Jerry Siegel was still a teenager when he and his friend Joe Shuster dreamed up a human-looking, English-speaking alien visitor of unlikely strength and impossible selflessness. It took them six years to get their creation into print, and more than four decades to receive due credit for inventing one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world.
The blue tights and the red cape and boots made him easy to pick out.
A projection of benevolent power straight from the ids of two scrawny, unsophisticated Jewish kids from Cleveland, Superman was an instant hit, first appearing at the same time Nazi genocide was devouring Western Europe. In his ambitious, unwieldy, wholly absorbing The History of Invulnerability, David Bar Katz posits a link between these two events—or at least posits Siegel positing a link between these two events, driven by half a century of survivor’s guilt. Maybe. I think.
An odd but compelling fantasia of two hard-sell genres—tortured-artist biography and Holocaust drama—The History of Invulnerability is set inside the aged Siegel’s mind in the dream-elongated moments just before his 1996 death. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, or Emily in the last act of Our Town, Siegel revisits scenes from his life that he’s tried to rewrite in his memory. But instead of a ghost for a guide, he’s got his son. Not the flesh and blood boy whom he abandoned, along with his first wife, and never spoke of. The one that he never shut up about.
Look, up in the sky!
Tim Getman ably fills Superman’s red boots, stepping from the panels of designer Robbie Hayes’ giant comic-book spread of a set to ask his dad whence he came. Siegel needs a lot of prodding before he finally answers, “You’re Samson. You’re the strongest Jew who ever lived.”
Getman, who is affable, tall, and handsome without looking particularly athletic, is smartly cast. Hiring someone with an Olympian build, or stuffing that suit with foam muscles, isn’t necessary. Director Shirley Serotsky wisely plays his judiciously performed super-feats for laughs here. And reprising the role of Siegel from the 2010 Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production (Theater J’s is only the second), David Deblinger nails the creator’s hucksterism, his impulse to assimilate and earn, and the sense of loss he buried—not too deeply, it turns out.
Like Batman, Siegel lost his father to a violent crime when he was a child. But the origin he contrived for Superman detonated the hero’s entire home planet. A stand-in for the destruction of Israel? Katz isn’t the first to suggest it, nor to point out that all of the superheroes who are once again selling movie tickets after decades of monthly adventures were created or co-created by Jews. (Gerard Jones’s excellent 2004 nonfiction book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book may have been a big influence on Katz’s thinking.)
The production cleverly uses projected comics panels and a free-flowing, father-and-son, tag-team lecture format to tell a real-life story many comics fans already know: Siegel and Shuster signed away their rights by cashing and sharing a single $130 check—around $2,000 today—when they were 23 years old. Publisher Harry Donnenfeld, a former bootlegger and smut peddler who was now richer than ever thanks to Superman, cut them out while Siegel was serving in World War II. He’d wreck his health amid decades of unsuccessful court fights. He spent many of his later years working as a postal clerk. Not ’til 1975, with publicity ramping up for a big-budget Superman movie and popular comics artists rallying behind the aged, ill, and poor Siegel, did DC Comics finally deign to give Siegel and Shuster a “created by” credit and promise to pay them each a $20,000 annuity. Shuster was nearly blind by then.
This is a sad story, but when Katz introduces us to three prisoners at Auschwitz—one of them a child who makes his own comics and dreams of Superman coming to liberate the camps—it’s a jarring dose of perspective. Too jarring, possibly. Days later, I’m still unsure what connection Katz is making here, unless it’s simply to say that superheroes are the ultimate expression of a persecuted people’s despair at the world’s cruelty. At a talkback following the June 10 peformance, Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth pointed out that Invulnerability’s gas chamber scene is the first the company has ever played, despite having staged more than a dozen plays that address the Holocaust. In a piece that’s otherwise largely about intellectual property rights, the expenditure may strike some as profligate, if not horribly offensive.
But then, we’re inside the deathbed dream of Jerry Siegel. He was never the type to think small.