One-hundred years ago this week, a boy was born in Toronto who, despite his humble origins, would help define the nature of American popular entertainment forever.
Joe Shuster’s parents were Jewish immigrants who came over to Canada from Rotterdam and the Ukraine in 1912, and started a family. Times were tough, and the family moved regularly, struggling to make ends meet. Joe was the oldest of three Shuster children, and demonstrated artistic inclinations at an early age, drawing whenever he could find the time (and materials). The Shusters moved to the United States in 1924 and settled on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, where Joe was enrolled in Glenville High School. It was there that he met classmate Jerome Siegel.
Siegel was already an experienced writer, and the boys bonded over mutual passions: movies, comic strips, and science fiction. It was inevitable that they would collaborate, and after a few false starts (including a pulp-style short story that Siegel titled “Reign Of The Superman”), the pair began to develop and shop around a concept for a newspaper strip of their own: a story of a wildly-attired strongman who would do battle with all manner of hoodlums and evil-doers. The idea took a few years to sell, but once their initial run of strips was configured for the then-new “comic book” format and appeared in the 1938 debut issue of Action Comics, their character Superman became an international sensation that endures to this day, 75 years later.
While Shuster’s relationship — and that of his family — to Superman publishers DC Comics was and continues to be far from harmonious, what’s never been in dispute is the master cartoonist’s influence on multiple generations of creative artists. To celebrate the centennial anniversary of Shuster’s birth, some of those men and women have paid homage to and shared their impressions of Shuster’s work, his legacy, and his signature character.
Art by Kyle Starks, creator of Legend Of Ricky Thunder and Sexcastle
I love the original Siegel and Shuster Superman. As a child of ’80s Marvel comics, I never really liked or saw much appeal in the character until I read the very earliest Superman stories in my 30s. But when I did, I saw in those first appearances the same magic and crackling energy that I saw in all my favorite super-hero comics — the early Ditko Spider-Man stories, the first handful of Batman comics and almost anything made by Jack Kirby. They were the works of excited and inspired creators, making up the rules as they went along, heedless of conventions and just rolling with a punk do-it-yourself enthusiasm.
Superman, in those early Action Comics appearances, was very different than the stodgy and uptight character that I grew up knowing — he was brash, impulsive and a “by any means necessary” kind of social crusader. He didn’t put on demonstrations at charity shows for kids — he hung bad guys out the window (and dropped them once or twice)! And he didn’t didn’t fight aliens, or get turned into a lion or tangle with the effects of polka-dot kryptonite — he fought crummy slumlords, nasty child-labor rings and shoddy land developers! To me, it seemed like Siegel and Shuster were two kids looking through the newspaper every day and saying, “Hey, that’s just wrong! If I had the power, I’d fight THAT!” And then they’d go and create a story about a guy who did. I loved that pure and simple Superman, the one who couldn’t yet fly and was more concerned with earthly problems.
Part of that appeal was Joe Shuster’s raw and dynamic drawings. I loved the squint Superman had and I loved the way he ran. He was a young man of action, not an imperious god in the sky or a likeable but unrelatable father figure. Shuster’s Superman also had a lot of Roy Crane (one of my all time favorite cartoonists) in his design and style. I always thought Superman’s face was Captain Easy without the broken nose. There wasn’t as much polish to the look of the comic — that would come later with other artists, but I preferred it that way. Instead of a sanitized and professional gloss, Shuster’s Superman had the unvarnished energy and enthusiasm of a young artist discovering his abilities as he drew. Those early Shuster comics are magical, and I envy the kids who caught them on the newsstand when they first came out. I don’t doubt for a second that I would have been swept up in the excitement too had I lived in that time — after all, they still had the ability to inspire me, decades later in a far far different climate than they originally appeared. To this day, Shuster’s original Superman still feels fresher and more alive to me than the Superman of any other era.
–Michael Cho, creator of Shoplifter (coming this September from Pantheon Books)
Thanks to Joe Shuster for helping to define the ultimate superhero, the selfless character we’ve all come to know and love. My pal, Superman.
–Scoot McMahon, creator of Sami The Samurai Squirrel
Art by Derek Charm, artist of Trip Fantastic, Super Secret Crisis War, Powerpuff Girls
I never met Joe Shuster. But I know him pretty well. I researched his life for about ten years – not because I am some creep or something – but because of this question: how did two kids from Cleveland create the first superhero?
It’s a long answer, but what I found is that Joe was much more than just the end half of “Siegel …” He wanted to be a cartoonist since his dad read him “Little Nemo” as a kid in Toronto. As he grew up, Joe worked doggedly – every single day – to become better. Inspiration and luck are transitory things for an artist. Living in Cleveland in the Great Depression, Joe knew the meaning of good, hard work.
Joe was also absolutely the co-creator of Superman. He was not just “the artist.” Joe came up with the costume, the look, and almost assuredly the name. Joe, who was slight and skinny and obsessed with physical fitness, poured his own life into his work – whereas Clark was small and skinny, Superman was muscular and confident. Joe was Clark Kent; Superman was what he imagined himself to be.
Joe had bad eyesight, but he wasn’t blind. His fantastic work for “Nights of Horror” (as seen in Craig Yoe’s great Secret Identity) is proof of that. Even more fantastic is why Joe did those drawings — to pay for his little sister’s wedding. Joe loved music and was an irrepressible ladies’ man, though he gave away his heart too easily. He joined a mystery cult in California during the ’70s, was in love with the real Lois Lane, and was once introduced to a cheering Copacabana crowd by Milton Berle.
There were low points, of course, but a birthday is about the good stuff. And there was lots of that.
Joe never had any children, but he had Superman. Look all around you to see how that turned out.
Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures Of Jerry Siegel Joe Shuster – The Creators Of Superman
Happy 100th Birthday to comic book legend and pioneer, Joe Shuster! Thanks for co-creating the greatest comic book superhero, and one of my all-time favorites, Superman!
Bobby Rubio, Pixar story artist and creator of 4 Gun Conclusion
Art by Christy Sawyer, letterer and artist.