JOE SHUSTER BLINKED at the back of his art teacher. She was bent over a student who clearly needed help portraying the simple bowl of fruit at the front of the room. Joe had finished his sketch a good ten minutes ago and was looking for something else to draw. With his left hand, he brought his pencil down at a forty-five-degree angle over the paper. It hovered there for a moment, floating over the page. His books wobbled in a pile under his desk. He tried to shift his dangling feet so no one could see they weren’t hitting the floor. Joe was short and skinny, parted his dark hair carefully on the side, and wore glasses that were incredibly thick. When it seemed that no one was looking, Joe put his face close—so close—down to the page, about two or three inches away, so he could finally see it.
Joe looked down at his drawing. He really wanted to draw something coming out of the apple—maybe an arrow or a smiling worm with funny eyebrows and a big cigar—but he didn’t want to get into trouble. He liked his teacher too much. Someday he would be a famous artist and he would come back to this classroom and she would be impressed. Class, she would say, this is a former student of mine who is a very successful artist, and his name is Joe Shuster. Or maybe Joseph Shuster. There would be clapping and she would smile and look very pleased. Joe looked at her and in his mind started drawing beams radiating from her head. But she straightened up and caught him staring even though he wasn’t really. Turning red, he went back to his sketch, brushing thick lines all going one way in the background. He hoped he could bring this one home to show his mother, he thought. He drew more lines.
At home, Joe’s mother, Ida, moved between the laundry and the stove. She knew she had only an hour or so before her boys, Joe and Frank, would be home from school. Their little sister, Jeanetta, was already staring out the window in anticipation of her two favorite, patient brothers. Ida’s husband, Julius, was working downtown at the Richman Brothers clothing store factory. Ida stopped for a moment, looked around her small apartment, and blinked. It looked small, but it was still an empire, so far from home.
Ida was born to Shemon Katharske and his wife, Chesie, around 1890 in a small town in the central region of Russia.1 Like many of the towns in the region, it was known by several names, depending upon where, whom, and when you asked.2 Here, in the town of many names, protected by a weak and crumbling fortress, Ida lived in a world of farms and hills. The area had enjoyed some peace, but there was always the promise of dreadful violence, especially against her people, the Jews, who were uneasy neighbors to the Russians. On April 27, 1881, a fight at a neighborhood bar resulted in the midnight destruction of several Jewish homes and businesses as police looked on. This went on for two days without any interest by the military authorities. The news spread fast through the towns and cities.
Another wave of anti-Semitic violence was reported by The New York Times on December 13, 1905:
RUSSIAN CITY BURNING, JEWS BEING MASSACRED ODESSA IS PANIC-STRICKEN
Reports received here through refugees are to the effect that since Sunday the town of Elizabethgrad, Russia, has been burning and that a mob has been killing and plundering in the Jewish quarter.
The looting was done by torchlight. The streets were covered with glass and feathers. The mob got larger as government officials looked on. Fires raged down the little streets. The midnight reports were terrifying. As the government internally debated the legality of the “action,” news spread that a Jew had been killed. Ida, whose name in Hebrew meant “life,” had heard enough of this word pogrom and its simple meaning, “destroy.” In a short, sad range of years, thousands of Jews were killed or financially ruined. Some of them organized into renegade militias, but they were no match for the Russian army, who marched with bright medals and silver swords. The army were not all soldiers, not all bloodthirsty, but they all had their orders.
Ida never imagined she would have a child who would one day end up going to an American school in a place called Cleveland and sketch a simple bowl of fruit for her. America was not a place for her to think of. But she did anyway. When she saw the men marching up the streets, she knew there had to be a better place. Not in specific details, but more as a vague idea, like an exotic photograph of Paris or Rome. This imaginary escape had at least the possibility of being real in the most extravagant way imaginable. America ganef, they said. The future of the place where she lived would see people beaten, bloodied, and stiff. These were old, inscrutable grudges. If these ways would not change, the place must. Imagination had to become real.
