Steel City

From Anthony Letizia at Geek Pittsburgh:

The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology may have sprouted from the darkened corners of mankind’s collective consciousness, but the mythology of their contemporary equivalents evolved from the imaginations of two twentysomethings from Cleveland and was influenced by the darkened days of the Great Depression and the 1930s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may never have reaped the financial bounty their creation spawned over the decades that followed but they are modern day Homers nonetheless—and the story of Superman is The Iliad and The Odyssey for the Twentieth Century and beyond.

Read the whole piece here.

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Happy Thanksgiving from Joe Shuster in 1932

Still one of my favorite Joe images — from the front page of The Glenville Torch on the day before Thanksgiving in 1932.

I think that this image — and its popularity — made Jerry begin to think that illustrated stuff — comics — might be a better thing to try than the weird short stories he had been writing.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

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The Superman Home Movies: Explained

Just this week, Mark Evanier posted a video of Superman Day at the 1940 World’s Fair. Though the footage has been available online for some time, this was the first time it has been noticed by a larger amount of people and fans (Evanier’s blog has lots of followers, for obvious reasons).

As Robot 6, Bleeding Cool, and other sites picked it up, people who had never seen it before responded in astonishment — here were home movies of the first time that National/DC trotted out someone dressed like Superman. Seeing legions of kids with \S/-shields on their shirts being led by Boy Scouts IN AN ELEPHANT PARADE! This was a big moment for the American superhero. Before there could ever be a Hollywood blockbuster with a Hulk and schwarma, this was IT. And it was barely two years after Action Comics #1. And all the original characters are there: Donenfeld, Gaines, Liebowitz — and Jerry with his wife, Bella.

But what are these films, exactly? Where did they come from? I first learned of their existence in 2006 when I saw them on eBay. I contacted the seller (a film dealer) and helped him identify some of the people in the film. I told the families about the listing, too. After lengthy communications with the seller in which I did my best 1989 Young Indy impression (“belongs in a museum”), he agreed to sell DVD copies of the films to me. When they finally arrived nearly a year later (my Dad lent me the money), I sent copies to the families, and deposited a copy in the library (Young Indy for the win). I eventually used some of the footage in my documentary Last Son. A year or so later, Time-Warner bought some of the original 16mm reels from the seller (for thousands of dollars) and included them in their documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.

As I worked on SUPER BOYS, I began to find more clues as to where the films originated from.  Their pedigree became more complicated (we should expect that by now, right?). What I figured out (and the connect-the-dots are in the book), is that the films were originally Jerry’s. There are a number of segments I have (still unseen by the public) of his home life with Bella playing badminton and drinking cocktails and having a family dinner (personal stuff, so I didn’t really use it). I also think that Joe is the one behind the camera in the Fair footage, which is why we don’t ever see both of them in the same frame. After Jerry’s divorce from Bella, I am fairly certain she kept all the films (the original packages from Eastman-Kodak are addressed to their house, which she kept in the divorce and lived in for the rest of her life). A film camera is also listed in the divorce settlement. She kept a lot of things. When she died, I believe that the films passed down to her and Jerry’s son, Michael. When Michael died in 2006, he was still living in this very same house, alone. So I think the reels of film never moved.

After Last Son first screened, I began to get some calls and emails as to where I got the films. These were not DC people, or the seller, but local people here in Cleveland (lawyers, collection agencies, etc.). As I say in the book, I think (and this is just a theory), that these films were found in Michael’s house after he died — and then somehow ended up on eBay.

Are these films stolen? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. That ominous dash in the previous paragraph aside, I really don’t think there is a big conspiracy here. When single people die and their estates fall into probate, clearing out their stuff before a house can be sold is common procedure. It’s horrible — but it happens every day. Don’t ever let it happen to you.

Maybe someone did drop the ball or miss an email (or didn’t care), but I don’t think anyone was really at fault here — it all seems (sadly) fairly procedural. My theory is that the films were put up for sale or as part of a larger estate deal, and the film dealer eventually bought them, with no idea what they were (I do know that). The fact that no one knew who Michael Siegel was (or what these archaic films might contain) is completely feasible (and forgivable), I think. That’s why those of us who talk about these people and write books about them do the work in the first place.

I didn’t find out about Michael’s death til over a month later. I contacted his lawyer and monitored the case in probate, but there was only so much I could do or get access to.  I found out later that there had been an estate sale, and that I had missed it. What still puzzles me though is that fairly recently, while writing the book, I discovered that even more original reels had been sold on eBay for just over $2,000. Who bought those films, what is on them — and where they got them — remains a mystery.

