Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman"

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman. In honor of that...

Comic book creator duos often mirror their creations: one is the star, one is the sidekick. In the Bob Kane/Bill Finger dynamic, Bob hoarded the spotlight—until recently. In the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster partnership, Jerry has tended to overshadow Joe, but in a less contentious way than the Batman boys. Joe was simply the more soft-spoken of the two, always in Jerry's wake in their efforts to receive more for Superman. But unlike Bob and Bill, and despite intermittent frictions, Jerry and Joe remained a unit for most of their superhero saga.

That makes a new graphic novel written by Julian Voloj and illustrated by Thomas Campi especially inviting. It takes an atypical approach by unspooling Superman's real-life origin story from Joe's perspective. In most tellings, including my own (Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman), Jerry and Joe are presented on equal footing. In The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, the sidekick speaks up.

That voice is largely fictionalized. Though meticulously researched, the book is heavy on dialogue, much of which had to be imagined. However, based on what I remember from my own Siegel and Shuster research (way back in 2004), most of it reads as authentic. Joe sounds here like he sounded in my head. And though tragedy recurs in both men's timelines, Joe suffered in ways Jerry didn't (namely, his eyesight deteriorated for most of his adult life—particularly brutal for a visual artist). 

Voloj cleverly frames the story with a 1975 incident in which a police officer rouses a downtrodden Joe resting on a bench in a Queens, New York park, then treats him to soup at a nearby diner. It's a woefully low point for one of the minds behind a high-flying hero—the opposite of the way many would expect such a story to start. And that's why it works. It punctures the skin immediately. In Joe's passivity is a pathos that is painful to observe. 

Like Joe himself, the book has a gentle aura. The lettering is small and delicate, the colors a wash of muteness. This has the effect of lulling the reader, which gives certain turning points (even if small) more kick, such as when Joe meets Jerry—but not the Jerry you're thinking of.

The book does a deft job of weaving in historical context from World War II to the machinations of the sometimes shady characters who called the shots at the company that would become DC Comics. This is especially well done with respect to the softcore artwork a conflicted yet desperate Joe agreed to do in the 1950s, and the paranoia and fear he felt when it was revealed that the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, prior to their murder spree, had read some of the lurid stories Joe had illustrated. One choice that I feel is a cliché is the way Bob Kane morphs into the Joker when he betrays Jerry and Joe in their first attempt to sue National.

I loved seeing scenes I have read (and written) about and places I have visited come to life in this format, which allowed for a good but not overwhelming amount of depth. This was no easy book to illustrate. Though at its core a story of two people at desks, in execution it is much broader than that, requiring scenes in grand-scale settings such as the 1940 New York World's Fair. Campi has clearly done thorough research and it's a joy to absorb the details he includes throughout. 

In terms of text and pace, a standout passage is a sweet seven-page scene where young Joe takes lead (Jerry is there, too) in welcoming a similarly young female model to his apartment so he can sketch from life. That model, Jolan Kovacs, would be one of the inspirations for Lois Lane, would later reinvent herself as Joanne Carter—and would become Jerry's (yes, Jerry's) wife. Joe left in the dust again. 

Being stringent about accuracy, I was disappointed to see that Joe can see—he is depicted without eyeglasses. To an extent this is defensible because in most if not all photos of Joe from the early days of Superman, he is not wearing glasses. But he did wear glasses then—except when being photographed. I don't believe it was a stylistic choice to leave out the eyeglasses, but this oversight (pun not intended) can be overlooked if interpreted thematically—Joe was "blind" to dominance (first Jerry's, later National's) insofar as he let both steer his course.

I also felt the ending was underwhelming. Again like Joe, it was too quiet for its own good. I craved a more trenchant emotional payoff. The material is there; perhaps a slightly more dramatic breakdown of the text or a more memorable final image would've done the trick. 

Despite my few quibbles, I highly recommend The Joe Shuster Story. I'm happy that Joe, like Bill Finger not long ago, is finally getting his chance to be the hero, or at least the heart, of the story.

Note: Julian Voloj is a friend and I was sent an uncorrected advance review copy.

No comments: