SUPER BOYS: THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF JERRY SIEGEL AND JOE SHUSTER- THE CREATORS OF SUPERMAN By Brad Ricca (2013, St. Martin’s Press)
It’s hard to imaging a hero more American than Superman. Even his principles spell-out his country: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. And yet The Man Of Steel’s origins are foreign, even interplanetary. Everyone knows his beginnings: how his parents spirited him away to safety in a rocket from their dying world. How he was raised by the Kents, plain folks, as a farm boy, and how, upon discovering his powers, he fought evil as a superhero. By what about his creators? Who were the men who created the most popular comic book hero the world has ever known?
Brad Ricca, who teaches near Cleveland, Ohio, where Superman was conceived, answers the questions in his book, Super Boys. It’s an incredibly detailed account of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish guys from Cleveland who dreamed up Superman. Jerry was the aspiring writer, sending his articles and letters to the science fiction publications of his day. Joe was the drawing talent, whose freehand style gave life to their dreams on whatever paper they could find. These two would launch the most successful graphic art hero in history.
But the story is also filled with tragedy. Jerry’s father was robbed in his story and died from the shock, leaving the young writer without the dad he craved. Joe suffered from eye problems all his life. Both were awkward around women and craved attention. They sold the rights to Superman for $130.00 in 1938 to slick New York publishers. They were denied any of the proceeds from the franchise for years. Even Lex Luthor couldn’t have come up with a plan so fiendish.
How detailed is this biography? Ricca reproduces the 1934 mimeographed science fiction magazine the two tried to sell. If you want proof of Joe Shuster’s talent, all you need to do is look at page 68: there is a drawing for Jerry’s story which defies the description. Somehow Shuster did this drawing directly on the stencil and they were able to reprint it. I’ve had some experience with mimeograph stencils and I can tell you this is no easy thing to do. Too much solid areas and it won’t peel from the cylinder.
Much of the tale was covered in the 2005’s Men of Tomorrow by Gerald Jones, but Ricca fills the back story to create a rich tableaux of life in depression-era Cleveland. He shows what pictures inspired the two, what events in the history of the northern Ohio town are reflected in the early Superman stories. Men of Tomorrow was focused on how the comics were created out of several neighborhoods in New York City. Super Boys shows there was genius at work in the Buckeye state.
I can’t praise this book enough. Ricca does have a tendency to “recreate” scenes, but they add to the narrative. He writes as to how Jerry Siegel watched George Reeves, who was slated to star in the 50’s TV version of Superman, walk by him in silence. There’s even several pages about Joe Shuster’s fetish comic work, undertaken when he was desperate for money.
The final part of the book is bittersweet in its conclusion. Shuster and Siegel were finally, after years of living at the poverty level, able to get some cash out of the company which controls Superman. It took a letter writing campaign and help from some dedicated fans, but they were finally recognized as the creators of The Man Of Steel. The legal tries which came out of their various law suits have paved the way for other artists to regain control of their creations. Although both of the men passed away years ago, their families are still seeking restitution through the courts.
I know there’s a new Superman movie out. I will eventually see it as I ‘m told it’s pretty good. But somebody needs to make Super Boys into a movie. It has all the drama and heroism of a comic book. And it ‘s real.