Monday, December 1, 2014

“Holding Kryptonite: Truth, Justice, and America’s First Superhero”

To paraphrase the back cover of the 2014 self-published book Holding Kryptonite by Lauren Agostino and A.L. Newberg: “In 1997, a young law firm assistant stumbled on a secret cache from Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. These original documents, private correspondence, legal papers, and artwork expose the muted history of the relationships of the early Superman family.”

In other words, this is a study of Jerry and Joe—particularly Jerry—that we haven’t seen before. Not even close. The authors reproduce a fascinating series of letters in order from 1937 to 1947, which reveals to an unmatched degree just how noodgy—whether justified or not—Jerry was, and just how much this exasperated Jack Liebowitz, co-owner of National Allied Publications (later DC Comics).

Naturally I’m interested in any book about Siegel and Shuster, but this one struck me on another level. Lauren was neither a more-than-casual Superman fan nor a writer before she discovered this discarded collection of materials. But she took the time to read it and was inspired to not only share it but also do additional research to expand on it. An interview with Lauren and A.L. is below, but first…

I took notes as I read:

page xv – For Jerry’s retyped letters, the authors used the font that came close to matching Jerry’s typewriter, a Royal Portable Quiet Deluxe. Nice touch.

$6 to draw a cover of Action Comics!

18 – Upon reading the 1938 Jerry letter here, I noted “neither dumb nor greedy.” (Though as Jerry’s frustration mounts over the coming years, a lack of clarity—and eventually a sense of desperation—begins to seep into his correspondence.)

21 – Jack to Jerry: “If I thought for a moment that our magazine depended on your strip…” Perhaps it was too early to see this, but within a year of debuting, it was clear to anyone paying attention that
Action very much depended on Superman. Kids asked not for Action but for the comic “with Superman in it.”

Also on 21, in response to Jerry stating (top of page 18) that Superman was the most popular feature in
Action, Jack cites that while Superman got 30% of the votes in a reader poll, each of the remaining characters got between 15% and 25%. In other words, Superman did not win by a landslide. (However, this is a bit manipulative on Jack’s part—Superman was still the favorite, which is all Jerry said.)

25 (and subsequent chapter-ending pages) – I see the point in comparing Jerry and Joe’s salaries to the national average, but on one level that’s unfair. Jerry was not asking to be paid more than anyone else; he was simply asking to be paid what he felt he and Joe deserved based on the success of their creation.

30 – I don’t think I knew that the assistant artists were paid solely from Joe’s half.

34 – I don’t think I knew that Jerry and Joe got a 5% royalty on commercial use.

50-51 – I wonder if anyone has tried to track down the Pauls, Cassidy and Lauretta (and other assistant artists named here and on page 162 of Super Boys). I’m sure they’re gone, but if not, they’d have some stories.

54 – There was a Superman song and Jerry wrote lyrics. Why couldn’t those have been salvaged?

By now, a pattern is clear: Jerry often makes what I feel are valid points. However, he makes them in a long-winded manner, and too often. The more resistance he got, the more he pushed. As a creator and freelancer myself, I understand.

64 – The Hitler myth again.

65 – I love that the glass pane in the door of Joe’s studio door was frosted to reduce the risk of fans walking in. I’d love to know if that ever actually happened. I will never know.

81 – Jerry signed away rights to Robotman, too! Sounds funny, but at least Robotman wasn’t a big hit…

97 – Jerry on Joe: “He seems to have developed a genius for saying the wrong things at the wrong times to the wrong people.” Ouch. A side of Jerry I wish I hadn’t seen.

98 – When Jerry and Joe collectively signed autographs for fans, Jerry said he always passed the sheet to Joe but Joe didn’t always pass it to Jerry. More ouch.

112 – They hired Winsor McCay Jr.! They considered “lending” him to Superman! Worlds almost collided.

116 – “I’m pretty sure, though, that I won’t be a civilian much longer.” Haunting, even though Jerry did not end up serving in a combat capacity.

