The Artist Behind Superman: The Joe Shuster Story
Written by Julian Voloj
Art by Thomas Campi
Published by Super Genius Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Two young men in Cleveland, Ohio - that’s the true secret origin of Superman. You’d think they would have been rich and famous, but this book, examining a friendship and a collaboration, is the story of young and optimistic boys who grow into men who are forced to fight for the recognition and compensation that they deserved for basically creating the super-hero; not just Super Man but all superheroes. Just as we’re celebrating 80 years of Superman, this book provides an important reminder about creator rights and the true foundations of the modern comic book industry. The Artist Behind Superman: The Joe Shuster Story, written by Julian Voloj and drawn by Thomas Campi, is the story of the birth of the comic book industry, spotlighting not just the storied creators but also the shady business practices which have taken advantage of those wide-eyed wannabe writers and artists for decades now.
“As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!” Most likely, you know the story of Superman, which is ultimately an immigrant’s tale. As Voloj and Campi tell it, the story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is even more harrowing, from Jewish kids who meet at a Cleveland high school to the many ways that they see their greatest creation exploited in the name of the almighty buck. It’s a story of creative success but financial failure. Voloj and Campi portray the story as an American story, right on down to the Norman Rockwell-influenced artwork but the tragedy of the story is how Siegel and Shuster’s careers are templates for almost every other comic book career where the creators signed over almost every right to their creations for a steady paycheck.
The story is told from Joe Shuster’s point of view so maybe that’s why he gets the title of this book but Jerry Siegel is the real force of nature in this partnership. Shuster is pretty laid back, trying to see the best in his rocky situations while Siegel is the fiery irritant to anyone he believes has done him and Shuster wrong. As a story about the early days of the American comics industry, Voloj and Campi lay the foundation for the DC Comics that will grow out of it. Besides Siegel and Shuster, the book is full of familiar names like Wheeler-Nicholson, Mayer, Gaines, Kane, Finger and even Simon and Kirby, among many others. But more than a dry accounting of facts and betrayals, Voloj and Campi examine the friendship of Shuster and Siegel at its best and worst. They show the story of an ultimately complicated artistic partnership that had its roots buried deep in a Cleveland high school.
Campi’s art recalls the simpler times of the first half of the 20th century. But while it may have been simpler, it was no less complicated than any business dealings today. His earthy, painterly palette grounds the story in an Americana that’s probably a bit too perfect even as the events of this comic quickly accounts for the Great Depression and World War II. The browns, greens, and yellows of his pages recall the illustrations out of the Saturday Evening Review even as it tries to express that everything wasn’t as cheery or clean as America wanted to believe it was. Even the comics industry wasn’t clean as Voloj and Campi shows how the corruption and graft of the time crept itself into the comics industry.
Perhaps most damning about the story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is how comics allowed the type of exploitation that took Superman out of their hands to happen over and over and over again. As much as this is the story about Siegel and Shuster, it’s the story of Jack Kirby, of Steve Gerber, of Alan Moore, and countless others who have fought for and lost the characters shaped by their typewriters and pencils. It’s the story of the companies and executives who have profited without ever creating their own stories but by buying their way into their success. Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi’s story shows how the quintessential superhero was created by the quintessential writer and artist, two kids who didn’t know how to keep control over Superman. The Artist Behind Superman: The Joe Shuster Story is a piece of history that shows just how important creators’ rights are.