Review: 'Super Boys: the Amazing Story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster' Returns to Comics' Original Sin

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

As we all get ready for the release of Man of Steel, it's important to remind ourselves of the complicated and difficult history of Superman.

As every comic fan should know, Superman was the cause of comics' original sin, when the smiling shark Jack Liebowitz -- maybe the most vicious shark in the sharktank that was the early history of the comics medium -- bought the rights to Superman, lock stock and barrel, from two young, na├»ve kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, for the absurd sum of $130. 

As the legend goes, that $130 was the one of the greatest investments ever consummated. Liebowitz's venture turned into hundreds of millions of dollars of earnings -- heck, the total amount of money earned from Superman may be over a billion dollars by 2013. The extraordinary popularity of the Man of Steel helped jumpstart DC Comics, turned DC into the leading company in the comics medium, and facilitated many of DC's executives to become millionaires. Numerous people got rich from the ideas that Siegel and Shuster innocently first sent to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1936.

In the ultimate irony, the legend says that the two men who created Superman never got rich from their own very personal creation. In fact, just the opposite was true:  Joe Shuster, plagued from childhood with vision so terrible that he had the thickest glasses of any of his schoolmates, was barely one step away from living on the street, having long left comics to work in odd jobs. Siegel, meanwhile, was laid off from his job at DC Comics (ironically succeeded shortly after his long tenure on the "Legion of Super-Heroes" strip in Adventure Comics with a thirteen-year-old who had a major influence on creators' rights, Jim Shooter) and was forced to live off a pathetically miniscule stipend.

 

 

Until, that is, one of the most passionate advocates of creators' rights, the brilliant Neal Adams, stepped in during the production of Superman: the Movie to ensure that Siegel and Shuster would get some small portion of the money that was rightfully due to them. Adams used his outstanding public relations skills and his dogged energy to gain very substantial pensions for the men who had made absurd incomes for their bosses but barely had enough money themselves to buy their next day's dinner.

That's how the legend goes. As is usually the case, most of this legend is true. But as Brad Ricca reminds us in his meticulously researched new book, sometimes the real stories behind the legend is even more interesting. 

Some of the legend is accurate. Both Siegel and Shuster were true geeks in their day, superfans of the pulp magazines that brought cheap thrills to men in the 1920s and '30s. Siegel was an zealous consumer of the pulps, closely tracking his favorite authors, while frequently sending in letters of comment on the stories that he read and creating his own stories for his own fanzines. He also wrote quite a bit for his high school newspapers and creative magazines, making up both his own wacky pulp tales as addition to telling lightly fictionalized stories about the girls he crushed on and the adventures he wished he was having.

Meanwhile, Shuster was more invisible in his high school existence. Joe was seldom content anywhere other than in the art room, pencil or charcoal in his hand, always ready to illustrate some story or other in his rough-hewn, manly style. Maybe Joe's greatest moment before Superman's rise happened when Shuster won first prize in a city-wide contest for a football poster. 5000 of his posters were plastered around Cleveland, a special honor for such a quiet boy.

Brad Ricca's research into that era in Siegel and Shuster's lives in that era is meticulous. He quotes from quite a few articles and features that Siegel wrote for his high school paper The Torch in additions to excerpts from his short-lived fanzine Science Fiction, co-created with his buddy Shuster. In doing so, Ricca provides a three-dimensional portrait of a Jerry Siegel with whom we can empathize. He's a sweet but intense guy, a little lost in his own head, whose ambitions drove him and his best friend in a heedless, headstrong scramble to professional success. The portrait of Shuster is equally as complicated: tortured all his life by his bad eyes, but happy only when he was drawing with his face only inches from his paper, Joe Shuster is similar to many of the outcast kids we all grew up with who just wanted to be accepted for who they were inside their strange skin.

 

 

When the boys first broke through with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, receiving coveted commissions illustrating "Henri Duvall" and "Dr. Occult" with illustrations drawn on the back of butcher paper and wallpaper, the $20 per page they split probably felt like a king's ransom. Finally Jerry and Joe were earning money doing what they loved, now part of the pulp world rather than mere consumers.

So by the time the Major picked up the boys' Superman submission, Siegel and Shuster were happily working as real-life creative professionals, producing gag cartoons for regional magazines and stories for boundless collection of comic action heroes. Their "Slam Bradley" was an early star of Detective Comics; when the smiling, hearty salesman Harry Donenfeld took over DC Comics from the Major, and launched Action Comics, his team seized upon "Superman" as a key feature of the magazine. 

