With this week's release of Action Comics #1000, DC Comics will honor the creation of a character that not only changed the comic book industry, but captured the attention and admiration of the world.
But the story behind Superman also has a deeper history, one traced through the lives of American immigrants and childhood friends Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, a new graphic novel coming in May 15 from publisher Super Genius, examines how Superman was forged in the experiences of two boys in Cleveland and the changing world in which they lived.
Written by Julian Voloj and drawn by Thomas Campi, The Joe Shuster Story also chronicles the history of superheroes, from Frederick Werthaim and the Comics Code to the evolving struggle for creator rights. And as most Superman fans know, Shuster's story reveals that it wasn't until plans for the Superman movie began, more than 35 years after the creation of the character, that Siegel and Shuster were finally able to receive any type of compensation for having created one of the world's most iconic (and potentially profitable) fictional characters.
As this week's Action Comics #1000 also includes an original, never-published 12-page Superman story by Siegel and Shuster, Newsarama talked to the writer of The Joe Shuster Story about the artist's life. And as we discussed Shuster's story, we learned about the history of Superman's creation, the connection the character has to the immigrant experience, and how setting the sci-fi and fantastic character of Superman in the "here and now" made him something so special that Superman spawned a fascination with superheroes that endures today.
Newsarama: Julian, why do you think this is an important story to tell, particularly in this format?
Julian Voloj: The book is in many ways a book I wanted to read for a long time. I love to read non-fiction and origin stories, and this story is not only the origin story of Superman (including the original sin - the creators’ contract with the publisher), but it’s also the origin story of the superheroes genre. In a way it’s very meta to create a homage to the American comic book history in form of a graphic novel.
Nrama: What did you learn about Joe that surprised you as you researched and wrote this book?
Voloj: One of the most touching moments was when I got access to a box with previously unpublished letters written by Joe Shuster from the late 1960s. I was reading about his financial struggles, medical bills piling up and the fear of being evicted. There has been excellent literature on the topic, but reading here firsthand how the co-creator of Superman was struggling while the publisher was making millions was heartbreaking.
Nrama: You trace the history of Superman in the book while telling Joe's life story. How do you think Joe's childhood struggles and immigration to the U.S. informed his co-creation and depiction of Superman?
Voloj: The Depression, which both the Siegel and Shuster families experienced first-hand, definitely influenced the character, and the idea of a double identity is something that immigrants - including myself - can identify with. Clark Kent is Joe Shuster, is Jerry Siegel, but deep inside, he is so much more.
Superman was most of all influenced by contemporary popular culture such as Tarzan, Zorro, Buster Keaton, Metropolis - from all this, Jerry and Joe made something totally new. Superman was science fiction set in the here and now, not in the distant future. It was set in an American city, not on a far away planet. All this was new and became the blueprint for superheroes.
Nrama: What was the importance of the relationship between Joe and Jerry Siegel, both in his life and in the creation of Superman?
Voloj: Our graphic novel is among other things the story of a friendship. Jerry and Joe were not only creative partners, but they were friends, and like with every relationship it had its ups and downs. The love triangle with the Lois Lane model is one fascinating story in itself. Joe Shuster was the more quiet partner, Jerry the spokesperson. Therefore I wanted to focus on him and give him a voice. The graphic novel is told imagining his perspective.
Nrama: The story of the creators of Superman, particularly Joe, is a very sad one. The man was penniless and almost blind when DC was making tons of money off Superman, a wrong the company later tried to remedy. Was it difficult to tell this story? Or did that just provide a stronger desire to get it out there?
Voloj: I really think it’s an important story to be known. As mentioned before, there is excellent literature on the topic, but not everybody is willing to pick up a 500-page long non-fiction book. Our hope is that not only people in the know will pick up our book, but that some readers will learn for the first time about the struggles. Every scene in our book is based on a real event and the long annotations at the end explain the backstories and invite readers to explore more. It was definitely a hard story to tell, but seeing now the book in its totality, I feel it was worth it.
Nrama: Thomas Campi's art brings a really unique feel to the book. How would you describe it, and why do you think it fits with the story?
Voloj: Both Thomas and I grew up with the European comic tradition. Even though the book is an American graphic novel, it has therefore a European feeling. When discussing the script with my agent, I mentioned that I imagined an Edward Hopper-eque look, and it has really become the homage I had in mind. Working with Thomas has been a real pleasure. Every panel in this book is a masterpiece.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell potential readers about the graphic novel?
Voloj: Our book is an origin story of superheroes, the Mad Men of Comics so to speak, but even if you are not interested in superheroes, you should pick up a copy. It is really something for everyone who loves comics.