The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman
Out in April is a graphic novel biography of a key superhero comic creator. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman is a comprehensive overview of his life, driven by the creation of one particular hero. Perhaps too comprehensive, as I fear only the most dedicated, old-school comic fan will want to wade through the 160-plus pages here, particularly given how downbeat this gentleman’s life was. If you’re looking for evidence that “comics will break your heart”, this could be exhibit A.
That’s the point, I believe, as indicated by the book’s previous title, Truth, Justice, and the American Way: The Joe Shuster Story. (One suspects that the owners of that trademark, who don’t come off very well in this volume, objected.) It wasn’t right that, as the book shows us in its early pages, the co-creator of the most famous superhero ever, the character that spawned a genre and an industry, was living on the streets in 1975 Queens, penniless and partially blind. It’s a horrific, unfair story that demonstrates the hypocrisy of the mob-connected businessmen who wound up profiting from Superman. But I found it a struggle to stay invested through every detail of Shuster’s existence. Shuster just wanted to draw, so he didn’t pay attention to business, and both he and co-creator Jerry Siegel apparently didn’t get any advice when they should have, selling off their creation cheap because they didn’t seem to realize what they were signing.
With so much material, key moments — as when Siegel marries the girl Joe liked, the model for Lois Lane — get lost in the flood. Shuster was hampered by eye and hand problems, making it hard for him to draw as time went on. Those who know his story already know that he embarrassed the Superman comic publisher when he showed up at their office much later, working as a messenger boy because it’s all he could get for work. He was determined to do what he could to support his family, but the overall impression I’m left with is a guy a bit frightened of life, so desiring of monetary security that he wasn’t willing to rock the boat or stand up for himself.
As written by Julian Voloj and illustrated by Thomas Campi, the book feels European in its full backgrounds and impressionistic images. Some of the panels, as with a full page of child Joe against period Sunday comics, pack quite a punch. I suspect they want us to get riled up, upset at the mistreatment on display in contrast with the message of the boys’ superhero. But what does one do with that emotion? Shuster passed in 1992 (a fact not mentioned in the book, which tries to end on a more positive note). The lawsuits over the past decade for reclamation of the rights were settled with the corporation winning. Any reader interested in this story has likely already moved on from reading superhero comics, which are currently looking backwards and not in a particularly creative period. It’s frustrating, to spend so much time with this guy, and then have nothing left but distaste at how badly people making comics have been treated over the years.
Although graphic memoirs are quite the popular genre, particularly for a younger audience, it should be noted that this will only be of interest to older readers, those who have the patience to follow this sad story through all the struggles of his family in poverty. There are 14 pages of endnotes, covering the research done and background material. You can read the first few pages in this interview with Voloj. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)