Friday, July 26, 2013

Booksteve Reviews: Super Boys

I believe it was 1989 when I almost met Jerry Siegel. He was scheduled as a guest at a ChicagoCon and I decided that would be a good time to attend my first ChicagoCon. Unfortunately, it was not to be as Jerry was ill that weekend and had to cancel.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve associated Jerry Siegel’s name with comic book stories I’ve really enjoyed, starting with Archie’s MIGHTY CRUSADERS and the other assorted Mighty Comics titles where he was sometimes billed as “Jerry Ess.” DC wasn’t crediting its stories at the time but Jerry’s name was frequently mentioned in the letters pages of the mid-sixties SUPERMAN titles. Somewhere in there, it was even mentioned that Jerry Siegel actually CREATED the Man of Steel! 7 year old me was impressed.

A decade later, 17 year old me had become vaguely aware of the problems Jerry, along with his artist co-collaborator Joe Shuster, had had over the years with the character’s corporate owners. Siegel and Shuster appeared on various TV shows in the mid-seventies and DC’s parent company was eventually shamed into giving them a pension and other benefits, as well as restoring their credit. As far as I knew in 1978 as I watched Jerry and Joe’s names up there on the giant screen for SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, that was a long overdue happy ending to the Siegel and Shuster story.

Turns out what I didn’t know about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could fill a book. And now it has. Several, in fact. Gerard Jones’ brilliant MEN OF TOMORROW looked at the whole scope of comics history as it centered and grew around Jerry before throwing him to the wolves. Craig Yoe’s SECRET IDENTITY explored Joe Shuster’s clandestine career doing fetish art, Marc Tyler Nobleman’s unique children’s book, BOYS OF STEEL introduced the pair to a younger audience in his unique presentation. And there were a few others I haven’t even gotten around to.

Now comes SUPER BOYS. At last, an in-depth biography of the two most important men in the history of comics. Without Siegel and Shuster, there simply would NOT be a comics industry today. And taking their influence a bit further, movies and television and video games and cartoons would certainly be very, very different.

Don’t get me wrong. We’d still have superheroes. If Jerry hadn’t conceived Superman it would have been some other dreamer on some other moonlit night but somewhere along the way, in some form or another, heroic bigger than life characters would have still come about.

But the fact is that it WAS Jerry Siegel who did it first. It’s Superman who is and always has been the most iconic and it was Siegel and Shuster who made him that way.  And they got shafted.

Or did they? Author Brad Ricca draws on enough sources that he has nearly a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to tell the story in more depth than it’s ever been told before. Jerry and Joe weren’t just dumb kids whose work was stolen from them by the big bad corporate publishers. They had, in fact, been working for National for several years with popular features appearing in NEW FUN COMICS, ADVENTURE COMICS and, when it came along, DETECTIVE COMICS. They became early on the very first artist/writer team whose names appeared on the cover of an issue, presumably as they were thought to be a selling point! This was all before Action Comics # 1.

The amount they were paid seems low by today’s standards but it was actually quite good in the 1930s and 1940s.

One of the best parts of Brad’s book, though, is the long section preceding that period when the author’s research reveals over and over again the likely inspirations for all the various facets of the Superman mythos. From Jerry’s father’s sudden death to his own “secret identity” on the school newspaper, from the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER’s story about how scientists had detected an exploding star to Joe’s obsession with bodybuilding.

Jerry Siegel was a writer. At the end of the day, he was not a GREAT writer, but his imagination was as unbridled as Jack Kirby’s in its own ways. He was a writer and a founder of sci-fi fandom which made him a contemporary of Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, Julius Schwartz and even his own future boss, Mort Weisinger.

After the success of Superman, Joe Shuster hired more and more artists to keep up with demand for new stories. National/DC also realized that since they owned the character outright, they could bypass the creators and hire their own writers and artists.
Jerry, on the other hand, did what he was born to do—he wrote. While still trying to stay on top of Superman scripts, he also created The Spectre, The Star-Spangled Kid and Robotman. After leaving DC against his will when he and Joe attempted an early legal action, they created Funnyman. He wrote Nature Boy for Charlton, The Shadow for Archie and later on in the sixties he wrote Marvel and UK comics and had a long run on Italian Disney comic books in the seventies. His last comics work was for Eclipse during the eighties indy boom.

Brad’s book gives us a look at what was going on in the lives of these two old friends while all of this was going on. The painful periods, the suicidal thoughts, the hope, the fear, the loss, the financial failures and successes, the’s all there in a non-exploitative way as the book tries to take us inside their heads through every step, with Jerry being a pretty open book and Joe remaining something of an enigma in many ways.

SUPER BOYS doesn’t judge. The story gives a simplified, straight-forward but fairly balanced look at both sides of the battle over the rights to the greatest comic book hero of them all. Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld come across as hard businessmen but not as the villains they sometimes appear to be. Siegel and Shuster come across as painfully human and NOT particularly good businessmen. Maybe in the end, they were not happy. Maybe they felt, as many fans do, that they had been cheated by fate. And financially, even though they were well compensated for their day, one can certainly make that argument.

But Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pieced together portions of their teenage and young adult lives and created a character who has transcended ownership, a character who has meant more and reflected hope to more people than just about any other fictional character ever created. Few people today remember Donenfeld and Liebowitz. Few people remember Siegel and Shuster. But everyone remembers Superman.

When I grew up, it was George Reeves’ Superman, long after the actor’s own death, who reinforced my beliefs in right and wrong and helping people rather than hurting them. Superman was good. Period. And while we have the recent violent Superman of the movies, that’s the anomaly, not the rule. Superman IS good. Period.

SUPER BOYS does a darn fine job of showing exactly how he became that way.

SUPER BOYS by Brad Ricca has a few lamentable and obvious incidental fact-check errors but don't let that throw you into suspecting the rest of the facts. When it comes to the meat and potatoes of the story itself, it’s all meticulously detailed and documented. With lots of ultra-rare photos and art as well, SUPER BOYS gets Booksteve’s highest recommendation as a most important addition to comic book history. If you’ve ever cared about truth, justice and the American way, you owe it to yourself to find out just how they played into the stories of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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