This month marks the eight­i­eth anniver­sary of Superman’s first appear­ance in Action Comics #1. What was meant to be ephemer­al and cheap enter­tain­ment for a nation starved of dreams soon became one of the great­est pop­u­lar cul­tur­al behe­moths in his­to­ry. But jus­tice and the Amer­i­can way nev­er tru­ly caught up for Superman’s cre­ators, two Jew­ish boys from Cleve­land named Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter. Although the lega­cy of their cre­ation endures stronger than ever, Jer­ry and Joe them­selves were forced into penury, law­suits, and near-obscurity.

While the sto­ry of Super­man is well-known through­out the world, the true sto­ry of his cre­ators and their plights hasn’t received as much pop­u­lar scruti­ny. A forth­com­ing com­ic focus­ing on the life and tra­vails of Shus­ter aims to rem­e­dy this imbal­ance. The Joe Shus­ter Sto­ry: The Artist Behind Super­man, writ­ten by Julian Voloj (Ghet­to Broth­er) with art by Thomas Campi (Magritte: This Is Not a Biog­ra­phy), is not only an author­i­ta­tive account of Shuster’s life grow­ing up as a poor kid in Cleve­land, but also a riv­et­ing play-by-play of the ear­ly years of Amer­i­can com­ic books.

AJ Frost chat­ted with the author and illus­tra­tor before the book’s release. In this install­ment, illus­tra­tor Thomas Campi dis­cuss­es his ear­ly influ­ences, the chal­lenges of work­ing on a book while mov­ing con­ti­nents (a Super­man-ish feat!), and the lega­cy that Joe Shus­ter left for artists today.

Click here to read AJ’s inter­view with author Julian Voloj.

AJ Frost: Thomas, thanks for tak­ing the time to chat. I want­ed to start with your back­ground for a moment. Super­heroes are such an ingrained part of the Amer­i­can psy­che, but they might not trans­late as well else­where. Grow­ing up in Italy, what was your atti­tude towards super­hero comics, or comics in gen­er­al? What was the cul­tur­al atti­tude towards them?

Thomas Campi: I start­ed read­ing comics when I was four­teen years old. A friend lent me Dylan Dog, a black-and-white series that came out month­ly. Dylan Dog was hor­ror, but it had so many dif­fer­ent gen­res in it as well: phi­los­o­phy, humor, love — it was just bril­liant. I did­n’t real­ly read super­hero comics even though I knew about them; my inter­est was lim­it­ed to Dylan Dog at the begin­ning. My atti­tude was sim­ply that of a kid being amazed by draw­ings and words that made my mind dream, and let me live adven­tures by sit­ting down in silence in my room or in a park. In Italy at the time — it was the 90s — like in the US, comics were pop­u­lar but seen as some­thing child­ish, not real­ly rec­og­nized as a form of art. But even this … it was a con­cept I under­stood and real­ized years later.

AJF: When did you first come across Super­man and the work of Joe Shus­ter? Super­man is so sym­bol­ic of Amer­i­can aspi­ra­tion that I’m curi­ous as to how he’s per­ceived in a non-Amer­i­can context.

TC: The first mem­o­ry I have about Super­man is from when I was prob­a­bly five or six. I went to a newsagent with my dad and I want­ed him to buy me some­thing (no mem­o­ry of what). Among all the children’s mag­a­zines, there were a few super­hero comics. My dad point­ed at Super­man and said: That’s Super­man.” (But you know what he was called when I was a kid in Italy? Nem­bo Kid.”) But at the time, I was more into car­toons like Scoo­by Doo or The Flint­stones. It wasn’t until I watched the first Super­man movie with Christo­pher Reeve that I actu­al­ly got to know and under­stand Super­man. Joe Shuster’s art­work was a late discovery.

AJF: The Ital­ian com­ic tra­di­tion is very dif­fer­ent from the Amer­i­can one. Would it be fair to say that the work of Romano Scarpa or Luciano Bot­taro, or any of the major Dis­ney artists, is more well-known than, say, the work of any­thing from the Big 2?

TC: Actu­al­ly, I would­n’t say that. Amer­i­can comics are pop­u­lar in Italy as well. We do have our own Big 2: Dis­ney and Ser­gio Bonel­li Edi­tore. When I got into comics — as a read­er and a fan — I met a lot of peo­ple with dif­fer­ent inter­ests: those devot­ed to Dis­ney, the super­hero fans, the man­ga fans, and so on. With that said, Scarpa, Bot­taro, and Gior­gio Cavaz­zano are mas­ters for any­one who under­stands some­thing about comics.

AJF: As an artist, what was your first sense of Shus­ter’s work? Was there some­thing to it that seemed spe­cial, or did it seem more like a rel­ic of an ear­li­er time of illustration?

TC: A lit­tle bit of both. I thought it was spe­cial because Shus­ter was just a kid when he did the first draw­ings. And it was in the 30s, so I pic­tured him in those times: the cars, the suits with large pants, sus­penders, wood­en nib pens, big pieces of paper; it’s all fas­ci­nat­ing. He made his­to­ry. The art­work can seem naïve if seen through the eyes of some­body work­ing dig­i­tal­ly or sim­ply used to mod­ern aes­thet­ics. I myself think it’s great if you put it in con­text. I’ve stud­ied and repro­duced a few of his draw­ings for the book. The ink­ing, and even the way he sim­pli­fied anato­my, were pret­ty impres­sive for some­one of his age who did­n’t have the amount of comics and ref­er­ences we have nowa­days. Per­son­al­ly, I’m a big fan of those old-school styles.

