Home » Haunted by Artist Interviewed 36 Years Ago: Superman’s Co-Creator

Haunted by Artist Interviewed 36 Years Ago: Superman’s Co-Creator

Deceased illustrator Joe Shuster has been haunting me this summer—in a good way. Felt his presence in a movie theater while watching Man of Steel and later at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International.

Superman making his debut in Action Comics No....

Superman making his debut in Action Comics No.1 (June 1938). Cover art by Joe Shuster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How can you not love a guy who, while just a teenager, created the most iconic superhero to ever fight for truth, justice, and the American Way along with high school buddy Jerry Siegel.

Heady times for the boys from Cleveland. They managed to sell their superhero to D.C. Comics. The powerhouse comic book publisher hired them to write and illustrate Superman. For the next ten years, illustrator Shuster and writer Siegel cranked out Superman tales from D.C. headquarters in Manhattan.

One major catch, however. They had to sell all rights to their superhero. The selling price? A paltry $130, but they were very young and naive, and this took place during the Great Depression.

After D.C. Comics replaced Shuster and Siegel, the pair spent the rest of their long lives in court trying to right that awful wrong.

In 1977, I had the privilege of interviewing Shuster. It took place in Shuster’s modest apartment in Escondido, CA, some 30 miles north of San Diego. Even though I was a newspaper reporter who had met many accomplished people, I remember feeling a bit giddy while driving to meet him.

To talk at length with one of the men who gave birth to Superman brought me back to those treasured childhood—and young teenage—moments, devouring Superman and other superhero comics.

Joe Shuster

Joe Shuster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shuster, 63 at the time, greeted me at the door with a warm smile. We sat in the small living room of his modest apartment along with his wife. Retired and just married for the first time, he had recently moved from a San Diego beach community.

The short, timid artist told me that best friend Jerry conjured up Superman in a dream in 1933.

“I just learned after all these years that Jerry got the idea in a dream,” but Jerry was “afraid to admit it,” he said, nestled in a recliner in the small living room. “Superman is everything that Jerry and I wanted to be—our alter ego. Jerry and I are both shy and introverted.”

The quote may appear rehearsed, but Shuster sounded sincere.

When I queried him about the copyright lawsuit, Shuster was critical of DC and not happy about how long the litigation continued to drag on.

Fortunately, Joe did have good news, too. Just two years earlier (1975), a court awarded each of them a $20,000 per year pension, cost of living increases, medical coverage, and published credits in all Superman comics and movies. The ruling came a long 28 years after Shuster and Siegel originally sued D.C.

Two years after our interview (1979), I went to see the first Superman movie ever produced. The Christopher Reeve movie mesmerized this Baby Boomer. And sure enough, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel received film credits as creators of the beloved Kryptonian.

The next day, I phoned Shuster to get his take on the movie. However, the person who answered told me that Joe had moved back to Manhattan.

Fast forward to July 2013.  That’s when I discovered that my 36–year-old interview, published by the Escondido Times-Advocate, played a small role in piecing together the brand new non-fiction book chronicling the lives of Shuster and Siegel.

Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is considered the most comprehensive account of these two extraordinary men. Author Brad Ricca was promoting his book during the final day of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

After I introduced myself as a former San Diego-area newspaper reporter who interviewed Shuster in the late Seventies, Ricca asked, “which newspaper?”

I told him the Escondido paper (now part of the North County Times), to which Ricca beamed and said, “Your article was of immense help.”

Of course I purchased Super Boys on the spot. Ricca signed the book, “For John, You’re a part of this story!”

A gratifying moment that was completely unexpected. Writers, you see, write to be heard. Writers also keep copies of published material that have special meaning. I kept a hard copy of the 1977 Shuster article.

When a journalist interviews accomplished people of special note, memories of those moments often stick.

In 1992, Joe Shuster passed away of natural causes. In tribute, I wrote a guest editorial for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Shuster had died in such obscurity that his death was not reported until several days later by the Los Angeles County coroner.

Ironically, Joe Shuster died just a few months before his co- creation’s demise. After 54 years of defending earth, Superman was killed off in his comic book. That’s more than a half-century of reaping major bucks for D.C. Comics and long-time parent company Warner Brothers Entertainment.

To no one’s surprise, Superman’s comic book death was nothing more than a clever marketing ploy to resuscitate the superhero’s waning popularity. Eventually, the man from Krypton was revived through the now infamous creative vehicle popularly known as “re-imagining.”

Four years after Joe died, co-creator Jerry Siegel passed, also of natural causes.

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Man of Steel billboard

Man of Steel billboard (Photo credit: vpickering)

 A few weeks before the July 2013 Comic-Con, I feasted on the newest  Superman movie, Man of Steel. Enjoyed the darker, controversial  Superman depicted. Especially appreciated the considerable amount  spent on Krypton before infant Kal-El was placed by his parents in rocket  ship bound for Earth just before Krypton implodes.

The weakest element in Steel: too many fight scenes between Superman and General Zod. Half of the punch outs could have been cut without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

I wondered if Joe Shuster would agree.


6 Comments

  1. johnlnunes says:

    Interview with Superman’s co-creator is the first post for my newest blog: Stories Behind the Stories.The blog’s concept: Takes readers back to my newspaper reporting days as wells as my freelance work for mags, newspapers, business publications, etc. I will provide anecdotes/reflections stemming from my coverage and/or interviews of three former U.S. presidents, two governors, numerous film, TV and stage stars, major recording artists, MLB players, on location movie shoots, murder trials, one of the nation’s deadliest mid-air plane crashes, and other people and events. Also, interviews of a few current authors.

  2. johnlnunes says:

    Postscript: Posts to my baseball blog will continue.

  3. Eric says:

    Do you know if there was a reason he moved back to Manhattan? Also, I wonder what he thought of the Christopher Reeve movies.

  4. johnlnunes says:

    Yeah, wondered what Joe Shuster thought of the Superman films, too. Regarding his move back to Manhattan: I’m assuming he did so in search of work. He did eventually find work as an illustrator, but not sure how long it took him to land a job. I’ve read enough about him to know that he spent most of his post-D.C. Comics days taking various odd jobs, often menial work.

  5. Brad Ricca says:

    John — it was great to meet you at Comic-Con. Such a good coincidence. As I told you there, you are about the only one who talked to him (officially) in his time in San Diego, which turned out to be very important — most of what I was able to find out about Joe (his involvement in a cult, his marriage) was due to the names and places in your article. I did not know he moved back to NY soon after though, though I suspect (as you say) it was in search of work.

    • johnlnunes says:

      Brad – Enjoyed our chance meeting, too. Thanks for the comment, and wishing you much success with your wonderful “Super Boys…” The book provides an unmatched account of the lives of Shuster and Siegel. At the same time, you were able to give us such an enormous amount of intriguing biographic detail while not sacrificing story. Thoroughly enjoyed your book. So many revelations.

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