Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Joe Shuster

A book review article by: Charles Webb

To effectively assess Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity it’s necessary to establish what kind of work it’s supposed to be. Is it a historical artifact? Well, yes, this book of lost fetish art from Superman co-creator Joe Shuster unearths the heretofore unseen. 

Is it a book about comic history? To a certain extent, yes--Yoe provides some fascinating background into the defunct bondage magazine Nights of Horror, which was home to Shuster’s hidden work and the political climate of the era. 

What the book lacks--what prevents it from being an essential historical work--is an understanding of Shuster the man. After reading this book it’s unclear how Shuster felt about the fetish art found in these pages, and what kind of relationship he had to it as an artist. 

Was it simply work-for-hire during a lean period where Shuster and his partner Siegel were effectively blacklisted from the comics industry? Were the images--which often used strikingly similar figures and faces from the cast of Superman--a dig at his former employers, or were they simply a reflection of Shuster’s own kinks and fetishes that were given life in a grubby little ‘zine that would later become the center of controversy in a sensational murder trial? 

Yoe can’t be faulted for being able to answer these questions in any definitive way. He attempts to draw correlations between Shuster’s personal life and his work, such as the diminutive artist’s predilection for leggy blonde showgirls and the persistence of the same throughout Nights of Horror. However, given that Shuster has been dead since 1992, it falls to the people still alive who knew him to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, among these people--his sister, several colleagues, and a former sort-of girlfriend--not a single one knew about this work or even that it was a part of Shuster’s life. 

More problematic still is that Shuster’s career has been locked into a certain narrative at this point--he and Siegel are the quintessential creators screwed by the very system they helped create. Ultimately, any attempt to evaluate the man from any other perspective becomes an attempt to avoid hagiography--because we hate to speak ill of the dead unless they, you know, really, really deserve it. 

Thus, unable to crack the nut that is Shuster, Yoe takes another tack which is to look at Shuster's fetish work in terms of its historical significance. Fascinatingly, Shuster’s lost art nonetheless caused a bit of uproar around the time of its original publication; it was cited as the inspiration for a series of torture-killings by a charismatic, Jewish neo-Nazi teen named Jack Koslow in 1954. 

Later, the magazine in which Shuster's fetish work was published, Nights of Horror, became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court obscenity case that led to the outright banning of the magazine as a danger to the public health. Yoe weaves in and out of events here, showing how a confluence of a shades-wearing New York porn peddler, a low budget printer, and a down-on-his-luck Shuster led to the creation of a work that would come under the focus of Congressional hearings. 

Of course, what value would Yoe's book have without Shuster’s work? It is, of course, what we’re all here for, and Yoe provides extensive samples of the art that Shuster created for Nights of Horror in all of its lurid glory. 

Is it sexy? Perhaps, in an antiquated way. 

The kink is there, but many of the images repeat some of the same themes over and over again with half-clothed, prostrate women being whipped, spanked, or otherwise abused by their black-clad, sometimes hooded, sometimes foreign, always energetic torturers. 

Occasionally there’s a contraption thrown into the mix to run the hapless heroines (and the rare hero) through their paces, but it’s nothing frightfully shocking in 2009. However, the dated aspect of the work doesn’t diminish its actual quality. Each image is energetic and never feels phoned in, and I’m in agreement with Yoe when he compliments the strong line and layouts in the images. 

Secret Identity is invaluable--if not for giving us insight into Shuster the man, then at least for giving us a glimpse at the hidden borders of his talent during a desperate time. 

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

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