Last night my friend Colin and I went to Meltdown Comics & Collectibles in Los Angeles to listen to comic book historian Craig Yoe's (center) presentation on the weird, sad life of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster.
Here's my glossed over summary of Yoe's fascinating presentation (which included lots of great slides that you can't see here but are in the pages of Yoe's fantastic book, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster):
Boyhood friends Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the Superman character in the late 1930s. They sold a 13-page story about the superhero to DC comics, which bought the story and all rights to the character for $130, which Shuster and Siegel split. The story appeared in Action Comics #1 (1938).
Superman immediately became a huge success. Issue #7 of Action Comics sold a half-million copies, and soon Action was selling a million copies a month. This irked Shuster and Siegel, but the publishers soothed their tempers by giving them the lion's share of the Superman newspaper strip syndication revenue. Thanks to this, the young men each made today's equivalent of $750,000 a year.
This went on for about seven or eight years, with the boys riding high, but then they met a sleazy lawyer, Albert "Zuggy" Zugmsith, who told them he would sue DC to get them back the rights to Superman. The trial ended in 1948, and it was a devastating loss for Shuster and Siegel. DC stopped paying them, and they were blackballed from the entire comic book industry.
Shuster had to scrape by sweeping floors and doing other odd jobs, but finally found work doing fetish illustrations for a cheaply produced sado-masochistic fetish magazine called Nights of Horror. Many of the characters in his fetish illustrations for these booklets bore a striking resemblance to Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Lex Luthor.
In 1954, the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of Jewish neo-Nazi teenagers who sported Hitler mustaches, were arrested for killing homeless men and horsewhipping girls. They told the court that they were acting out scenes from Nights of Horror. The publisher and dealer of the magazine were imprisoned, as were the members of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers. Joe Shuster was able to stay hidden from the media furor because he hadn't signed the work and no one recognized his style. Shuster went back to performing menial jobs and died poor.
This story might never had come to light if it weren't for Craig Yoe's ability to recognize cartoonists by looking at their work. In his book he writes that when he came across a copy of Nights of Horror by chance several years ago "in a dusty old cardboard box in a used bookseller's stall, these words leaped in a single bound to my mind: "Oh, my God, Joe Shuster!" That was the beginning of a multi-year-long research project that took Yoe all over the world, and led to the writing of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster. The full story in the book is even more bizarre, and there's even a movie deal in the works.
After the presentation the Suicide Girls (above) acted out several of the scenes from illustrations in the book. I've uploaded photos to my Flickr account, but they should be viewed by adult intellectuals only.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.