The Joe Shus­ter Sto­ry: The Artist Behind Superman

  • Review
By – April 12, 2018

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.

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