I also found this: a classified ad in a 1958 page of the New York Times:

There are some things in the past we will never know for sure.  Maybe.

Theories aside, the strange circumstances of the film being made public, to me, don’t matter in the face of their obvious historical value. If something had gone differently along this possible chain of circumstances, we might have never seen Superman Day. And the footage is loaded with clues as to who these people really were. They speak volumes.

If you read the book, you’ll know I did communicate with Michael Siegel before he died. One of the things people really seem interested in is that Mike really liked Superman, despite all the other stuff. I like to think that these movies are kind of Mike’s legacy — we never got to hear his full story, but he (in a way) allowed us to see these things by keeping them safe for all those years. Whether he would want them made public or not, I cannot say, just as I can’t say for sure how they ended up in public at all, or even if they should have. But they did, and they offer the essential version of what Superman is — an iconic image best celebrated by childhood. What we see in the film is real — and not Hollywood.

As great as Superman Day was (and we can see that), it was also, I think, the last day of the Golden Age of Comics. It was Superman’s highest point, and also the moment where Jerry realized that he was nothing more than a cog in a machine. And the day after the event, this one we can now watch in a digital conversion of flickering 16mm film, a terrorist’s bomb ripped through the fairgrounds, causing death and dissension to a nation already concerned about war. Coming home from this event, I think that’s when Jerry really decided that things had to change.

Here are more of the films, from the digital versions I purchased, which I present here for educational purposes. This is the actual awards ceremony that crowned Supergirl and Superboy. For more on their identities, see the great site Superman Thru The Ages, which has a letter from the actual Superboy, William Aronis.

Here is footage of Joe, c. 1939, with friends at a lake excursion. Watch for a cameo of Jerry, too.

Still think Joe was a geek?

Here is some footage from 1940 of Jerry and his wife Bella visiting the Empire State Building in New York. By 1940, Jerry was comics-famous and making lots of money. We always tend to think of these guys as bitter old men, not young creators who were literally living out their dreams. So it’s good to see this — the happy moment, on top of the world — sealed on film. It was not all bad. That’s good to know — and see.

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The Ghost of Jerry Siegel II

“Nature is a haunted house — but Art — is a house that tries to be haunted.”

                                                                                                      -Emily Dickinson

Over at The Beat, I wrote a post titled “The Ghost of Jerry Siegel” about the mysterious third man who contributed plots to early Superman stories. His name has not been lost to comics history, only misdirected, mostly because he has, 99% of the time, been attributed as an alias of Jerry.  He wasn’t.

Except for one tantalizing clue in an old article in a comics mag by Bob Beerbohm (see the post), everyone else, from Sam Moskowitz on (including me a few years ago), said Kenton was a pseudonym. Even after reading Bob’s article, I was still half-convinced he was. It took a long time to find actual proof — and the rest of this man’s surreal life story. Super Boys has an entire chapter devoted to him, titled “Bizarro.”  Kenton/Kantor is an exercise in never taking things at face value when it comes to comics history — truths are mislaid, adapted, and often deliberately altered. But more importantly: if Jerry had Kantor, how many other writers had ghosts out there? We know about Bill Finger — were there others?

 

Here are some random Kenton/Kantor appearances of the many I found. The really bizarre ones are in the book. My first clue that he was a real person was a letter to a pulp magazine — people were saying it was just Jerry behind a false name — but it didn’t sound like him.

 

 

His name also appears a few times in the Glenville Torch — in articles and stories that I am fairly sure were written by Jerry, his friend and admirer.

But his name appeared the most — dozens and dozens of times — in the comics themselves. As I read through their work, it became quickly obvious that Kenton was more than just an inside joke. In the book, I say what that is — and it’s big. This is from “Slam Bradley.”

The full story is in the book and it is way weirder — and incredibly telling of how difficult it was to make it in comics. It was hard to write the post for The Beat, because there will be people who do not want to hear that Jerry bought plots from someone else. And I get that, especially for those who admire him. I also know that there is a fair amount of anti-Siegel sentiment out there because of the lawsuit, and this may add fuel to that. But as I write in the piece, don’t read this as gossip or book-selling; read it as the truth. Comics as industry is something we tend to forget about the Golden Age. Comics were a business that was being improvised, and there was no better operator than Jerry Siegel. Readers, for decades, have read versions of Jerry as the sad victim of connected fatcats. I think that history says otherwise: Jerry, who doggedly pursued publication, helped create the side of things that finally made comics work. Siegel used the medium to tell personal stories with autobiographical elements, which forced comics from disposable serial (“Hanko the Cowhand“) to the beginnings of a legitimate artistic medium. Superman and Slam Bradley and all the others weren’t (just) adventure strips, they were mixing the real lives of their creators through a new uncanny, fictional genre. Superman was a type of magical realism. Ghosts haunt Superman; Superman was art.

