Thursday, June 12, 2014

“Super Boys,” Super Brad

Brad Ricca is a time traveler.

Reading his 2013 book Super Boys (newly out in paperback), you can practically smell the 1930s.

His research is exacting and his manner of presenting it manages to be both detailed and fast-paced (sometimes the former can trip up the latter). I love time travel, and obvs I love Superman, so put them together and I’m hooked (except in a few Imaginary Stories).

If you’re a superhero fan, you should pick this up. If you’re a Superman fan, you must pick this up.

If you root for the underdogs, you’ll find them here—sometimes. To be sure, Jerry and Joe suffered immeasurably over many years, but they did fight for—and ultimately get—a steady income stream, plus they died with their names attached to their big idea. This was more than many of their colleagues could say. Brad portrays Jerry and Joe with tremendous respect, which means he sometimes has to share unpleasant truths about them.

Disclosure: Brad and I are friends. He was one of the most impactful people I met while researching my own Siegel and Shuster book, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. But this is less a traditional review than a fannish (and selective, and overdue) dissection of his important book, which makes me eligible for bias.

Boys of Steel came out in 2008. Hard as this still is to believe, it was the first standalone biography of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. However, Brad had already been at work on his more comprehensive book for years. (I know the feeling; I wrote Boys of Steel in 2004. Publishing takes a while.) You’ve heard of letters crossing in the mail; he and I crossed on the trail. The research trail, that is.

Brad is a maestro of the tease (narratively speaking, that is). The Siegel and Shuster story is plenty good on its own, but his style of telling it makes it even better.

Among the things I learned/appreciated in Super Boys:

When Brad described what the sign of Jerry’s father’s store looked like (“white, roughly painted”), I knew we were in good hands. Well, I knew that going in. It was just nice to be reminded right out of the gate. He told me that this was artistic license, but it’s artistic license fueled by meticulous research. (page 3)

Joe’s given name was Julius Jr.! (This goes well with my discovery that Bill Finger’s given name was Milton, which he also never used professionally.) (page 12)

We’ll likely never be able to confirm or deny it, but I love how Brad arrives at the hypothesis that the now-famous night of creation was Sunday, June 18, 1933. (page 92)

In one version of the lore, Joe burned an early rejection, but Brad pinpointed a likely date and astutely noted that burning would therefore be unlikely—it was summer, and the Shusters didn’t have coal anyway. Curiouser and curiouser: the dueling dates (1928 vs. 1933) on a surviving piece of art depicting their second of three versions of Superman. (pages 98-9)

I’m easily won over by precision. The first time teenaged model Joanne (the imminent inspiration for Lois Lane and the future Mrs. Jerry Siegel) showed up at Joe’s to pose, it was at 2 p.m. (page 141)

Jerry never had a real girlfriend until he got famous. Not surprising but fun/sad to confirm. (page 166)

Jerry had stacks of Action Comics #1 stored in his mother’s house. If only Superman could fly the Earth backwards for real… (page 195)

Decades after young Joe mastered sketching as flirting in the soda shop, old Cleveland ladies would call the Plain Dealer to tell their stories of it. Charming on Multiple Levels. (page 195)

An astounding find: Joe’s New York Times ads in 1954. Having conducted a similar madcap search for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, I know just how tedious (with no guarantee of results) this must have been. (page 237)

I’d read that the story of Jerry’s wife Joanne manipulating DC top brass by forewarning a headline proclaiming that the co-creator of Superman starved to death took place in 1959; Brad puts it in 1968. Brad told me that Joanne used the tactic more than once; it was her go-to line—and clearly with reason. It worked. (page 272)

One of the most heartbreaking reveals in the book: sometime in the 2000s, after both Jerry and Joe were gone, Joe’s sister Jean spoke on the phone with Jerry’s abandoned son Michael, telling him that “he was loved”; Mike, who wouldn’t talk to anyone else, cried. Man, I practically did, too. I do wonder how she knew that, though
—unless she was referring not to Jerry but to herself. (page 325)

One of my favorite phrases in the book: Superman is described as “a fictional character whom most children know about by the time they are eight—by some sort of rocket ship osmosis to the brain.” It rings so true. How can a mere mortal remember the first time he saw the Man of Steel? (page 329)

Joanne and daughter Laura politely declined to be interviewed. The only info of theirs Brad used that wasn’t already public is a letter verifying that Joanne indeed ran her legendary (to people like me) modeling ad on 1/13/35 (page 357, chapter 13, note 15). The ad is shown in the first photo section and mentioned on page 142.

The summary of the evolution of the name of the company now called DC Comics (or DC Entertainment) is a great little resource (pages 385-6, chapter 24, note 8).

Chapter 27, note 15 kindly mentions my contribution to finding the paperwork on Michael Siegel’s death. (page 393)

On a related (and closing) note, a public thank you for a line on page xii of the acknowledgments: “Thanks to Marc Tyler Nobleman, for his friendship and enthusiasm, and for pushing us all always to look for more.”

You can’t find if you don’t look…up in the sky. 

(Sorry, but Jerry was corny, too.)

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