The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman by Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi (book review).

What better way to tell the story of Superman’s creation than in graphic novel form? That’s what Papercutz have done with a script by Julian Voloj and lovely, simple art by Thomas Campi. ‘The Joe Shuster Story’ starts with Shuster as an old man sleeping on a park bench and being woken up by a policeman who takes him for a meal. Then it’s a flashback to Joe’s mother and aunt leaving Russia because of Pogroms and moving to Amsterdam on the way to Toronto, Canada. In Amsterdam, they met their husbands and Joe was born in Toronto. Later, they moved to Cleveland.

Joe’s father was a good tailor but a bad businessman, so they kept having to move when they couldn’t pay the rent. This seems to have been very common back then as Harpo Marx in his excellent autobiography ‘Harpo Speaks’ recounts the same tale of woe. His dad was a tailor, too. Jerry Siegel’s father was also a tailor but better at business and has his own shop, which is nice until he gets robbed one day and killed.

Eventually, Joe Shuster met Jerry Siegel on the school newspaper. Joe likes to draw and Jerry likes to write and they both love pulp Science Fiction magazines. Jerry submitted stories to the magazines but kept getting rejections, so they mimeographed their own magazine, with drawings by Joe called ‘Science Fiction: The Advance Guard Of Future Civilization’. Jerry was mad about a girl called…wait for it, wait for it…Lois! She was not so hot on him.

Failing to get into pulp magazines, they tried pulp comics, an industry in its infancy. They got some work for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of New Fun Comics. He was keen to take lots of their work but not so keen on paying, an old story in publishing. Joe Shuster let Jerry Siegel handle the business side of things. Sheldon Mayer, who worked for the Major, was interested in ‘Superman’ and commissioned a 13-page story just as the Major’s company was bought out by National Periodicals, what would one day be DC Comics. The contract for that first story was in small print on the back of the cheque. It’s shown at the bottom of page 81, selling the 13 pages and all rights to the character for $130.00. Ah, the small print. I bet they didn’t even read it.

Superman was an astounding success and created a whole new genre: super-heroes! People with super-powers who fought crime in big cities dressed in tight costumes and had a secret civilian identity as well. Copycat creations followed with variations on this theme and Siegel didn’t like them. He had a particular hatred for Batman. He was also jealous of Simon and Kirby’s deal for a percentage of profits on Captain America at Timely, though it turned out they didn’t do as well as expected.

Publishers were not the most honest people in those days. Harry Donenfield started with a family printing business but used his delivery trucks for other purposes during Prohibition. Then he published pornography but got someone else to take the rap. In payment, ‘Herbie’, as he was known, had a job for life at DC doing nothing. Siegel and Shuster had jobs working on the Superman strips and were well paid but owned nothing. Eventually, this began to gall Siegel in particular and he decided to fight for ownership. He was hoping that other creators would join him, lawyers being expensive, but Bob Kane made a new deal for Batman and backed out. Siegel and Shuster lost the case. Then the creators of the super-hero industry struggled to make a living, especially Joe as his eyesight was failing.

A great little book. In an age when super-heroes are the biggest sensation at the box office it is sometimes forgotten that they sprang from humble four-colour comic-strips and the origin story of the very first super-hero and still one of the biggest is surely of interest to any comic fan. The fact that it’s told in the form of a comic makes it even better and the simplicity of the art, almost like a 1930s comic, is appropriate. I’m glad someone did this, and did it so well, too. Hats off to Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2018

(pub: Papercutz. 163 page graphic novel softcover. Price: $19.99 (US), £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-62991-776-4)

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