Brad Ricca’s “Super Boys” brings the world up to speed on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the troubled, dynamic Jewish duo from Cleveland that gave birth to Superman. His book pays due to complex boys from the Glenville neighborhood who conceived the first comic book superhero, only to lose control of their creation. Like legacy jazz, blues and rock and roll artists, Siegel and Shuster were exploited, though they were by no means blameless for their situation.
The two developed their respective verbal and graphic talents at Glenville High School, refining them into craftsmanship in pulp and science fiction magazines of the day. They relinquished their seminal, procreative idea in March 1938, when they signed a so-called slave contract with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, New York Jews who bought the rights to Superman for $130.
Granted, 1938 was a Depression year, money was tight, and Siegel and Shuster were tired of hustling their work to meager payoff. Still, the contract they signed was so clearly egregious, sympathy for them comes hard, particularly considering how diligently they’d labored to break onto the national stage. Their “deal” brought comic books starring Superman to millions, and newspaper syndication brought him to millions more. It also brought millions of dollars to corporations with the clout to make Superman a household word. Superman has become as integral to growing up as McDonald’s. The base comic is an unqualified success, one that has spun off into other media including television and the movies.
At the same time, Siegel and, particularly, Shuster were struggling. In 1941, according to Ricca, Donenfeld was making $500,000 a year, Siegel and Shuster combined $150,000.
The disparity built into the original contract generated disputes nearly as famous as Superman himself. One of the motifs in Ricca’s book is ongoing litigation between the Siegel and Shuster families and the conglomerates that distribute Superman and Superman-related products.
Another is restoring Siegel and Shuster to their rightful place as inventors of a figure as well known as Santa Claus but far less dated than Tarzan, like strongman Charles Atlas and Cleveland’s East Tech High School track star an inspiration to the pair.
If it’s hard to ennoble these symbiotic Glenville friends, it’s just as hard to underplay the economic forces that steamrolled them. Ricca’s look into early comic books and newspaper “funnies” suggests those executives at National, the DC Comics predecessor that acquired Superman, knew exactly what they were about. If Siegel and Shuster were small-scale bumpkins, those early comics titans were cartoonishly venal.
Ricca’s book, which references Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” in its subtitle, is ultimately about pop culture and pop business. It moves like a thriller as Ricca weaves the strands of a baroque tapestry, building his narrative through interviews with surviving family members, the scouring of comic book hoards, eye-straining library work, and a drive to get to the bottom of a story that’s devilishly difficult to tell.
Copiously footnoted, multiply sourced, “Super Boys” crackles with authority, and even though its main target is comic book fans, it’s broadly appealing. Why shouldn’t it be, given Superman is celebrating his 75th anniversary this year? Why shouldn’t it be, as Superman is the brand that keeps on giving, a multimedia phenomenon continually open to new interpretations and formats?
In addition to being a psychological profile of Siegel and Shuster, the auteurs of Superman and Clark Kent, his probing, passive doppelgänger, “Super Boys” has fresh information on the identity of the model for Lois Lane; how Siegel’s father died – of a heart attack after a robbery, not of a gun shot during it; Shuster’s work on dirty comics, one of them his last collaboration with Siegel; and the murky provenance of a Cleveland man who was not only Siegel’s fictional alter ego but a person who went by such names as Bernard Kenton (an occasional Siegel nom de plume) and Bernard Kantor.
In a recent telephone interview, Ricca, who lives in University Heights, mentioned three “eureka moments” that struck him during years of research fueled by his notion that the lives of Superman’s creators were reflected in the comic.
The first involved Lois Lane, said Ricca, a full-time lecturer in the Case Western Reserve University English department. “There’s always been a story there was a real Lois Lane, that it was this woman who put an ad in the paper and they (Siegel and Shuster) answered it and she claimed that she was Lois Lane, But nobody ever had the ad, so there was no proof.” So he “kept looking and looking and losing my eyesight,” poring over Plain Dealer microfiche until one Sunday afternoon, he came across the giveaway classified, which included a post office box number. He called the former Joanne Kovacs (Siegel’s wife and champion, who died in 2011) and confirmed it.
Other such moments were finding Siegel’s father’s death certificate, which lists cause of death as “acute dilatation of the heart” following a theft in his clothing store, assembling facts about Siegel and Shuster’s last collaboration, and discovering the person behind what heretofore was thought of merely as a Siegel alias.
In the mid-’50s, Ricca writes, Shuster, who was out of work, wound up illustrating “Nights of Horror” comic books for Eddie Mishkin, “the owner of some of the seedier bookstores in Times Square.” Ricca suggests this fine illustration work relocates Superman-based characters like Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to a more shadowy world. “It may be unnerving for some to see Clark, Lois and Jimmy involved in weird acts of bondage,” he writes, “but there is no mistaking the pedigree.” Ricca suggests Shuster might have looked at such work as the “ultimate revenge against National.”
Finally, thanks to ancient, valuable Plain Dealer reporting, Ricca nails down the identity of G. Bernard Kantor, aka Bernard J. Kenton, an old Glenville buddy of Siegel’s with a similar interest in science fiction writing. In Kantor-Kenton, fantasy and fact blur, reflecting one of the dualities at the heart of Superman and his creators.
Ultimately, Ricca suggests, this creation story is about the reader. As he writes in his epilogue, this is “as much about the beginnings of corporate America and its relationship to popular culture as it is about artistic creation and familial relationships… That a colorful pamphlet intended to be thrown away after reading has grown in value from ten cents to several million dollars in seventy-five years is not because old paper has become more valuable, but because we as a culture have determined that the character itself has.”
By chronicling Superman’s originators in all their fierce and flawed humanity, “Super Boys” puts Superman in perspective, bringing him down to earth while preserving his immortality.