When Ida and her sister, Bessie, were finally old enough to leave, they did. They packed up their belongings and escaped down the long north road. There were tense moments, but once they reached Rotterdam they were relieved. They were going to find a ship.
Rotterdam was a completely different world to the sisters. There, white buildings all crowded together, and the scent of the sea seemed to change everything. In Rotterdam, there was a substantial advertising campaign to encourage immigration to Canada. Colorful playbills had giant fingers pointing, to photos of Manitoba’s rippling rivers and promised free prairie land. Clifford Sifton, Canada’s minister of the interior, had organized hundreds of agents in Holland to give talks extolling the virtues of Canada. Sifton even worked with ship lines to get reduced rates for immigrants. In dark stage rooms all across Rotterdam, magic lanterns lit up scenes of a Canada free from screaming and fire.
The invisible force behind some of the increasing violence, and the push toward the Americas, was the steep economic fall in Europe following World War I. Frustration was so high that all options had become viable. So many people were coming over that eventually the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 would limit immigrants from any one country to 2 percent. The rationale was to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.” The act would refer to these immigrants as “aliens.”
Ida and Bessie finally booked their passage to Canada but had to wait a week before ship-off.10 So they found a second-floor room in a hotel right by the river that was for emigrants waiting to leave. The hotel at Wijnbrugstraat 8 was a little more expensive than they wanted, but the man in charge winked at them and may have taken a little off for their troubles. His name was Jacob Shusterowich and he was a Jew, so it would be fine. They would spend a week in Rotterdam with him, his wife, Roza, and their family, including two of his sons, Julius and Jack.
Something happened during that week, in the hotel near the sea. Maybe it was when Julius helped Ida carry her trunk up the stairs, or when he saw her for the first time at the dinner table, or when he convinced himself from an upper window that she would want to talk to him in the first place, but something completely unexpected happened during that week: Ida and Julius fell in love. Part of it was probably the shortness of the time before her departure, but every waking moment between Julius and Ida was soon filled with glances, touches, and eventually eager promises. This turn of events was of equal surprise to Julius, but he embraced it, as he did everything, wholeheartedly. He no longer wanted to stay at home. He wanted to protect this girl, this her. When the week finally ended, quickly, and they left, the boys made quick plans to follow them. When their ship was ready to sail, Julius Shusterowitz, son of Jacob, dramatically announced his intentions to follow Ida to Canada, where he would marry her. He was that kind of person, given to dining room pronouncements. His father scoffed, Why would you do this? But Julius remained undeterred. And to make matters more interesting, Julius’s brother Jack had fallen for Ida’s sister, Bessie—and was also going to leave.
Their father’s heart was broken. Julius was thin and upright, with dark hair and a lean face that always seemed ready to laugh. But he was young, and his father knew he was beat. Still, he had one last gambit. Their father retorted that if Julius and Jack were going to Canada, they would have to pay for it themselves. Surely the prospect of an endless ocean would end this nonsense. He knew Julius had some money, but not enough to best the gray Atlantic. He was wrong. Pleading with the shipmaster, Julius and his brother secured jobs as deckhands on the boat.12 And soon, slowly, to the accompaniment of deep droning horns and swaying decks, they set sail for North America, streaming toward an imagined horizon.13 His father watched Julius disappear on a ship named the Uranium.14 Julius had $20 on him.15 They were off to the future.
Julius and Jack finally landed on September 2, 1912, in Halifax on Nova Scotia.16 He married Ida a year later on September 14, 1913.17 They lived in a few different places, including a shared house on 455 Richman Street. Julius kept smiling and got a job as a tailor. He and Ida smiled at each other and held hands. They wondered sometimes at what they had done, but this was destiny, Julius said. This was fate.
