeped toward the door."
In an afterword to his work of fiction, Meltzer concedes that the facts remain murky. In an interview, Meltzer said that some in the family were told "since they were little kids" that Siegel died by gunfire. Others were told he had a heart attack. "It was probably a heart attack," Meltzer said.
And yet Meltzer is not ready to embrace either answer as final.
More definitive is Marc Tyler Nobleman, author with artist Ross MacDonald of this year's illustrated book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, who concludes that Mitchell Siegel died of a heart attack during the robbery. The coroner, he notes, reported "no wounds" on Siegel's body, and the gunshot might not have been related to the robbery.
"I spent a long time going after this," Nobleman says. "I believe I have the first accurate account. Jerry's father wasn't shot and robbed. He had a heart attack during a robbery."
A fortune sold for $130
The rest of the saga of Siegel and Shuster is better known, but no less tragic. It wasn't until 1938 that the familiar red-and-blue-garbed Superman appeared on the cover of Action Comics No. 1. The creators got a check for $130. In return, DC Comics acquired rights to the character "forever."
Siegel and Shuster bristled as Superman grew in popularity — on radio, in wartime cartoons and serials in the 1940s. They went to court several times, winning settlements but never rights to the character. By the 1970s, Siegel had been working as a mail clerk for $7,000 a year, and Shuster was almost blind.
"A shameful legacy," says Blake Bell, author of The World of Steve Ditko, a biography of the co-creator of Spider-Man. Comic-book creators "had no pensions, no contracts, no health benefits, and companies didn't even pay for the artists' supplies. When these artists tried to negotiate greater rights for themselves, they were either collectively cast out or made false promises."
After hearing that Warner Bros. had paid $3 million for the rights to make Superman the Movie in 1975, Siegel and Shuster tried again to reap some benefits. This time, though, they had help from the artistic community and from fans who knew their work.
In a landmark settlement, DC Comics agreed to pay the two men $20,000 a year for life. More important, friends say, DC agreed to add "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster" on all printed and filmed material in the future.
"Having their names listed as Superman's creators was the biggest victory of all," says Steve Younis, editor of SupermanHomepage.com. "It's worth more than any kind of monetary reimbursement."
The man who helped negotiate the Siegel and Shuster deal was artist Jerry Robinson, who co-created The Joker in 1939 but who received little recognition for decades. (He's now a creative consultant for DC Comics in the wake of The Dark Knight film.)
Robinson says he threw a party in his Manhattan apartment when the Siegel and Shuster settlement was announced.
"Kurt Vonnegut, Jules Pfeiffer, Will Eisner, Eli Wallach and his wife were there," Robinson, 86, says. "Walter Cronkite came on, and they showed Superman flying, and he described what had happened. At the end, he said, 'Another triumph for truth, justice and the American way.'
"We opened Champagne. Jerry and Joe were there, and it was a very emotional moment. There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
The struggle goes on
Michael Uslan, executive producer of the six Batman movies since 1989, including The Dark Knight, says there has been a "sea change" in how corporations view comic books and their creators. "Here you have people in their 80s and 90s seeing their comic-book work being taken seriously," Uslan says. "They are deriving economic benefits now either directly or through consultancies."
Shuster died in 1992 and Siegel in 1996, but their legal battles have been never-ending. In March, a court ruled that Siegel's heirs (wife Joanne and daughter Laura) were entitled to parts of the billion-dollar Superman copyright. Because of the ongoing litigation, neither the families nor DC Comics would comment, not even about Mitchell Siegel's death 76 years ago or its implications.
But in an e-mailed response, the Siegel family did say, "It is gratifying to know people want to know about Jerry Siegel, and that he is getting recognition for his creativity."