“I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds Superman, will avoid the movie like a plague.”
– Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman
For the world Superman was a hero. But for the bookish boys who sculpted him out of pulp and prose, the character had been twisted into something that could induce nausea at 10 cents a copy.
“His frustrations is relatable,” West Vancouver actor Brendan Taylor says of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. “He spent decades in court, just to be recognized.”
Taylor is portraying Jerry Siegel in an upcoming episode of AMC Visionaries: Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics. The episode, titled The Trials of Superman, combines new footage, archival material, and dramatic re-enactments to chronicle Siegel and co-creator Joe Shuster’s repeated attempts to get paid for creating one of the most iconic characters in all of pop culture. It was a case they adjudicated in court and in the court of public opinion.
For Taylor, who remembers playing X-Men in the woods near his childhood home in Eagle Harbour, there’s always been a draw around characters with special powers.
Taylor’s affection for the fantastic has been part of his life since the days when he took drama as an elective at Sentinel Secondary.
He was quiet, shy and introverted but, “acting was a way to open up” as well as a path to introspection, he explains.
“You need to be able to know yourself, literally, to be able to make changes and play people that aren’t you,” he says.
Taylor has an old recording of himself acting when he was a kid. The kid doesn’t really understand his craft, but he’s “doing great in moments,” Taylor says.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just knew that I enjoyed it.”
He got an insider’s look at the film industry during his youth. Taylor’s mother was a multimedia artist who took him to the sets of commercials when she worked in the art department.
“I would hang around and help her out and just be kind of introduced to that world of art,” Taylor says.
That experience led him to work as a set dresser and decorator, working on The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage as well as well as the AMC show The Killing.
Taylor began to focus exclusively on acting in 2007, picking up work in plays and TV shows. He also scored a role on a Doritos commercial that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl.
It was a “random thing” that started with a “random call,” he remembers.
After being impressed by the comedic chops of Maple Ridge twin-brother directors Graham and Nelson Talbot, Taylor opted to spend a day on an Aldergrove farm to shoot their commercial.
After beating out more than 4,900 submissions, the When Pigs Fly ad became a top 10 finalist in a $1-million Super Bowl contest determined by online votes.
“The whole month of January 2015 I spent every day trying to get votes online,” Taylor says of the “long, stressful process.”
As the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks slugged it out in Glendale, Ariz., Taylor focused on the commercials.
After a false alarm in the second quarter, the pigs finally flew in the fourth quarter.
The room exploded.
“My phone lit on fire,” Taylor remembers. “(It’s) still kind of surreal.”
He got a financial boost from the ad, he says, noting residuals were paid in U.S. dollars.
However, a prominent role in an advertisement isn’t necessarily a boon to an acting career, Taylor says.
“Commercials can tend to work against you if you’re too recognized.”
But the success of the commercial, which continued to air after the Patriots hefted their Vince Lombardi trophy, helped Taylor in another way: confidence.
“This is what I do now,” he recalls thinking.
. . .
In his 1988 essay, Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?, writer Harlan Ellison dubs the comics industry “that slaughterhouse of talent,” referring to creators locked in “artistic chains and actual poverty.”
He was talking about Siegel and Schuster.
The duo first joined forces at their high school newspaper in Cleveland. Siegel wrote and Shuster cartooned. But it wouldn’t be long before Superman entered their lives.
Their first story featured a villainous Superman using his strength to steal and manipulate. The next version featured a time-travelling scientist. But it was the third incarnation where the character, part Moses and part Doc Savage, finally took flight.
Desperate to see their character in print, Siegel and Schuster made a deal with Harry Donnenfeld, a man who was “enmeshed in enterprises built on dirty money,” according to Gerard Jones who wrote about the relationship in his book Men of Tomorrow.
Published in 1938, the character inspired a pop culture mania that seemed to anticipate The Beatles, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Detective Comics (later DC) sold millions of books. Superman was a radio star. A TV star. He even sold war bonds.
Krypton’s last son even earned the attention of the Nazi propaganda apparatus during the Second World War. The SS newsmagazine Das Schwarze Korps attributed the character to “Jerry Israel Siegel,” and referred to Superman as a poison responsible for sowing: “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness, and criminality.”
But while Superman was a juggernaut, the relationship between the character’s creators and Donnenfeld soured when their requests for royalties were rebuffed. By the late 1940s, other writers and artists took over Superman.
In a 2008 article written for The Guardian, Jeet Heer describes Siegel and Schuster being erased from comic book history.
“The two cartoonists became un-persons, their role in creating Superman dropped down the memory hole,”
The AMC show is an attempt to bring Siegel and Schuster back to prominence.
“Nowadays, it’s easy to take for granted things that exist in pop culture,” Taylor notes. “I didn’t know the details of the origins of Superman.”
There’s something powerful and enduring about Superman.
“He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in the service of the human race,” Ellison writes.
The show is scheduled to air Nov. 20.