Larry Tye's Superman Biography Takes Off With The Crowd

November 14, 2013
Larry Tye greeting fans at his book signing in Richmond, Va.
photograph by David J. Bromley, permission of Larry Tye

Larry Tye, author of "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero", has a hit on his hands. He is continuing a successful tour of talks and book signings and his Nov. 12 appearance at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond, Virginia was testament to this. The event was well advertised in print and internet to ensure public attendance. And attend they did - the enthusiastic audience had only a few empty seats, and the line afterwards to obtain a signed copy of the book was long.

Mr. Tye is a self-described "serious" journalist - he is an award winning writer for the Boston Globe and his book topics range from figures such as Kitty Dukakis to Satchel Paige - but the longevity of the Man of Steel is a real point of interest for him, and proof that Superman is a permanent American icon. As he told his audience, this character is one of the few cultural traditions that can enjoyed by multiple generations - as the children, parents and grandparents in the audience demonstrated. Superman really does represent decency and that is part of his universal appeal across borders and languages.

But the historical anecdotes are what makes Tye's history so revealing - he interviewed well over 200 people in his research and had access to an unpublished 150 page manuscript by Jerry Siegel - even the most knowledgeable comic book enthusiast will be in for an education. The initiated will be interested in stories about creators such as Mark Waid or John Byrne, but the average fan can appreciate information such as how a children's psychologist came to influence the Superman "motto" or how comics, especially Superman comics, came to inspire and even educate teenaged U.S. soldiers in World War Two.

The author repeatedly returned to the childhood of Siegel as formative in the creation of what would eventually become the character we know today - his family and neighborhood life, the tragic death of his father, his friendship with young artist Joe Shuster, and his Jewish heritage - that reveal an analytical thought process that seeks to understand the origin not merely of Superman, but of the young mind that conceived him.

This interpretation was as refreshing as Tye's personable nature, which maintained a high level of group participation throughout the talk. There were no visual aids, and the author used no microphone. Though soft spoken, he is an accomplished speaker with excellent projection. An animated person, Tye quizzed the audience on details of Superman's past, such as sponsorship of WWII war bond drives and the inter-religious claim on this worldwide phenomenon. Christians, Buddhists and even non-believers lay claim to The Man of Tomorrow - but the emphasis in terms of faith was justly on Judaism, the religion and culture which bred the young writer and artist that brought us the first costumed superhero, a concept which forever changed popular entertainment. The initial publishers of Superman were Jewish as well, and Tye explained the Jewish implications of Clark Kent's "Kryptonian" name, Kal-El, as well as similarities in the origin story of Superman to aspects of Genesis and Exodus.

There is no doubting the Jewish origin of The Man of Steel, just as there is no doubting his universal appeal. As Tye reminded the audience in regard to the constancy of Superman's moral character, this fictitious being does not really belong to the corporate copyright holders - he belongs to the world.

Tye's book tour continues tonight at The Jacksonville Jewish Community Alliance in Florida and on November 19th at Temple Beth El in Harrisburg, PA.

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