Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I review Brad Ricca's new biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Super Boys (This review went up a few weeks ago, but I missed 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 Comics…
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 guessing….
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….