June 12 is now known as “Superman Day.”
Admittedly, the day was created by DC Entertainment in 2013 to celebrate the film, Man of Steel, but for some reason, it worked. It stuck and Super-Fans around the world are pretty happy with the idea of celebrating everything Superman stands for. And with all the stuff going on in the world right now, why not celebrate something a little more straight-forward in its “goodness?”
However… before you go and grab your cape out of the drawer, take a minute to think about where Superman came from.
I’m not talking about Krypton. I’m talking about the creative genius behind Superman. In fact, if you truly want to prepare for Superman Day, take a moment to read The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, by Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi. It’s a story not just about Superman but the history of the comic book industry as a whole.
Fair warning to all: this is not a “happily ever after” story-telling. This book is a work of well-researched fiction, based on archival material and original sources. And it is utterly beautiful. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman has been winning awards all around the world; for its story and its amazing artwork. From “Best International Graphic Novel at the Heroes Comic Con 2018”, “Gold Liefeld as Best European Comic”, “Best Italian Artist” at Treviso comic book festival (Italy), and most recently the “Gold Ledger” in the 2019 Ledger Awards (Australia).
Brendan Halyday, one of the judges for the Ledger Awards, described it as “a well constructed, heart-breaking story and cautionary tale, with masterful art by Thomas Campi.” Another judge, Phil Bentley, also noted the book as ‘important work’–especially noting how “a narrative that involves a close look at the American Dream has been produced by two non-Americans.”
I can only assume such a critical view of the comic book industry would be hard to present by people who are so closely involved in that very same environment.
And yet, it is a story that needs to be told. And heard/read/devoured… however, you absorb information. While comic book stores will jump on board and celebrate all things “Super” tomorrow, in today’s social climate it is equally important to recognise the creativity behind the scenes. The creation and the process of bringing us, Superman.
Superman was originally created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster around 1932, although he wasn’t introduced to the rest of the world until Action Comics #1 in April 1938. Siegel and Shuster were friends in high school, writing stories and creating the artwork for their own magazine. Together, they created many stories featuring characters such as Henri Duvall and Slam Bradley but nothing was ever as big or as personal to them as Superman.
Nobody expected Superman to be so popular; not even Siegel and Shuster. The single greatest travesty of this story is the moment when Siegel and Shuster sign over the ownership of Superman to Detective Comics. It was not until 1975, after a long and very public campaign from Siegel and many other comic book creators, that Warner Brothers finally agreed to credit their names in all future Superman productions. By that stage, Shuster was already bankrupt and Siegel was facing his own struggles within the industry.
What makes the story so compelling is the disaster of interactions between Shuster/Siegel and the executives throughout the comic book industry. Not every creator is savvy in the ways of business, and the consequences are even more poignant in light of Shuster and Siegel.
If you want to see a comic book creator lifted, supported, acknowledged, and rewarded for their work–don’t read this book.
But if you want to see what it takes to convince people to read your work, to fight for your passion, and to show creations as more than a balance sheet in the accounts department, then this is the book for you.
From a technical point of view, the storytelling is concise and evocative. It is filled with the dichotomy of what happened and what is remembered while balancing the two with detailed research to back it up. There is a strong sense of empathy for the battle-worn creators who should never have been convinced to give up their ownership–nor should any creator be asked to do so. But it is a business, an industry, founded on ownership and the power to carry the creations on to bigger things. While we all love seeing various artistic interpretations and creative licence, it is always always important to recognise the source material.
Somehow, Campi has captured all of this in his beautiful illustrations. The layouts are smooth and supportive in the storytelling. The soft lines are gentle in a way that respects the weight of the story itself. The palette is a warm combination of memories, nostalgia, and worn ideals. Those moments where the colors are muted ever so slightly are a great precursor to the emotion conveyed in the drawings themselves.
The truth is many creative writers and artists are not the equivalents of Kryptonians in a very Earth-y comic book industry; they are not invulnerable, powerful, or charming superheroes able to fly in and save the day. Let’s be honest: geeks have really only become ‘powerful’ fairly recently, in the grand scheme of things.
Superman Day is a perfect example of this–The “DAY” itself is only 6-years old. Before that, he wasn’t considered cool enough to warrant that level of investment in marketing and publicity. Many of us in the geek-fora now can attest to how very different it was 20-years ago.
The comic book industry we know today is very different from that of the 1930s. Back then, many creators were young, naive, inexperienced, and, most of all, lacking in confidence. Nobody knew who they were or how to support them. Today, social media hasn’t smoothed the path perfectly but it has definitely improved the plight. Artists like Babs Tarr, who was picked up by DC Comics after they saw her Japanese-influenced fan art. Artist Alleys at conventions are still a great way to show us your art but as conventions grow, so does the list of requirements from organisers; some of the big names are asking for social media stats before allocating tables, to ensure you can return as much as they give.
There is so much creativity out there, with depths we haven’t even touched upon.
Knowing there is a chance to find something special is what calls many of us to the indie shelves in our local comic bookstore. Most of the time, we are left to wander up and down the aisle, searching for something to jump out at us.
Sometimes, we might be lucky enough to have our own Superman (or Superwoman) lift the diamond out of the rubble of ‘other comics’ and shine the light on this sparkling find. The truth is, most new creations are left by the wayside before publication. That’s what makes Superman so special. His creation defied the odds, even without the support of the industry.
If we’re going to celebrate Superman Day, let’s do it right. Be proud of all things “Superman”. Stand up for justice. Be courteous. Be kind.
And most of all, give recognition to each and every person who has been part of the process in bringing Superman to your lives. All the way back to Mr. Jerry Siegel and Mr. Joe Shuster.