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“SPLAT! CRACK!”: Review of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster

By Terry Harpold

Yoe, Craig. Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2009. Print.

Figure 1. “I seemed to crave this treatment no matter how harsh or humiliating.” “The Strange Loves of Alice.” Illus. Joe Shuster.Nights of Horror 1 (c. 1954).

The rise and fall and rise of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is as close as we have to a tragic origin myth in superhero comics publishing. After trying for several years, mostly without success, to place their collaborative work in newspapers and second-string newsstand comics, two nice Jewish boys from Cleveland manage in 1938 to get their origin story about a friendly alien from a distant planet (“Champion of the Oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!”) into the first issue of a new series called Action Comics. But in their youthful enthusiasm, they sell all rights to the character for a handful of beans: $130 and for-hire contracts – albeit well-paid – to produce more stories of the Man of Steel. Ten years later, Superman has become a household name. New comics series and spinoff characters have been introduced, newspaper strips and radio and film serials are proliferating and television series are not far off. Shuster and Siegel attempt to void the terms of their original contracts and regain control of their creation, but fail. Replaced by other writers and artists, they are cut out of the immense profits generated by the Superman franchise by National Allied Publications (later DC Comics) and – perhaps more cruelly – their byline is erased. After years of financial hardship and near-anonymity, a lawsuit is instituted on Shuster and Siegel’s behalf against Warner Communications, the owners of DC. Perhaps embarrassed by the fistfuls of money they are about to make from Richard Donner’s 1978 film and the anticipated sequels, Warner agrees to return the byline and provide a modest annual stipend to both men until their deaths in 1992 (Shuster) and 1996 (Siegel). In the 90s and 00s, Shuster and Siegel are inducted into several comics artists halls of fame. Artists’ awards and city streets are named in their honor. Following the 1998 extension of the copyright by Warner to 2013 (under the oft-maligned Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act), new suits and counter-suits by the artists’ heirs and Warner/DC are opened, followed by rulings and reversals of rulings, resulting in – for the present – the award of half of the Superman US copyright to Siegel’s heirs and of the remaining half to Shuster’s heirs, beginning in 2013.

Siegel’s life after the first decade of Superman is pretty well-documented: brief editorial stints at Ziff-Davis and Famous Funnies, scripting work (often uncredited) for Marvel, DC, Archie Comics, Charlton Comics, Western Publishing, and others; a prominent role in the campaigns against Warner before his death. Details of Shuster’s career after the 1948 split from National are less well known. After the failed launch of Funnyman, a new superhero comic conceived with Siegel, he appears to have worked irregularly during the 1950s and early 1960s as a freelancer and, when failing eyesight stopped him from drawing, as a delivery man. By the time of the Warner campaign, he was nearly blind and living in poverty in a California nursing home.

Figure 2. “Splat! Crack! The paddle went in quick succession.” “Never Been Kissed.” Illus. Joe Shuster. Nights of Horror 3 (c. 1954).

Craig Yoe’s discovery of a cache of Shuster’s unsigned work for low-rent bondage and discipline magazines of the early 1950s, with titles like Nights of HorrorPink ChemiseBlack Chemise, and Rod Rule, fills in some missing pieces of the Superman origin myth, and the nervous giggles accompanying most discussions of Secret Identity in the press since its publication show that the revelation of Shuster’s “secret” has elicited a small glimmer of self-awareness in the popular consciousness of the Superman universe. Whether his contributions to these mobbed-up, under the counter publications were dictated (as Stan Lee’s brief introduction argues) by Shuster’s financial desperation, or by a more complex mix of monetary need, revenge fantasy, and artistic predilection (as Yoe proposes) is uncertain. What is clear is that these images represent some of Shuster’s best and, well, his most alluring work.

Most of the images in Secret Identity are from the 16 issues of Nights of Horror, a typewritten 80-page pamphlet of illustrated stories with titles like “The Strange Loves of Alice,” “The Flesh Merchants,” and “The Bride Wore Leather,” written by plainly pseudonymous characters with names like “Gar [i.e., “Rag” backwards] King” and “Rod Lashwell.” Typically for the genre, the writing in NOH was formulaic and given to purplish euphemism and mock demurral – imagine the most ludicrous of Penthouse letters to the editor, heavy on spanking and white slavery, and without any dirty words – though some of the stories are considerably more sexually graphic and violent than Shuster’s illustrations might suggest. (Yoe provides brief synopses of the stories, such as they are, but limits citations from them to a few sentences, chiefly as captions for the images. Enterprising readers can find complete reproductions of several of the issues on the WWW.) Flagellation, bondage, torture, teenage sex cults, drug addiction, “deviance” (usually lesbianism and oral sex), exhibitionism and voyeurism are in abundant supply. In the illustrations topless or barely-clad young women are the chief recipients of enthusiastic (and often welcomed) discipline, but turnabout is also fair play: well-muscled male torsos, in a few cases stripped to their boxers, are also the targets of whips, paddles, and hairbrushes in the hands of grim-faced mistresses.