137 – Though it’s a bit wackadoo, I love that editor Mort Weisinger (who developed a quite fearsome reputation) advises Jerry that he’s spending too much on postage. His suggestion on what to do with the extra money: “buy Junior some ice cream cones.”

Q&A with Lauren and A.L.:

Were you a Superman fan before finding these documents?

Lauren: No. Wonder Woman was my girl.
Andrew: I was a Superman fan in the way many kids were—by movie and by “legacy.”  There’s a great oral history attributed to Superman.  Generations of kids are referred to Superman to “be brave…like Superman,” “be strong…like Superman.”

Why did you decide to do a book, and how long after you found the documents?

Lauren: A book was the best medium to share my find and tell this fascinating story. It was 13 years after I found them.

Did you first try to publish the book through a traditional publisher? If so, what happened? If not, why not?

Lauren:  I explored the traditional route and chose self-publishing because it allowed me to include a lot of material that told the authentic story. 
Andrew: We wanted the control of presenting these documents as Lauren wished—“as I found them…without all the mildew and mold.”

Why did you write the book in the third person even though you, Lauren, are listed as the co-author?

Andrew: We had many versions with different structures, different story elements and dabbled with first and third and even second person. What was important and remains important to Lauren is that the reader finds these documents the way she did. Third person seemed the best POV to give the reader this opportunity.

Where did you find the annual earnings for Jerry and Joe?

Andrew: In the documents that Lauren found, the information of their annual earnings was included in the court-ordered audit that was submitted as evidence by Joe and Jerry.

What is a favorite reaction you’ve gotten on the book?

Lauren: I have had so much amazing feedback that it’s hard to pick just one. 
Andrew: My favorite reaction is from the readers who respond to me with a surprised lilt in their voice “I actually really found this interesting—and I’m not even into comics!” I do feel this book appeals to people whether they’ve read a comic or haven’t.

Have you heard from anyone whose opinion about Jerry changed after reading your book?

Andrew: I have and it is largely from people who are in the creative arts. They were unaware of the relative success that Jerry and Joe had. Yes, it is not comparable to the ledgers of DC, but relative to the industry—they were paid well. As you see from the correspondence in the book, DC knew they had a hit and kept it a hit through hard work and diligence. Many artists who read this go into it one way and come out with a different experience. Our job isn’t to make that decision; we wanted to provide the material to let people arrive at their own conclusion. As inequitable as the relationship appeared, agreements and terms were not hidden.

Have you gotten a copy of the book to the Siegel and Shuster families?

Andrew: We have not. We haven’t sent this to Detective Comics or Warner Bros. either.

What is your overall takeaway from the Siegel and Shuster story?

Lauren: This is a large chunk to an even bigger story. It’s an important one so I hope whatever people can take away is useful in their understanding. 
Andrew: Well, the toughie with that question is that whatever my takeaway is will be entirely different than someone else. It’s complicated…just like the story.

Where are the letters now? Do you plan to keep them, sell them, donate them?

Lauren: I don’t have any plans of selling them.

Are you writing another book—or planning to?

Lauren: At the moment, no. 
Andrew: When Lauren wants to share her personal journey with this material—that will be the next book I’ll write on the subject of Superman. She’s the story.

Anything you’d like to add?

Andrew: I have been introduced to a community of amazingly talented writers, researchers, and scholars on the subject of not only Superman but the entire comic industry. They continue to preserve the rich history of one of our culture’s most important exports: imagination. Through the years, no matter what was going on, to escape or re-imagine things through the comics has proved incredibly valuable; that has helped many to personally navigate tricky times. We hope that this information Lauren has generously and bravely shared will help those scholars complete a picture that has faded in some panels of the overall story. The men and women of both the creative and business side must coexist to exist. They each need recognition.

1 comment:

"T.V. Barnum" said...

Odd to see the reference in the interview of DC Comics as "Detective Comics"...