AJF: Let’s talk about The Joe Shus­ter Sto­ry for a moment. What was the process of col­lab­o­rat­ing with Julian like? When I chat­ted with him, he men­tioned that you were mov­ing from Chi­na to Aus­tralia while work­ing on the book. How much of a chal­lenge was it to keep up with all that at the same time?

TC: It was chal­leng­ing. When I was approached by our agent about the Joe Shus­ter sto­ry, I was liv­ing in Hangzhou, Chi­na. But I said yes right away. At the time, I had just received my tal­ent visa and I was about to move to Syd­ney. Anoth­er chal­lenge was that I was still work­ing on Mac­a­roni! for my French pub­lish­er. And one more thing — and it’s some­thing peo­ple don’t talk about too much — is that as an illus­tra­tor or author, you get paid with advances and then roy­al­ties, but the advances aren’t enough to pay bills, so I had to squeeze in Magritte: This Is Not A Biog­ra­phy for a few months to cov­er the expens­es. It’s the life of a free­lancer, and I love it!

I also felt some pres­sure at the begin­ning. Work­ing on such a pop­u­lar sto­ry about the two artists who cre­at­ed the first super­hero and basi­cal­ly helped the birth of the Amer­i­can comics indus­try was intim­i­dat­ing. But the more I got to know about Joe and Jer­ry and their gen­uine pas­sion for telling sto­ries and for comics, the more I felt close to them and con­fi­dent (if that’s pos­si­ble when mak­ing comics) in approach­ing the 160 pages I had to sto­ry­board and draw. Julian’s nar­ra­tion is full of emo­tion and based on sol­id research. It’s also writ­ten with no spec­i­fi­ca­tions of pan­els and page num­bers. He trust­ed my sto­ry­telling skills, which brought an inspir­ing free­dom to my cre­ativ­i­ty and the approach I took in telling the story.

I began read­ing and anno­tat­ing the script dur­ing nights and week­ends since, at the time I received it, I was still work­ing on anoth­er book. I broke down Julian’s script into pan­els and wrote descrip­tions of how I imag­ined each par­tic­u­lar scene. Regard­ing the art­work, I didn’t want to define every­thing with a line, not even in the first steps of the cre­ation of the page. That’s why, after I sketched the sto­ry­boards, I sim­ply paint­ed over them with­out pen­cil­ing, try­ing to give a more painter­ly feel­ing to the final page — some­thing that could sug­gest a par­tic­u­lar mood, describe a moment with­out using too many details that would have filled the page but not added any emo­tion. Basi­cal­ly, both Julian’s and my main con­cern was the story.

AJF: What was it like recre­at­ing Depres­sion-era Amer­i­ca from your van­tage point as an expat in Aus­tralia? That must have been its own unique chal­lenge. Did you do any inde­pen­dent research?

TC: The beau­ty of comics is that you can do what­ev­er you want by your­self in your stu­dio. You don’t need the bud­get you would for a movie or a big team of peo­ple. I’ve done sev­er­al books set in France and Bel­gium while liv­ing in Chi­na and Aus­tralia. I think the most impor­tant thing is to be hon­est and pas­sion­ate about the sto­ry you’re telling. In comics, in my opin­ion, there’s no need to rep­re­sent every­thing in detail, or to be incred­i­bly real­is­tic in anato­my, per­spec­tive, back­ground, or light­ing. I think the most impor­tant thing is to give an impres­sion,” like Impres­sion­ists did in their paintings.

Dur­ing my life, I’ve watched many old Amer­i­can movies, read Amer­i­can nov­els and comics. But when you’re cre­at­ing some­thing, you can’t just trust that kind of knowl­edge — it can only be the start­ing point. I did my own research about Joe Shus­ter, Jer­ry Siegel, and Depres­sion-era Amer­i­ca. I gath­ered pho­tos of every kind, watched videos from those times, and then I tried to recre­ate, with my own fil­ter, an impres­sion of that era — which I guess was from a Euro­pean point of view, even though I’d like to think of it as just a per­son­al, cre­ative one.

AJ F: What do you think the lega­cy of Shus­ter is — not just for comics cre­ators or comics read­ers, but for artists and dream­ers? And what did you per­son­al­ly walk away with — emo­tion­al­ly, artis­ti­cal­ly, or per­son­al­ly — after work­ing on this comic?

TC: What Joe Shus­ter and Jer­ry Siegel did (in part) is the dream of every artist: cre­at­ing some­thing that will make you live for­ev­er, a lega­cy. But what actu­al­ly impressed me was their tenac­i­ty, per­se­ver­ance, and, most of all, their pas­sion. They had fire inside, that fire that makes you sit down in your stu­dio for months — alone in most cas­es — try­ing to cre­ate some­thing that you can be proud of and that peo­ple will enjoy and hope­ful­ly remem­ber. I believe that any kind of artist — whether a com­ic book artist, musi­cian, film­mak­er — should have that kind of fire. It’s what makes you an artist, the com­pul­sive need to cre­ate. I believe that is Joe Shuster’s legacy.