Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Super Boys by Brad Ricca

Towards the end of Brad Ricca's excellent biography of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the author talks about "the truth" that Siegel realized when he was inspired to create Superman: "that a hero could also be funny, ugly, or awkward; he could be human by virtue of being alien." He puts forth the idea that what made Superman so popular was not his amazing feats, but the simple truth that "he was really just like us. He had to put on a suit, he had to go to work, and the one he loved was always walking away." That, Ricca posits, is what let us into the character, in on the fantasy, and finally concludes that "The truth made things stronger, not weaker."

I've spoken at (probably tiresome) length here before about what Superman means to be, both as a character and as a pop culture phenomenon. Of all the great passages in Ricca's book, that one especially stood out to me when I read it yesterday. The truth makes things stronger, not weaker. I firmly believe that. And I think, in a lot of ways, Superman (as a character) exemplifies that.

It's also a good way to describe the book.

I first started reading comic books when I was about six or seven. I didn't get into DC Comics until I was a little older. Sure, I loved Batman reruns and Super Friends and (of course!) Richard Donner's great 1978 movie, but the comic books always seemed like they were for people who were a little older. So I first experienced Superman in graphic form through a book they used to carry at my library. It was an older book about the history of the character, and it had a number of the old Siegel & Shuster newspaper strips. I remember being attracted to the art right away, and intrigued by this version of Superman that seemed more like an old-timey football player or gymnast than Christopher Reeve's flying gentleman.

This was at a time in my life, by the way, when I really thought I was going to be a cartoonist. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the history of comic books and comic strips, and after later reading Bob Kane's Batman and Me, I was especially interested in reading more about the creators of those strips. Back in those pre-internet days, you had to be a lot more involved with fandom and fan publications for information, and even then, you couldn't always find out anything accurate. I had a vague idea that Siegel and Shuster hadn't really gotten much credit originally for Superman and didn't own what they had created, but I don't think it was until I was in high school and read something that (I think) Harlan Ellison wrote about it that I knew any details.

Ricca's new book finally provides the entire story in great detail. What I admired is that although Ricca's sympathies lie with Jerry and Joe, he does a great job of just parsing the evidence without judgment. Looking at what we know, I feel like Harry Donenfeld, MC Gaines and Jack Liebowitz colluded together to legally steal Superman from his creators. You may not think so. But these men and others got rich; they made millions of dollars off Superman while Jerry and Joe were bullied, pushed around, and then exiled from what they created when they legally tried to gain access to the vast fortune that others were making from it. Sure, they got paid for their work, but they also weren't allowed to participate in the rainfall of money that came about from their work and their inspiration. I know that "unfair" and "illegal" aren't the same thing, but still.

If anything, this book should teach you that when someone sends you a letter and tells you that they'll pay you $130 for a story provided that you give them all rights to the story and characters forever--the exact word used in the contract--maybe you should be a little suspicious about that. And remember, if you have something that someone wants you to sign over forever, you've clearly created something that has potential value.

Ricca tells the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with such emotional sincerity and such genuine sympathy that it's hard not to come out of it feeling incensed at how they were cheated and even wistful at the opportunities they lost because they knew they were being treated unfairly.

One of my favorite aspects of the book, too, is the way Ricca pieces together all of the elements in the air at the time that the two were inspired by and managed to piece together and somehow distill into the perfect mixture for one of the most enduring fictional characters in history: Joe's interest in bodybuilding and strongmen; the marvelous athletic feats of Jesse Owens; Jerry's love of the stories (and fascination with the financial success) of Edgar Rice Burroughs; the explosion of crime in Cleveland; Jerry's awkwardness with girls; the poverty the two grew up in; even the buzzing in the air that people were looking for some kind of returned Messiah. Then, after we've lived through the story of Jerry and Joe being exiled, then later championed, Ricca brings us back to the beginning and adds a new layer of poignancy, with the story of a sweet high school kid with the future in front of him, who always left clues in his writing, and how those clues add up to a boy dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of his father.

For all of Superman's iconic stature and popularity, Ricca returns to the notion of a character that existed, in some ways, to help Jerry Siegel make sense of a world that robbed him of his father, where crime and greed flourished, and where the truth made things stronger, not weaker.

If you're a comics fan, you really owe it to yourself to read this.


Tallulah Morehead said...

This book sounds fascinating. Thanks for turning me on to it. Way back in 1977, I had the privilege of meeting Siegel & Shuster briefly, a moment I'll never forget.

Brad Ricca said...

Thanks for reading and reviewing! I really appreciate it. Glad you liked it.


SamuraiFrog said...

Thanks for writing it!