Whether we knew it then or not.

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The 75th Anniversary of Superman at Comic-Con

Comic-Con week!

I will be on this panel:

The Secret History of the Siegel and Shuster Lawsuits (10:30AM-11:30AM; Room 26AB)—Five years after the Siegel heirs won a historic victory and regained a share of the Superman copyright, a higher court has set aside the verdict and also shut down the Shuster estate’s claim. As we face the final chapter of the Superman copyright dispute, this panel will explain what is really happening. What crucial details were overlooked or misinterpreted? Is there still hope for other creators?  Or does Superman’s 75th anniversary mark the end of truth, justice and the American dream?  Moderated by The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald with commentary by Siegel and Shuster biographer Brad Ricca (Case Western Reserve University), this panel features the legal analysis of Jeff Trexler (Fordham Law School), whose influential commentary on the Superman lawsuits set a new standard for comics-related legal analysis and also became part of the case.

This will be good — potentially with some major surprises (potentially not hyperbole), so don’t miss it. If you want a signed copy of Super Boys, come to this panel. That’s all I can say.

Otherwise, I will also be over at the offsite oasis known as TR!CKST3R:

TR!CKST3R was started by Pixar artists and celebrates creator-owned stuff, so of course it is the perfect place to sell Super Boys.  

And, what I am really happy about, I contributed an article about Jerry and Joe to the Con program. Very happy about that.

So it’s always kind of a nerd debate, but I don’t think there would be an original Con in 1970 if superhero comics had not taken off. And despite how out-of-context The New York Times quotes me (#problems), while I do think that somebody would have eventually come up with a superhero, it would not have been Superman. The character is just too unique. We might now be getting excited about Talkie-Con or Bravo-Con or Sharknado (sorry, can’t do it) -Con in that alternate reality. There is a very good chance it wouldn’t be Comic-Con.

The more conspiracy-minded people around me think it’s a little strange that the only panel that says anything about Siegel and Shuster is one about the lawsuit…at 10:30 AM on Sunday…opposite the Kirby panel with NEIL GAIMAN. I tell them there are three “Superman at 75″ panels (one with Morrison), but they note they are all DC-approved. Mark Waid, Glen Weldon and I proposed a panel about Superman’s anniversary, but it was rejected. Too bad — we had big plans. BIG plans. Maybe the world wasn’t ready. We would have talked about Vartox, the real person behind Bizarro, and heard Mark’s very quiet, thoughtful remarks about Man of Steel. Glen will be at the Con promoting his book and covering it for NPR. But no panel, so find him on Twitter @ghweldon in case we can host an impromptu salon somewhere probably nowhere.

There is an official Superman at 75 party:

Saturday Night. DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment celebrate 75 years of Superman. 8:30 p.m.-midnight, Float Rooftop Bar, Hard Rock Hotel. Invitation only.

There are zero unofficial Superman parties. That being said, I think Comic-Con ITSELF is the unofficial party. And that’s maybe how it should be. This isn’t sour grapes, I’m kind of joking around to make a point. Superman, our Superman, is the triumph of the meek, the nerd, the awkward. Let’s face it, Clark would only get invited to a LexCorp party as a power move anyway (and would probably spill the shrimp cocktail). Lois would surely get invited — but she’d leave.

So no, despite what my Kremlinologist colleagues whisper at me, it is actually not the end of the world that there isn’t a giant Siegel and Shuster celebration at Comic-Con this year with giant gold statues and hologram replicants on panels. Far, far, from it. If there were, I’d probably be making fun of that instead.

 

The point of Superman — the whole story, really — was the triumph of the underdog. This is still how it is — and there is a lot of power there.

I’ve talked about who really owns Superman before. After Man of Steel, it is definitely the fans who have bankrolled/Kickstarted another ten-year franchise. Whether you like the film or not, it is you who are in control of the story (come on, you know there will now be massive punishment/introspective soliloquies before Supes forgives himself in #2). The people at that party know that. We should, too.

I’m not going to lie, if I was invited to that DC party, I would totally go. But 131 people (thanks Jeff Trexler) have already posted that they are going to our panel, so I’ll be getting ready for that instead. I am bringing a book to Comic-Con about Superman — and I still can’t believe it. Dream come true (Ed. update: still not invited).

Now that I have to miss the Kirby panel with @NeilHimself, I am reminded of Gaiman’s article “The Myth of Superman” from 2006:

Superman is different because he doesn’t really belong to the writers who’ve created his adventures over the last 68-plus years. He has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman “really” is . . . the specific stories we tell about Superman – the what-happened and what-he-did – don’t matter that much. Superman transcends plot. We retell his tales because we wish he were here, real, to keep us safe. Everyone knows the Superman story.

