Monday, August 3, 2009

Why so much Siegel and Shuster these days?

Last Son by Brad Ricca.

Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones.

Secret Identity by Craig Yoe.

The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer (plus the triumphant 2008 campaign he spearheaded to renovate Jerry Siegel's former Cleveland home).

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by golly.

To name only five.

A friend asked me why I think the last few years have seen a surge in interest in Siegel and Shuster. Good question, and it also begs a more specific one: is this increased interest only within the comics community or also among the general public?

Either way, I don't think it has as much to do with Michael Chabon as some might say. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which came out in 2000) wonderfully helped bring a certain mainstream validation to comics, but I don't think the book inspired the average reader to then pick up, say, Men of Tomorrow. And despite its popularity, it didn't make Siegel and Shuster household names (not that it was necessarily trying to). To comics people, Kavalier & Clay was an engaging new lens through which to consider the Siegel and Shuster story. To non-comics people, it was just another good book.

My friend wondered if the surge in interest might relate to the litigation between the Siegel family and DC Comics. But that is not on the radar of most people beyond the industry, at least not those I talk to.

I think the interest is at least in part because of a suddenly urgent sense of posterity—the last of the Golden Agers are dying now, so people are scrambling to document them while those original creators (or people they knew) are still around to speak for themselves.

I think it also has to do with the timing of the formative years of our generation. Many of the people researching Siegel and Shuster today grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. The superhero culture of that period has had a distinct influence in what has been happening recently at DC:
  • the acclaimed mini-series Justice written by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross paid tribute to the Legion of Doom from the cartoon Super Friends (which debuted in 1973)
  • the Hall of Justice and Wendy and Marvin, also from Super Friends, have been brought into print "continuity"
  • other characters created for that cartoon (the Wonder Twins, Black Vulcan, Samurai, Apache Chief) are getting the action figure treatment (strange, when you think about it, that it took as long as it did)
  • artists are drawing Superman to resemble Christopher Reeve (the first Reeve Superman movie came out in 1978)
  • the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold is based on a comic whose glory days were the 1970s
The 1970s were also the period in which Siegel and Shuster became known to a wider public. In 1975, they won the settlement from Warner Communications, which made the New York Times and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. In 1976, their names were restored to all Superman stories in all media, starting with Superman #302 and culminating majestically with Superman: The Movie (see at 2:45). They (especially Jerry) began to attend comics conventions and at least one movie premiere.

In terms of comics, we are the first generation fueled less by the clinical nature of precedent and more by the emotional nature of nostalgia. We are creating superhero content by deepening the superhero content of our youth, and I think at a certain point, it's natural for that interest to extend from the fictional history to the real life history of these characters.

Though I loved Super Friends and Superman: The Movie and Superman comics, I wrote my book on Jerry and Joe without reflecting consciously on any of the thoughts above. (And at the time, none of the Siegel and Shuster projects listed at the start of this post were out.)

I simply found a surprising gap in the market and wanted to try to fill it with a book for both kids and adults that could do its small part to spread the word about two visionary guys (long gone) and their grand achievement (here to stay). It has been so gratifying that so many others have simultaneously helped bring the men behind the Man out from behind their glasses.


Last Son said...

Very interesting. I hadn't thought of it like this. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news but they recently got rid of Marvin in Teen Titans in a particularly disturbing way. Nostalgia hurts.


Gerard Jones said...

Thanks, Marc! Some great thoughts here. I always like the "history of history"--not just what happened back when but how our retellings of what happened back when reflect where we are now.

I do think Kavalier & Clay deserves a bit more credit in the big picture. I don't know that I could have sold Men of Tomorrow to a mainstream publisher (or at least gotten an advance enabling me to do the work) had Michael not demonstrated a larger interest in comics history. At least that made a good argument for a book proposal. The curiosity of comics insiders about Jerry and Joe might have been the same, but I do think the success of K&C contributed significantly to the explosion of books on the subject and increased the interest of the "larger world."