Ricca exhaustively explores the major influences on the creation of Superman, from the super-strong Popeye to the amazing stories of Jesse Owens, "the Cleveland phenom" and the "world's fastest man;" from the radio and pulp adventures of the amazing Shadow to the physical fitness guru Bernarr Macfadden. The era comes alive for a reader through Ricca's adroit use of anecdotes and canny research. It's clear from the writing in the early chapters of this book that Superman was incredibly successful in part because that fictional character seized so much of the spirit of the times that Siegel and Shuster lived in.

Ricca also goes into exhaustive detail to lay out the more complex elements of the "original sin" legend of the infamous $130 contract. He discusses how Superman was intended to be run in the lucrative newspaper strip business and how there were some initial false starts along the way as Superman came very close to appearing in the nation's dailies next to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Ironically, the tremendous popularity of those two strips saturated the readers' thirst for science fiction, at least in the opinions of syndicate editors.

As Ricca points out, "by the time Superman was purchased by Detective, Jerry and Joe were already successful creators -- kids were writing fan mail to them, and their names were used in advertisements." These were not the provincial rubes they are often made out to be, exploited by the big-city shysters who wanted to steal the most promising property since Donald Duck. Siegel and Shuster were established professionals who entered into their deal with the metaphorical devil with both eyes wide open.

However, that doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible deal for the two men.

On February 3, 1938, the original sin of comics happened. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away their ownership of Superman, on a contract that misspelled both of their names, for a shared total of $130 and the promise of future work.

From the day that Action Comics #1 showed up on the nation's newsstands, with its outrageously lurid cover, Superman was a runaway smash hit. Seemingly created for maximum impact in the incredibly stressful era in which he premiered, Superman was a revolutionary character.

 

 

It's easy to forget now, 75 years after his first appearance, that nothing like Superman had ever appeared before. We're all used to lurid costumes and outrageous superpowers now -- hell, the whole comic industry that we love is built upon the idea of outrageous superpowers and lurid costumes -- but at the time Superman was a lightning bolt flashing across society.

Siegel and Shuster both became wealthy from their creation, with lucrative contracts, a celebrity lifestyle and the newspaper strip that they both dreamed of. But the men were profligate with their cash; never-ending lawsuits and petty feuds ended up robbing the two men of both their rich bank accounts and their nobility. It's tempting to believe the legend that the two men were bamboozled. Siegel and Shuster absolutely were exploited by their bosses. The income they made from Superman was a mere fraction of what their bosses received. But neither man wanted for money in the 1940s and '50s. In fact, Siegel was Superman editor Mort Weisinger's favorite writer in the 1960s. Siegel scripted many legendary Superman stories, but his never-ending litigious attitude resulted in his being fired from writing the characters that he created.

Ricca's wonderful book hurtles forward through the story of Superman, exploding some myths (the actual cause of Jerry's father's tragic death) while verifying some others (the real details of the life of Joanne Kovacs, the woman who married Jerry after dating Joe and who deeply influenced the creation of Lois Lane. He tells readers about Bernard Kenton, the mysterious third man who seems to haunt Siegel's writing like a real-life ghost and, maybe most importantly, probes into the creation of Superboy in the months right after World War II. If the $130 contract is the original sin of comics, Superboy's origin is that sin repeated tragically. He also goes deep into the lawsuit that was recently concluded that declared that Superman was absolutely DC's properties, painting a portrait that shows none of the participants in a good light.

 

 

Of course, Ricca describes the later lives of Siegel and Shuster in great depth. He paints an especially powerful portrait of Joe Shuster, who lived in his own "fortress of solitude," alone and lonely working in a junk shop. Neal Adams comes across as the biggest hero of this book; when the tale of Siegel and Shuster's difficult late lives came to his attention, Adams worked doggedly to get pensions and credits for the two men and their families. As the credits run on Superman: The Movie, complete with the credit "Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster," the victory is powerful enough to make tears roll down a man's cheeks.

As is usually the case, the legend of Siegel and Shuster is very different from its reality. This year's Superman book walks the same ground very differently from Larry Tye's 2012 Superman: the High Flying Story of America's Most Enduring Hero. Brad Ricca writes from his heart as well as his head on this book. While some aspects of this book are irritating, such as Ricca's tendency to create fictional moods and scenes around stories that he has no way of knowing the actual facts, there's no doubt that Ricca is a Super-Fan.

The best nonfiction books tell the truth behind the myths, only for the true stories to end up being as fascinating as the myths promise to be. Brad Ricca's Super Boys tells the real, complex tale of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's "original sin."

 


 

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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