Reason Writers Around Town: Brian Doherty on Siegel and Shuster at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I review
Brad Ricca’s new biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Super Boys
 (Yes, this review went up a few weeks ago,
but I missed it it at first.)


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….

Ricca has nonetheless produced a sad pleasure of a book….We
meet teen Jerry in the early 1930s, helping invent the idea of the
science fiction fan publication; dominating his high school
newspaperThe 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

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….

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

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
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….

Me in Reason on Shuster’s
softcore porn career
, and on the enduring
power of their superhero idea
, even in “literary” comics, and

from Hit & Run

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