The alien couple Ida and Julius had three children in Canada, and “Shusterowitz,” in the slip of a pen became “Schusterowitz” and, then, “Schuster.” The eldest, named after Julius, was born on July 14, 1914, ten months from the day they were married.19 He would be followed by Frank four years later and little sister Jeanetta in six. Throughout the course of his life, Julius Jr. would never once use his given name in public; few, if any, knew of its secret existence. He would always be known by his middle name: Joe.
The Schusters lived all over Toronto: on Bathurst, Borden, and Oxford streets.21 Joe attended public school at Lansdowne and Ryerson. Canada’s Depression preceded America’s, and the family moved around a lot to make rent. At one point, they lived in a house with Bessie and Jack: Joe lived downstairs, while his cousin Frank lived up. Growing up in these small apartments, Joe watched as his mother busied herself with his baby brother. Joe loved the newspaper The Toronto Star, and though he could not yet read, he was astounded by the comics page. He didn’t know how to tell time either, but he knew when his father came home, so he would stand in the middle of the room with the paper and wait for him. And when he heard his steps at the door, he would grip the paper in his hands even tighter. Julius would rush in, hoist Joe on his knee, and read him the comics. Joe knew them all by image rather than names: The Katzenjammer Kids, Boob McNutt, Happy Hooligan, and Barney Google. And on weekends, when the comics were printed in glorious color, minutes turned to an hour. As his father read the balloons of words, Joe’s eyes widened at the pictures. On Sundays, Little Nemo in Slumberland made him freeze with awe. Winsor McCay depicted nightmares and dreamscapes that included massive futuristic cities that were incredibly detailed. The paper became a window into an almost impossible world. And Joe, enchanted, would try to draw his own elaborate scenes on his bedroom wall—at the age of four. Joe never remembered doing this, but his father would often remind him.
Toronto was such a cartoon-crazy town that it would even include comic characters as part of its annual Santa Claus parade. Large, jangly, out-of-joint, exaggerated wooden puppets of fairy-tale characters clacked down Bloor Street for smiling kids and their workaday parents. But the final participant of the parade was always the same: a fellow who commanded the respect of the entire crowd as a force for good. Santa Claus was a character who was larger than life; his positive nature was overwhelming among the buildings and streets, as he centered himself within a mass of cheering people. He had powers beyond those of mortal men. At the end of the parade, everyone swarmed his sleigh and he stood up triumphantly, cloaked in red.
Joe said he worked as a young newsboy, slinging copies of The Toronto Star. His best pal was his cousin Frank, who would grow up to be half of the famous Canadian comedy team Wayne and Shuster, starring on countless albums, radio shows, and television programs. But in Toronto, as kids, they just saw movies together, watching the silent pictures at the theater where Jack worked as a projectionist.
Back in Rotterdam, Jacob Schusterowitz died in 1915 at age sixty-one, having never seen his grandchildren. In 1912, he and a partner had opened their own moviehouse, the Imperial Bioscope. Jacob left the money he had made to all of his children. Julius opened a tailor shop, and Jacob opened his own movie theater. Julius was a good tailor, having learned the trade back home. But as his relatives would say, he was a bad businessman and didn’t charge people what he should have. When customers were short of cash or friends came in, he had a tendency to smile and wave them off.
With business drying up, Julius got word from a friend that Richman Brothers had just opened a huge clothing manufacturing company in Cleveland, across Lake Erie, in America. It had always been the plan to go to the States, so even though they liked Toronto, they were again tempted by the thought of better times and moved south to Cleveland in August 1924 by train, crossing the border at Niagara Falls.
Joe was ten years old.
