Most of the meticulously researched graphic biography, The Artist Behind Superman: The Joe Shuster Story—written by Julian Voloj, visualized by Thomas Campi, and published by Super Genius Comics—is smartly visualized in understated, softly painted Edward Hopper-esque images. This perfectly suits its subject: a quiet cartoonist who remained humble in spite of the seismic shockwaves his work sent through pop culture.
Joe was proud of the fact that he co-created Superman but for most of his life, he remained in the shadows. One wonders what he felt when he saw so many cartoonists after him employ the template he designed for the first comic book superhero.
You’d think, if you and your pal come up with a brilliant new hit that makes tons of money, you wouldn’t have to struggle to pay your bills. You’d think genuine inspiration, talent, and hard work combined with fearless perseverance would lead to success. It's the American Dream. In fact, these are the very things the narrator of the 1940s Superman animated cartoons tells us the noble immigrant from the planet Krypton heroically fights for: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Oh, the irony!
Look! Up in the sky! It’s… it’s the American Dream as a glowing green toxic Kryptonite nightmare. That’s what it became for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, although in notably different ways, as The Joe Shuster Story vividly recounts.
I almost didn't read this book. Not only is the story familiar to me, but it also stirs up my dyspepsia something terrible. The shameful saga of how badly the Men of Steal who ran National (the company that eventually became D.C. Comics) treated the creators of Superman, the property that made the company wildly successful, is well documented. In 2004, Gerard Jones told the story in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books). Almost a decade later, Brad Ricca expanded the story with his in-depth book, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman (St. Martin’s Press, 2013). Voloj and Campi are well aware they are walking a fairly worn path—these two volumes and eight others on the formation of the superhero comic book are listed in The Joe Shuster Story’s selected bibliography.
As I said, I almost didn't read this book because I thought I knew the story. I'm glad I let my inner geek take over and read it anyway. While the book does not offer any breakthrough revelations, it performs the miracle of showing rather than telling Shuster's story and that allows us to gain a sense of the character of the man. Along the way, we learn a lot about the birth of the superhero in the bargain—there's even a fascinating illustrated endnotes section at the back.
The decision to focus on one single member of this legendary team, instead of giving us The Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Story, allows Voloj and Campi to create a story with greater emotional resonance. As it turns out, there’s plenty of Jerry Siegel in the story, anyway. In the same way one cannot tell the story of George Harrison without telling the story of the Beatles, Joe Shuster’s story must include Jerry Siegel. In fact, in one of the book’s most extraordinary scenes, a two-page facsimile of a press release written by Siegel in 1975 serves as the summing up of the two men’s ill-fated careers. It’s as if Joe was simply too shy, too humble to voice any outrage and so Jerry speaks for them both.
Jerry always was the leader of the team. Which is why the decision to spotlight Joe instead of Jerry is so interesting. It invites us to reconsider this well-known saga from a new angle, allowing juicy aspects—such as the love triangle between the two men and the beautiful Jolan Kovacs (the model for Lois Lane)—to become more dramatic. You feel for Joe throughout this part of the story; it is easy to identify with his attraction and his heartbreak. You see the downside of Jerry Siegel’s fiery imagination as Joe stolidly works to give shape to his ideas and keep his flighty partner grounded
When the two are mentioned in print, Jerry’s name comes first (perhaps this is where the tradition of listing the writer first and the artist second in comic book story credits begins). Joe was the one who gave form to his high school pal and fellow science fiction geek Jerry Siegel’s wild imaginings. After Jerry feverishly described his vision of a super being one summer day, Joe worked with pencil and paper and, like a police sketch artist, drew the Man of Steel for the first time. More impressively, he also designed the Superman costume – the tight fit to emphasize muscles and power, the bright colors, the cape, the boots, the logo emblazoned across the chest, and so on. It is a prototype copied thousands of times to this very day. But Joe never made a big deal out of it.
As depicted in The Joe Shuster Story, the Canadian-born artist who had grown up during the Great Depression is proud and happy to have a well-paying job. It seems that, had the decision been left entirely up to him, Shuster would have been happy to maintain the status quo as long as possible. But, he stuck by his partner through thick and thin, for better or worse. Mostly thin and worse.
When Siegel returns from serving in the US Army during WWII (stationed in Hawaii), his discovery National Comics had ripped off his Superboy idea leads him to start a new war. He talks a dubious Joe into suing their employer, which resulted in their being thrown out of a job, and halfway out of the entire industry. Their plan is to create a new character, one in which they would have a bigger stake. It seems like a strong move, except the satirical character they create, Funnyman, turns out to be a bust with heavy-handed lampooning and a sneer of bitter anger showing through the clown makeup.
With deteriorating eyesight and the victim of self-inflicted career suicide, Shuster suffers the deprivations of poverty. He earns money at one point by drawing BDSM fetish illustrations (in the style of his Superman adventures) for a small-time publisher of sleazy sex books.
Through it all, Shuster sticks by his partner, the one who talked him into jumping off the cliff together more than once. Thankfully, the book ends on a high note when the men finally get a permanent byline as the creators of Superman and a pension.
Beyond this story arc, Voloj and Campi want us to take a close look at the quiet kid who sits in the back of the classroom drawing. They invite us to get to know this unassuming, enigmatic figure. In fact, the book is told as a flashback in Joe’s own voice. While the frame of the story is rendered in classic pen-and-ink comic book style, the long flashback story is presented with art that is painted, with very little line work (often the only black lines on the page are the ones that define Siegel’s round eyeglasses—the line crinkles when Siegel is agitated). Thomas Campi instead uses light and shadow, color and form to draw us in. He imbues the scenes with the warm light of nostalgia. There are no enlarged Ben Day dot patterns, thank goodness. There is something about the grounded feeling of Campi’s art that resonates with Shuster’s remarkably solid pen-and-ink forms even though, visually at least, the two art styles are opposites.
Voloj and Campi also sprinkle the panels with actual historical images, from the team's first paycheck from National (with their names spelled wrong) to bold comic book covers that leap out of the mild art with a vibrancy that helps to make the new again. The best use of this device is the inclusion of Joe Shuster's actual art. In many ways, the man's secrets are to be found in his work.
The book has one small thing in it which seems to make little sense. At one point Shuster fondly recalls being inspired by the color Sunday newspaper comics of the 1920s such as Little Nemo in Slumberland, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Happy Hooligan. The Sunday newspapers of that era used so much paper due to their large size they, in the words of Nicholson Baker, “weighed as much as a small roast beef.” Oddly, for a book so carefully researched and presented, The Joe Shuster Story depicts the Sunday newspaper comics of the 1920s as no taller or wider than a comic book, diminishing the insight that these giant pages were worlds into which young Shuster got lost. When Shuster as a boy sits in his father’s lap and reads the funnies with him, the pages they look at are much smaller than they actually were. The effect is to emphasize Shuster’s relationship with his father over his enchantment with comics. Perhaps that is the authors' intention but the tiny size of the funny pages is discordant when nothing else in the book shrinks, except, of course, Joe Shuster’s fortunes.
Quibbles aside, Voloj and Campi have succeeded in breathing new life into the saga of Shuster and Siegel. There is an impressive array of historical detail in their book. Lovingly rendered period costumes, interiors, architectural details, and street scenes help conjure up the time and place in which Superman came into being. To the extent possible, Voloj has based narration and dialogue on Joe Shuster’s actual words. The overall effect is enchanting. You can feel the excitement of when skyscrapers were still a relatively new sight, studying first the reproduced Winsor McCay buildings and then Campi’s painted aerial views of Toronto and Cleveland (the cities in which Shuster grew up) and you realize Shuster put these breathtaking structures into his panels to create the uber-city: Metropolis.
The Joe Shuster Story is a well-conceived, enthralling dramatization of the reality behind the fantasy of the superhero—and the seminal magic behind that reality, the out-of-this-world journey into the collective unconscious that allowed two inspired boys in Cleveland to make something super.