Cleveland native Brad Ricca spent years looking into the largely buried lives of fellow Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the men who invented Superman. The payoff is an impressive work about creativity, the dog-eat-dog world of the comics industry and pop culture.
Siegel was the writer and Shuster the artist. Siegel's home has become a shrine to Superman, but his partner's home no longer remains. Their old neighborhood, once Cleveland's thriving Jewish core, is blighted. East 105th Street, its spine, blended retail and diversion, and in the '60s and '70s became the heart of the city's black entertainment district. It is now a shadow of its former self. Recently, a drunk driver drove a car through the memorial fence surrounding the former Shuster home site.
"Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the Creators of Superman"
By Brad Ricca
St. Martin's Press ($27.99).
Mr. Ricca's book focuses on the psychologically complex teenage duo that conceived the first comic book superhero only to lose control of their colorful creation. Like legacy jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll musicians, young Siegel and Shuster were exploited, though they weren't blameless in their situation.
The two launched their careers at Cleveland's Glenville High School, refining their ideas with freelance submissions to the pulp and science fiction magazines of the day. They relinquished the rights to what would become the most lucrative superhero character of all time in March 1938. The young men signed an onerous contract with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebovitz, two New York hustlers who bought the rights to the very first comic book superhero for $130 for National Periodical Publications, the predecessor of DC Comics.
In 1938, a Depression year, money was tight, and the young men had grown weary of hustling to scant success for years. They signed a contract that was transparently one-sided in favor of the publisher. Still, sympathy for them comes hard considering how systematically they'd worked to break through to a national audience.
Even as Superman became a global phenomenon, Siegel and Shuster continued to be work-for-hire freelancers who endured long stretches of poverty. At one point, as Mr. Ricca documents, Shuster was moonlighting on kinky comics called "Nights of Horror" where he adapted Superman, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to a far funkier world.
The lawsuit Siegel and Shuster brought against National and its successor DC, is a major part of the book. Mr. Ricca's aim is to raise the creators' profile as high as Superman's. The author treats his subjects kindly without sugarcoating their legacy. "Super Boys" is a worthy companion to Larry Tye's 2012 work "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," which focuses more on the character than its creators.
"Super Boys" also provides a psychological profile of the young creators including insight into the orphan from Krypton's origin and his curious, passive alter ego, Clark Kent. Mr. Ricca also reveals the identity of the woman who provided the model for Lois Lane, the intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet.
In a recent interview, Mr. Ricca said he discovered that Joanne Kovacs placed an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer for her modeling services, which led to posing for Shuster as he developed the character the world has known as Superman's girlfriend for the past 75 years. Eventually, Kovacs married Siegel and became his champion in the fight for fairer compensation, considering the billions of dollars Superman has generated over the decades. She died two years ago.
Mr. Ricca also secured the death certificate of Mitchell Siegel, Jerry Siegel's father. It shows that the Lithuanian immigrant died of "acute dilatation of the heart" after a robbery in his clothing store; his death wasn't the result of a gunshot wound as legend has it.
What happened to two boys from Cleveland is "as much about the beginnings of corporate America and its relationship to popular culture as it is about artistic creation and familial relationships," Mr. Ricca writes in his epilogue. "That a colorful pamphlet intended to be thrown away after reading has grown in value from 10 cents to several million dollars in 75 years is not because old paper has become more valuable, but because we as a culture have determined that the character itself has."
By chronicling Superman's creators in all their driven, problematic humanity, "Super Boys" puts the "Man of Steel" in perspective, bringing him down to earth without compromising his immortality.
Carlo Wolff (email@example.com) is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News, the author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories" and the creator of Invisible Soul, a Facebook page dedicated to underground Cleveland soul music.