You might think this quote is a bit problematic about creator rights, but he’s right. Superman is bigger than ©Superman. And I think that a big part of that balancing act of transcendence — that story – is how he was created. For me, that’s how the story — as underdog, as fighter — is always maintained. The story of Jerry and Joe makes Superman as mythic as any flash of heat vision ever could. Even better because it is real. That’s how we should be positively celebrating the character — not just with history and panels and collectibles, and who owns what, but with our own imaginations. Our own launches into open space. Superman is, for me, always a story about making art — just as much as it is about punching Brainiac into space.

I disagree with Neil a bit though. No one thinks of Superman as real. They think of themselves as him. That’s the secret. That’s why we make our way west in July. We don’t want to get rescued. We want to put aside the glasses, open up the shirt, and take that first step up — in a positive act of defiance. We want to act in a slightly strange, slightly dangerous way. Superman, even in his earliest incarnation, can leap several stories into the air.

Stories.

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Alternative

Tom DeHaven has a nice overview of Jerry and Joe’s story in the News Observer and gets it right-on:

Siegel and Shuster created Superman with the express aim of landing him on the comics pages of hundreds of daily and Sunday newspapers, in the company of “Blondie” and “Dick Tracy” and “Flash Gordon.” That’s where the money was. That’s where the fame was. And that’s where the respect was. 

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/06/17/2970981/man-of-steel-keeps-true-to-his.html#storylink=cpy

Tom wrote the first of the recent Superman bios (as an extended essay), but my favorite book of his, and one of my all-time top 5 Superman stories, is his novel It’s Superman. It is tremendously entertaining (I read it while on jury duty in the summer once). So if you didn’t like the new movie and yearn for a more basic Superman (especially a Siegel/Shuster one), get this today. 

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and this is my favorite ever

 

Long conversation with Pete Brown over at Columbus Calling, Chip Midnight’s great new music/culture website.

Pete and I talk about giant butter statues, fighting Validus in a parking lot, Superman drinking Coors Light, Lady Columbus, invisible jets, and heartbreak.  There will never be questions as good as these unless they bring back The Muppet Show or Merv Griffin.

Click here for the whole thing.

Disclosing: I have known both of these guys for a long time, Chip since Lee Burneson Jr. High School gym class. Pete makes stuff: video games, films, and (gasp) writes for a living — (some of his work was in a McSweeney’s anthology, which totally inspired me when I used to work in a bookstore after college). In Russia, Pete is the subject of several regional folk tales, mostly of his near-sorcerous skill at bytovye skazki. Chip interviewed the band Warrant for our high school newspaper in the late eighties. He writes about music, constantly, with the go-to-shows-skill you can’t teach, in lots of places, including for The Big Takeover. The last show we saw together was Van Halen. His new Big Idea is Kids Interview Bands, which is great. One of my favorites is when they interview The Darkness.

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Scotsman

 

I had a nice Skype chat with Alistair Harkness over at The Scotsman last week. This might sound really selfish, but it was cool to talk to someone who got what I was trying to say and had definite opinions on it. Conversations are good. He immediately seized on the point of how we always think Jerry and Joe were just responding to the larger sociopolitical times, but that it was more than that:

“It was a response to all that stuff,” says Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys, a new book about Siegel and Shuster that traces in fabulously intricate detail how they actually created the character, “but what’s surprising is how personal it really was. Superman is really an autobiography; it’s a fantasy autobiography in many ways, but they really wrote their lives into it.”

He’s not kidding. As well as tying together their literary and cultural influences – Siegel was a reporter for his high school newspaper, and obsessed with the pulpy science fiction magazines that were popular in the day, while Shuster was mad about bodybuilding – Ricca has pulled together every real-life inspiration that went into creating Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent, from the duo’s shared feelings of inferiority to their inability to talk to girls.

Read the entire article here.

I really like his take that Superman is a character “with anxiety hard-wired into his DNA” that extends an evolutionary reach down (up?) to Lichtenstein, contemporary fiction, and more. Harkness is a film guy so that is a really interesting perspective to think about. This sentence of his is also provocative:

The legitimisation of comics as “art” rather than as disposable entertainment for children would be unthinkable without the work that Siegel and Shuster did to bring the Man of Steel into the world.

That’s a bold statement in print — but I totally agree. We think of Superman as the ultimate in vanilla entertainment, but it really was a risky proposition — personally, artistically, economically. Can’t say that enough. Risk is good.

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