Critical Takes: Super Boys, by Brad Ricca

by Danny Anderson

Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, by Brad Ricca (St. Martin’s Press)

The story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster willed Superman into our world is often alluded to, but too seldom explored with any depth. The powerful mythology of their great creation tends to mythologize the lives of the Man of Steel’s creators as well. As a result, those human lives are reduced to mere backdrops for the origin of comics’ greatest hero. For instance, when discussing Superman’s alien otherness, reviewers will often simply point at Siegel and Shuster’s Jewishness as inspirational source material. Likewise, Superman’s sense of justice is quickly rooted in the mysterious, tragic death of Siegel’s father in his store. What is too often lost in these broad gestures, however, are the rich details of two lives filled with desperation, success, failure, love, and ambition.

Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay drew on the richness of Siegel and Shuster’s lives in its loving fictional adaptation of Superman’s origins, making impressive use of fiction’s power to capture the nuance and variousness of human experience. But there is a limit to the debt fiction owes reality, and Kavalier and Clay are not Siegel and Shuster themselves.

Brad Ricca has attempted to bridge the gap between these two approaches to the comic book legends’ lives with Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, and the tale he tells transforms the folk heroes into flesh and blood people. The book, drawing on Ricca’s meticulous research and energetic writing, is an attempt to apply the rich SuperBoyspossibilities of storytelling to the biographical project. Ricca’s story is novelistic in its approach to the story of Superman’s creators, sacrificing documentary detachment for rich, descriptive language that draws Siegel and Shuster as complex characters. The boys’ Jewishness and the death of Siegel’s father are covered here as well, but with a focus and detail that makes those biographical facts more than allegorical resources. The book’s subtitle, “The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” provides an obvious nod to Chabon’s novel while pointedly emphasizing the full names of Superman’s creators, bringing them out of the realm of mythology and fiction and into the actual world they inhabited. Through the lens of Ricca’s archival research, Superman becomes less a myth, and more the product of the real lives that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived in Cleveland, Ohio in the early twentieth century reading pulp fiction and dreaming of American success. The book continually works to humanize the pair by placing their lives, their artistic development, and their professional acumen (as well as their mistakes) in the context of the time and place in which they lived.

One way Ricca avoids mythology is his demonstration of how both men cannily developed their art by studying and immersing themselves in the profession they were trying to break into. Ricca’s research portrays Siegel and Shuster not as individual geniuses who birthed Superman straight from their collective heads, but rather as diligent, ambitious young men who studied what sold in their chosen profession and worked until they themselves achieved success in it.

An example of how Super Boys establishes Jerry Siegel’s intellectual and professional development is the way Ricca documents and rhetorically analyzes letters Siegel wrote to the editors of various magazines, such as Astounding Stories of Super-Science. The analysis he provides of such letters both deepens our sense of Siegel as a complex character and establishes a creative trajectory leading to Superman by tracing Siegel’s developing understanding of the relationship between writers, their publishers, and their readers.

Likewise, the same searing attention to detail is given to Joe Shuster’s work as a budding comic artist. The book’s many photos and illustrations provide a genealogy of Shuster’s artistic development and make many fascinating arguments about the source material for Superman’s image and various poses, offering side-by-side comparisons of images Shuster found in popular culture with his portrayals of the American icon. From ads for fitness pamphlets to action-images of Olympian Jesse Owens (a fellow Clevelander), the book’s research assembles Shuster’s artistic influences like a puzzle.

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Similarly, Super Boys plunges into both Siegel’s and Shuster’s early work with their high school newspaper, The Glenville Torch. This particular research seems to be new in analyses of the artists’ work, and it builds on existing biographical information to further locate the two in a real time and place, making their story all the richer. The details drawn from the duo’s juvenilia, when placed in the narrative Ricca constructs, reveal not only the latent talent and ambition of the two young, Jewish, Midwestern boys, but also their intellectual and professional development in a budding and cruel industry.

The exhaustive research that fully narrates the boys’ rise and the development of the Superman character also fleshes out the details of their subsequent fall. The cruelty of the business side of the comics industry ultimately crashes down upon Siegel and Shuster, and Super Boys offers the reader insight into that disappointment as well, working, as always, to emphasize the pair’s humanity over the mythology that surrounds them. The dedication and work that Siegel and Shuster put into their success makes their ultimate betrayal by the industry they helped create all the more tragic, and Ricca’s painstaking portrayal of the pair’s complex humanity gives the tragedy of their story its weight.

Ricca is a Clevelander himself, and his book is obviously a loving tribute to two of the city’s great figures. Be forewarned: his story fills in some gaps in its narration with moments of novelistic conjecture, which may rub some readers the wrong way. However, the meticulous research and analysis that he has done ultimately grounds the story in the facts of the Super Boys’ lives.

Super Boys provides an enormous amount of insight into the world that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fought against and drew upon for inspiration. The long shadow that Superman casts upon our popular imagination can easily obscure the real story of the Jewish boys from Cleveland who created him. Brad Ricca’s entertaining book covers an important chapter in American popular culture in great detail, and it offers a lively and abundant archival analysis that should also be useful to readers interested in the rich and complex relationship between comics and our world.

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