Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s co-Creator Joe Shuster
Edited & Written by Craig Yoe
Illustrations by Joe Shuster
Published by Abrams
In 1938, Joe Shuster and his friend and colleague Jerry Siegel sold their idea, a muscular alien in a blue leotard who fought crime, to National Periodicals for $130. The boys, barely out of their teens and from depression-ravaged families, received one hundred thirty dollars. For Superman, a character that netted National billions (and counting).
When the boys’ ten-year contract with National ended in 1948, they sued to regain control of their character, and they lost. To exacerbate the lost suit, Siegel and Shuster became essentially persona non grata at their former home. Siegel went to various publishers, hoping to duplicate his success, never quite doing so, but always managing to find paying work. Shuster, with failing eyes that limited his artistry and ability to turn work around quickly, found surviving in his post-Superman life more difficult.
I explain all this only as background. Certainly we can debate the merits of their signed contract against the loosey-goosey laws protecting creators in that era ad nauseum, but that’s not really the point here. I have my feelings on the matter; likely you do too. We’re actually here to discuss a recently uncovered project that Shuster worked on in the mid-1950s to keep bread on his table.
Nights of Horror was a pulp publication, grade-Z erotica with a bondage and sadism bent, limited to only a few thousand copies printed locally in New York City and distributed through the seedy shops of Times Square. Editor and explorer of the most bizarre crannies of comics history Craig Yoe discovered a copy of Nights of Horror and, stunned, recognized the artwork of Joe Shuster in it. From there, he found an erotica collector (and college professor) with a complete run and verified that yes, the entire run of Nights of Horror featured Shuster’s illustrations accompanying the overwrought, plum-purple gasps of sexual violence.
Half of Secret Identity is devoted to chronicling Shuster’s story and the history of Nights of Horror. Yoe presents incredibly compelling testimony tying Nights of Horror to mafia publishers, and a series of attacks and murders committed by unbalanced teens in Brooklyn. In the paranoid, Red Scare-ified 50s, the scandal led to state House hearings. Somehow, Joe Shuster slipped through the hoopla, probably relieved to remain anonymous, and his role in the publications has only come to light now. It’s fascinating information, well presented and well documented. Unfortunately, it veers away from Shuster and gives very few details about his later life, but his role in the scandal that built to the eventual Comics Code Authority makes for a riveting read.
The latter portion of Secret Identity finds a very, very brief overview of each issue’s stories, followed by reproductions of each of Shuster’s illustrations. Personally, I’ve always loved Shuster’s artwork; he remains to this day my favorite Superman illustrator. The figures are stiff and somewhat crude, but energetic, and nobody puts bolder lines on a page than Shuster did. Shuster channels a Chester Gould-type minimalism, blocky figures, exaggeratedly curved women. Coming from the exploitative arena of superheroes, his style adapts very well to the violent sexuality of Nights of Horror.
There’s no way to know what Shuster thought of this work – it was probably just a much needed paycheck – but even with his failing eyes, he clearly gave each page his best effort. Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s co-Creator Joe Shuster might be a book that Shuster never wanted the world to see, but it has a compelling narrative reconstructed by Yoe, great artwork from Shuster, and it’s an important document about how the comics industry has turned its back on its founders.
If you can find a copy of your local library, I strong encourage checking it out.