NOVEMBER 26, 2013
IT’S THE OLDEST STORY in comic book history: a wild dream transmogrifies into a money-minting machine, and its creator doesn’t get what he/she earned — neither the money nor the recognition.
More people could likely identify Perry White and Lex Luthor than could identify the men who created Superman: two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were classic schlemiels, awkward and almost delusionally dreamy, bad with women, and so bad with business they sold one of the most valuable inventions in literature for $130, 75 years ago. Superman’s owner, DC Entertainment, has been celebrating this anniversary with, among other things, a new movie, Man of Steel, alone grossing over $650 million worldwide.
Brad Ricca, a poet who previously made a documentary film called Last Son about Siegel and Shuster, tells in Super Boys the story of their youth, success, and the long, depressing aftermath. Jerry and Joe watched their creation conquer the world, raking in million after million, not for themselves, but for businessmen like comic book moguls Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who, they felt, bullied and disrespected them. Jerry and Joe’s story is Ricca’s best possession, and he tells it with a decent amount of care, and perhaps a bit too much verve in this, their first serious biography.
Ricca has nonetheless produced a sad pleasure of a book, despite his curiosities and faults as a journalist and historian (more on which later). Jerry and Joe’s tale could be delivered more tightly, and indeed has been in Gerard Jones’s great 2004 history of the comic book business, Men of Tomorrow. We meet teen Jerry in the early 1930s, helping invent the idea of the science fiction fan publication; dominating his high school newspaper The Torch with his clever teenage wit (more clever, from the many detailed examples that are one of this book’s treasures, than much of his professional comic book writing in the early days); meeting artist Joe Shuster (who like Jerry, seemed to almost degenerate in his artistic skills from high school amateur to comic book pro); writing a fanzine story about a villain dubbed a “superman” with Joe’s art; and then, after failing for years to gain the newspaper syndication they craved, finally in 1938 selling the heroic Superman we all know for $130 to the nascent DC Comics for whom they had already been a leading writer/artist team on other characters.
Then, the triumph and the tragedy: watching their character capture the imagination of a nation (there was a Superman Day at the World’s Fair by 1940); the radio waves; and the newspaper comics where they always dreamed he’d flourish. Trying, and failing, to reverse their bad business decision through lawsuits, they were fired because of that first suit in the late 1940s. Shuster fell into drawing some grim softcore porn comics (with characters that looked pulled directly from Superman), and a long downward spiral began, the pair’s destitution and anger becoming the stuff of legend.
Siegel eventually went back to DC to write more Superman comics in the 1950s and ‘60s, and got fired again for suing them again. Various fans and other professionals rallied to their aid in the mid 1970s; Siegel put an open “curse” on the makers of the 1978 Superman movie; and they finally began getting decent but unspectacular bits of largess from the company, though their surviving family members continued to sue DC, and eventually got even more. After years of estrangement, Shuster ended up living near his old pal Jerry and his old flame Joan, whom Siegel married more or less out from under him. But their names were on the Superman comics, and they weren’t destitute.
The way Ricca tells the boys’ story is rife with speculation and declarations of influence that are, at best, a bit of a stretch and, at worst, seem almost nuts. You’ll likely be surprised but not particularly enlightened to learn how many people one can find in 1930s newspapers called superman for one reason or another, from circus strongmen to Olympic athletes, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Jesus. And, contra Ricca, Jerry naming a fantasy character “Zyra” probably has zero connection to an ex-wife named Bella, even if the names do supposedly share an “end rhyme,” as poet Ricca takes the trouble to note. The piling on of real life details that allegedly fed into Superman starts to feel less like research and insight, and more like frantic pleading for the depth of the creators, or their creation.
Ricca’s a good writer both on the sentence level, and at selling the emotion he’s out to sell, though he relies overmuch on novelistic scene setting, delivering his character’s interior thoughts and perceptions, and perhaps fooling the reader into forgetting that the biographer is, to put it kindly, merely guessing. This technique may make “history come alive!” for some; it is disconcerting to those seeking merely the facts, or educated speculations clearly presented.
Sometimes Ricca states things in the text that the footnotes reveal to be more speculation than fact. It is enormously confusing to this reader that the court record of the first 1947 attempt to win back Superman from DC is, if I’m understanding his footnotes, in the possession of another researcher on whom he relies for all his interpretations. If you are writing a book, and you tell the reader such a vitally relevant source text exists, yet you don’t appear to have seen it, some explanation for why is in order. An extraordinary (and often confusing) amount of words are spent on whether “Bernard Kenton” was a pseudonym for Jerry from his sci-fi days, or merely a slight alteration of the name of a real associate of Jerry’s from Ohio, a grifter and con man named Bernard Kantor.
Ricca’s decisions on details and emphasis are sometimes inexplicable. He makes mere sideways references — in a book which at its core is about comic creators losing money and rights to companies — to how Bob “Batman” Kane and Al “Li’l Abner” Capp did better in their similar fights. He spends mere paragraphs on Jerry and Joe’s last known post-Superman collaboration, a bizarre comic called Funnyman. As described in the first page of Funnyman’s first issue (and Ricca doesn’t even tell you this much), he was “a two-fisted howlarious scrapper, [who will] thrill you with his daring athletic prowess and convulse you with chucklesome antics!” He looked like a Danny Kaye caricature. Lightning did not strike twice.
Ricca’s attempt to definitively identify who Superman “really was” in Siegel’s imagination, coupled with his overpromising claim about fresh details regarding the death of Jerry’s dad in 1932, makes for a strange detour into Jerry’s father Michel Siegel’s life and death, mostly after the main narrative is done. (Mr. Siegel was not killed per se by robbers, but died of a heart attack as a result of a robbery of his store. Ricca makes very, very much of this, suggesting Superman as “a replacement for Jerry’s father.”)
These are mostly the cavils of one deeply enmeshed in the historiography of comics. For a normal curious reader, Ricca did the Clark Kent/Lois Lane reporter job well: he went out and got the story (if not always the scoop) and tells it like it was.
What it was, was sad. The bizarrely crummy quality of Siegel’s unpublished 1980s attempt to write a “graphic novel” was strangely depressing. From its title, Zongolla the Ultroid, and Ricca’s description, it sounds like something Daniel Clowes might invent as a bitter joke about the stunted imagination of the superhero comic creator.
But that’s an outsider’s judgment. I hope it’s true, as Ricca reports, that Jerry Siegel died happy. He deserved it. He and his partner were clearly vibrant, and full of wit and a winning desire to make real the dream that was uniquely theirs. While they made some regrettable decisions regarding their Kryptonian creation, their decision to create him, however much grief it cost them, was ultimately a great gift to them, to comic book history, and to American pop mythology.