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.
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.