Figure 3. “The whip fell relentlessly as if Etty were embued [sic] with the same fervor as her mistress.” “The Bride Wore Leather.” Illus. Joe Shuster. Nights of Horror 7 (c. 1954).
It’s all very naughty, though by 21st century standards pretty tame and notably dispassionate; a couple of Irving Klaw photographs of a trussed-up Bettie Page have more heart in them than all of Shuster’s drawings on display here. Yoe’s decision to not reproduce any of the texts for which Shuster drew these images protects the artist from having his work openly associated with the crudest pornography – the aim here is to reveal Shuster’s “secret identity” without also exposing him to ridicule or revulsion – but the disconnection of the images from the texts also hides their curious and significant symmetries. Some of the images are of generic scenes of abuse, but most appear closely connected to episodes of the stories; Shuster must have drawn them on that basis. Perhaps Yoe considers this too obvious to be worth mentioning, yet I think the intimate connection of the – superbly executed – images and – artistically impoverished – texts is key to seeing what is going on here, beyond the sad tale of Shuster’s need for paid work and an artistic outlet.

For the graphic and erotic imaginaries of Shuster and Siegel’s Superman – and, more generally, fundamental elements of the superhero genres that it spawned and continues to spawn – overlap in important respects with those of seamier projects like Nights of Horror. The intuition of principal players in the moral panics and comics crises of the 1950s – Fredric Werthem, Estes Kefauver, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, etc.; all show up in Yoe’s workmanlike survey of the period – that the superhero universe is contoured by hidden sympathies was not much off the mark, though probably not in a way they may have understood.

Figure 4. “Strange desires filled his brain as she knelt before him.” “Dreams for Sale.” Illus. Joe Shuster. Nights of Horror 15 (c. 1954).

On the one hand, the connection between these orders is plainly aesthetic: Shuster’s naïve, vigorous style is well suited to the narrative program of NOH – stagey, iterative, focused always on specific gestures and scenes. His limited repertoire of facial and body types and expressions, evident in the early Superman comics, is in keeping with this connection. A maniac awfully like Lex Luthor cracks a whip, while another resembling Perry White leers. A frequent storyline relates the corruption of a fresh-faced youth – he looks exactly like Jimmy Olsen – indoctrinated into a sex-and-drug cult, who quickly becomes a jaded lothario in search of new inductees. Lois and Lucy Lane have been made to grow up and out: Shuster’s talent for drawing pneumatic, brassiere and garter-popping female forms is clear and the Lane sisters often play whimpering not-entirely-victims or sneering fem-doms towering over misbehaving mild-mannered reporter types. And the Man of Steel, all muscles and stoic concentration, is here too, dispensing and receiving the implacable justice of the whip, or slavishly devoted to a girl much like Lois in a way never seen in the DC canon. Indeed, nearly all the agents in these illustrations parade about and hold their poses with the studied high theatricality we associate with the participants of the most stereotyped BDSM scenarios and the Last Son of Krypton.

Figure 5. Illus. Joe Shuster. Rod Rule (c. 1954).

And so, on the other hand: the inflexible visual grammar of, first, a literature that NOH exemplifies, and second, the superhero traditions founded by Shuster and Siegel – in which the predictable repertoire of facial expressions, bodily positions, and vocalizations are signs of not so much limited artistic skill as of a winning formula in a consistent system of forms that unites two artistic domains in which Shuster may have done his most accomplished work. The scandal of the artist’s “secret identity” is not that he drew illustrations for seedy bondage rags and we can’t be entirely sure of the nature or degree of his personal investment in the plain wrapper trade. Yoe, after all, has catalogued a similar body of soft and not-so-soft pornographic work by ostensibly family-friendly artists like Carl Barks, George Herriman, Jack Kirby, Mort Walker, and Wallace Wood, in Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings (Last Gasp, 2007). The scandal, if there really is one, would be an effect of the voyeur’s glance into an order of comic imagery in which a repressed returns with seedier earnestness than is usual for Metropolis’s first son, while being equally – and with equal, blatant artifice – acted out in service of an insatiable moral law. “A neverending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” as the 1940s Mutual radio serial Adventures of Superman, and later the George Reeves television series of the same name, famously proposed. Superman, disrobing hastily in the dark, cinched into his very tight tights, always smiling during onslaughts of punches and projectiles, holding the stereotyped poses just a little too long, and flying, for heaven’s sake, has always been an undisguised figure of the fetish’s inexhaustible generation of new ways of expressing the same idea, even if this agent of the fetish is not so bold in his kinks or forthright in his administration of correction as the characters of a Rod Lashwell story.

Wertham famously complained that Superman was, against seeming type, un-American in his unsociable singularity and fascist in his methods, a prime example of the terrible seductiveness of the superhero scenario. Nights of Horror was front and center in Wertham’s testimony at New York State and US Congressional hearings on the roles of comics and pornography in an imagined epidemic of juvenile delinquency and violence. Amazingly, no one during the comics panic – yet another episode of perverse spectacle in the service of moral law – seems to have made the connection between Shuster’s two artistic periods. One wonders what kind of high theatricality the Comics Code Authority might have staged if someone more discerning had read above and below the counter.

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