The sad fate of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster

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.

Horswhip 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.

Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster


  1. This is interesting, I can easily see a movie with a thread about the influence of pop culture on society. I’ve always believed monkey see, monkey do; But if monkey never sees, would monkey think to do? Excellent post.

  2. I like how the presentation pities Shuster for having to resort to a fetish comic instead of the work he wanted to be doing, but simultaneously uses that fetish art to titillate the audience.

  3. It would be a lousy eye that couldn’t spot Shuster’s work at first glance; he couldn’t draw for shit. Few of those Golden Age guys could. They were just kids, after all.

    Re: the Jewish hitlerian gang: George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, had a beautiful young poster boy bodyguard during the early 60s who turned out to be … yeah, you guessed it.

  4. I’m not at all astonished by “jewish neo-nazis” in the general. I’d be surprised at “German jwish neo-nazis”, though. After all, the defining difference to fascism, to me, is the concept of race, the need for racism. And frankly, jewish persons aren’t magically save from that.

    So today we have German nazis in Germany, Russian nazis in Russia, hell even Russian anti-semitic nazis in Israel.

    And, of course, gangs which just use the fashion to make them look bad-ass.

  5. Loved the story. I was unaware Flikr let’s you put bewbs in your pictures; when I signed off a couple of years ago that was strictly verboten.

  6. Think those suicide girls would be enough to turn any red-blooded male back to the idea of living.

  7. Moral: beware sleazy lawyers who want to mess with publication rights. If they don’t already specialize in publishing law, they don’t know what they’re doing.

  8. buddy66: I think Shuster work has a certain charm. He’s a lot better artist than I am (which is faint praise, I know).

  9. So they make 750000$ a year doing nothing (just profiting from the rights). And then when income stops… they have to swipe floors for a living ?!? Excuse me if I feel nothing but scorn for those people. Even if the price of coke was high.

  10. Excellent story!

    Slightly off-topic: Does anyone know where can I get a shirt like the one Craig Yoe is wearing?

  11. Well, that’s an interesting twist on the story–you usually hear it in terms of “Siegel and Shuster got ripped off by DC”, but not so much about the newspaper strip royalties or how they lost it.

    WRT the “Thrill Killers”: see also Frank Collin. And does anyone else wonder if Stephen King based the Hitler Brothers from Wolves of the Calla on these guys?

  12. I’m with Dargaud – 750,000 x 8 years = $6 Million. Guess I’ll have to read the book to figure out how they blew it all and were reduced to sweeping floors…

  13. I admit, as an accountant grad, I’m with thr person who wondered what they did with all that money. It would have purchased alot back then. Hopefully they valued the items/experiences of the income spent when they had it.

  14. Boingers should be aware the actual factor of cumulative inflation during the last 30 years, and thus between the early 20th century and the present date, is a matter of controversy. Officials have incentives to contrive rationales for understating the official numbers. Depending on how the $750,000 was calculated, it could mean over $2 million in real buying power, versus the actual cost of living today as experienced by real people.

    Sample of the argument: A new and improved high-tech washing machine costs 20% more, but since it’s different from the old one and “better,” the increase doesn’t get included in the CPI. But you still have to pay it. Imagine several different such tweaks, over three decades, and it adds up.

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