The Shusters lost the “c” in their name on the way to Cleveland and found themselves in a place smaller in both size and scope, but it was a city of iron and steel. Third in population behind New York and Chicago, Cleveland was the railroad link between the two, making it an important shipping, stop-off, and settling point. The city had opportunities even then, coming off the lake. There was a big public library, plans for a giant sports stadium, and the beginning plans for a single, soaring skyscraper.29 The city had a modern architectural feel to it that was almost surreal against the constantly gray skies. Science and Invention spotlighted the city in an August 1930 article titled “Cleveland—a Scientific Glimpse.” The article, complete with sharp photos, showcases the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and its three turbogenerators designed to power the tough midwestern city. The article also mentions the Ohio Bell building, which it calls a “fine modern structure” reliant on a “slotted effect” to “emit maximum light.” This was Cleveland: the modern world creeping into the old in bold, shocking strokes. Yet the economy was terrible and the police force had holes in it big enough to drive through. The newspapers welcomed the nice Canadian family with stories of crime and ruin.
Once they arrived in Cleveland, the Shusters lived at 3401 East 143rd Street, just southeast of downtown. At fourteen Joe enrolled at Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, a stone fortress in the neighborhood of Woodland at the corner of East 130th and Kinsman on the city’s east side. Hamilton, with its tall windows and wide wooden stairs, was nearly brand-new, having opened in September 1928. It had a gym on the second floor with a planked floor and an empty trophy case. And because the school had just opened, its library was still waiting for its books.
Joe, who was impatiently awaiting a growth spurt, moved hurriedly through the Hamilton halls. He jumped up the stairs to the third floor, turned left, and went all the way down the hall to the last door on the right. Walking through it, he could smell paints and paper and see the sun: this was the art room. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but this was all Joe wanted: a pencil, some paper, and someplace to work. Everywhere he looked he could see extensions of the real world and what might happen if he could change things—like if he suddenly grew wings or slipped on a banana peel. Drawing was nothing more than imagination. And nothing less.
Hamilton quickly started up a student newspaper named The Federalist. The paper filled its columns mainly with sports coverage, but it also had articles on class projects and clubs and boasted an unbroken line of elected female editors. The Federalist also had cartoons. Joe started contributing some of his own, modeled after what he was seeing in the newspapers.
Joe taught himself to draw by tracing the funnies in the paper. So his figures were elongated and goofy-looking with smiley grins. Meaning was exaggeration: the speaker is being pelted by his classmates—and the teacher doesn’t care. Joe signed it with the only constant to his art—a long tail with a circle at the end of it, a flourish he stole from one of his idols, Chester Gould, who wrote and drew the great Dick Tracy in the newspapers every day. This tail at the end of his signature would turn out to be Joe’s one unmistakable identity, his tell, throughout the various art jobs he would do during his life.
Joe was handed his copy of The Federalist and could not believe his cartoon was in it. Got any more in you, kid? He had plenty. So he sat down at home and screwed his eyes shut and thought about what the other kids wanted to see. What did he want to see? He heard a bird outside near the window and realized there was only one thought on anyone’s mind now: summer vacation. In this four-panel cartoon, Joe looks forward to summer and shows a command of his audience apparent from the first panel.
The panels are grand in scope and include an ocean liner and a horse race—and a kid content to cool off in a tub with a fan and a case of ice-cold Cokes. Maybe Joe makes a Depression-era statement about the nature of treasure and riches—who could even afford a trip across the sea or a visit to Churchill Downs? But more important, who would want to? The last panel is the most telling: a towering column of students in sad lockstep make their way to summer school, all looking dreamily at the happy kids swimming in a cool pool. Above, the sun beams and laughs at them. Early on, Joe shows his love of big, crazy scenes that speak directly to his young audience.
Another early strip Joe worked on at Hamilton was called Jerry the Journalist, about a tall, easygoing Federalist reporter named Jerry Fine and his misadventures getting news stories for the paper. Hamilton kids loved it. At the end of the year, though, Joe found out his family was moving to another neighborhood and he would be attending Glenville High School. Fine suggested Joe look up his cousin Jerry, who was also at Glenville: You’d have a lot in common, he said. His cousin’s name was Jerry, too.
Copyright © 2013 by Brad Ricca