Everyone knows the origin story: a refugee from a dying planet sent to Earth, raised by loving midwestern parents, who eventually becomes the greatest hero the world has ever known. And indeed, this tale (which first appeared in Action Comics #1 eighty years ago this month) was to be the urtext for all other superhero comics that followed. Superman is the modern Moses: a harbinger for hope, a protector of the vulnerable, a pursuer of justice. But for all the imagination and wonder that he has inspired, there is a dark and tragic history to his creation that is not as well known.
Before there was a Krypton, before there was Clark Kent, Lois Lane, or Lex Luthor — before there were even comics as we know them today — there were two Jewish kids from Cleveland named Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jerry and Joe were dreamers, and their fantasy was to escape the degradation of the Great Depression and make something of themselves. Shuster, always drawing from an early age, was determined to overcome his family’s penury and become a real artist. And Jerry, the scrawny boy overlooked by girls and peers, retreated to the written world to make his presence known to others.
Together, they created the story of Superman, and the rest is history. Or is it?
In The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, writer Julian Voloj and artist Thomas Campi movingly depict the history of The Last Son of Krypton’s cocreator and his struggle with the tragic consequences of his contributions to a nascent American art form. From the opening scenes, which show Shuster sleeping on a park bench, to flashbacks detailing every triumph of creativity and ignominious lawsuit over Superman, we see him — along with his friend Jerry Siegel — go from a man in his element to a person defeated by avarice. Voloj’s historically sound storytelling rings with verisimilitude. The Shuster captured so wonderfully in these pages is an empathetic figure: a man with everything to gain, and everything to lose. Complementing Voloj’s story is Campi’s stirring watercolor art, which, though staying true to the biographical and historical framework of the book, also tends to stray — beautifully — into surrealism every now and again. Indeed, it is some of the most emotionally resonant art produced for a comic in some time.
If the book does have issues, the general culprit is the pacing: there is so much history here that it has to be compressed in order to make this read like a comic book and not a textbook. Much of the action is front-loaded as expository material. This makes sense, but the downside is that all the detail in the early parts of the book, coupled with the gripping story, makes the ending feel slightly abrupt.
Nevertheless, without the steady hand of Joe Shuster, where would we be as a culture? While corporate greed, monetary malfeasance, and bad luck for Shuster turned what should have been an American Dream story into one of lawsuits, humiliation, and poverty, this is ultimately a story of redemption. Indeed, in the end, The Joe Shuster Story is a tale of unbridled aspiration in a world beset with the cruelties of reality. Superman, as an extension of Joe and Jerry’s imagination, is the encapsulation of human goodness, kindness, and forthrightness. And that is always something worth fighting for.