Man of Steel, the latest Superman film, hits theaters on June 14th, and is certain to be one of the more prominent cultural events in a summer full of Super-goodness. This is because Superman, it turns out, has just turned 75, a milestone that DC comics is commemorating with a new logo mark unveiled this week. It has been three-quarters of a century since two Cleveland teens grappling with the Great Depression created one of our longest-lasting cultural icons and arguably laid the groundwork for the modern superhero. Not bad for a couple of kids from Glenville.
C-Busrs can get the inside scoop on Superman’s creators as author Brad Ricca visits the Easton Barnes on June 6 for a reading and book signing of Super-Boys:The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – the Creators of Superman. An excerpt:
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.
The book is trumpeted by its publisher as the first-ever full biography about Superman’s creators. Ricca, a lecturer in the English department at Cleveland’s Case Western University, spent ten years researching the book, and is a member of the Siegel and Shuster Society. (Full disclosure: Brad, Chip and I were high school classmates.) In telling Siegel and Shuster’s story, Ricca is able uncover the influence not just of Cleveland, but of the Depression-era Midwestern sensibility that seems silently but certainly entwined with the Superman ethos, one of those things that’s definitely in the room, but there’s just no need to talk about it out loud, thank you very much.
The Onion’s AV club spoke with Ricca during a 2011 visit to Jerry Siegel’s boyhood home in this short video.
Ricca, who was in Columbus last fall reading from American Mastodon, his award-winning book of poetry, also produced a documentary, Last Son, about Siegel and Shuster, which won a Silver Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival in 2010. Super Boys is officially released on Monday, June 4.
He took some time this week to e-answer some questions for Columbus Calling.
CC: Tell us a little bit about the role the city of Cleveland played in the creation of Superman, and its ongoing influence in the character’s life.
BR: Cleveland played an important role, but it was really the larger context of the Depression — no jobs, lots of crime, immigration — and the more intimate contexts of their lives that really made it come together. There was just a healthy dose of Midwest in there: good guy wants to help people. That doesn’t come from anywhere else.
CC: We’re hearing a lot this summer about how Superman is an “enduring” character. What makes him so enduring? To what extent do you feel like the character is reinvented every number of years to maintain his appeal?
BR: I think the fact that he is so “enduring” (and those articles always make me sort of cringe because it sounds like a pharmaceutical ad) is because he really hasn’t changed the core of his character. Sure, he changes from time to time — he dies, gets married, and in the ’90s he even sports a mullet — but he always reverts back to type: the good guy, the best guy, who wants to save us all. There is something very comforting in that, I think. So though Superman is certainly a great success of marketing to not really change the character, it has resulted in the character’s mythic status in our pop consciousness.
CC: In researching the book, what really surprised you that you learned about Shuster and Siegel?
BR: A ton of stuff. Mostly that the character and his adventures are really autobiographical — it’s really interesting. Nobody thinks of a superhero comic like that, much less the first one. And lots of little stuff. I think most people know that they were two poor Jewish kids, but that seems to be where it ends. They had girlfriends. They worked on really cool stuff nobody knew about. Siegel had a secret job during World War II. What really happened to Jerry’s father. Why DC Comics bought the character. Just lots of stuff. The big surprise though was something that took me years to figure out and it was so weird that when I finally finished the chapter, I almost deleted it because I thought no one would believe it. It’s the chapter called “Bizarro #1.” Let’s just say these guys were master storytellers, and they had a lot of secrets.
CC: Do you think in learning about Shuster and Siegel, readers will have a better understanding of Superman?
Absolutely. When I was growing up, I thought Superman was kind of lame. I was an X-men guy. But when you look at the character as an adult, you’re like: really? The shorts, the tights, the spitcurl — what? So I really wanted to figure that puzzle out. Superman is one of our weirdest fictional creations, but when you see how and why they did it, it makes perfect sense. The cool thing is while Superman remains popular to kids, I think the story of Siegel and Shuster has become just as much a part of the mythology — it’s the more adult version, really, of the whole story. I really like stories like that, where imagination blends into reality.
CC: Author Brad Meltzer calls your book “beautiful and heartbreaking.” Why is it heartbreaking?
BR: Because it took me so long to write. No, I think though it is overall a really positive story for what the imagination and hard work can accomplish, for two poor kids with no training, it is heartbreaking in a lot of ways. I think a lot of people think that Brad’s comment alludes to the fact that they never really owned the character or were able to cash in on it to the extent that they would have liked (or deserved), but I don’t mean that kind of heartbreak at all — I mean the real kind, the kind bigger than that stuff. The kind that sticks with you. That’s where Superman really comes from. And that’s why we are still fascinated by him, I think.
CC: Are you planning any sweet stunts or anything to liven up your Columbus appearance? Like maybe catching a bullet in your teeth or something?
I will be fighting Validus from the 31st century right in front of the store and just when it looks like he is winning -BAM- I will sock him to the moon (or the Delaware Wendy’s). Ok, not really. But I’m really looking forward to it — I have a lot of relatives and friends in Columbus. And I will be offering something cool if you buy the book. I know that Amazon has made book store purchases hard to justify these days, so I am going to have a limited collectible thingy you can only get if you buy the book. It’s pretty cool. And, you know, EBAY.
CC: If Superman had continued to be based in Cleveland, instead of Metropolis, how do you think the story would have evolved? Would Clark Kent ever have to come to Columbus to cover stories at the Capitol? Would he visit the State Fair and reminisce about Kansas?
BR: The funny thing is, I think the story would be totally different. When he is in Cleveland, he fights gangsters, husbands who beat their wives, and loan sharks — but as soon as he gets to “Metropolis,” he soon has to deal with the weird super-villains like the Ultra-Humanite, Luthor, and others. He did travel around Ohio and nearby PA in the early days (Athens, Meadville), so I am positive he would have ended up in Columbus, getting weepy at a big butter statue of a cow or a thresher or something that reminded him of home.
CC: Does your book figure out who the real-life Lois or Lana were? Like the girls they went to High School with?
BR: My favorite chapter is the one about Lois. There was a real girl named Lois who they knew in high school and they wrote weird poems to her that I found and reprint in the book. But then they met this other girl named Joanne, and she posed for them to be Lois and that was it. She was the real Lois, in lots of really powerful ways. I have lots of really interesting stuff on her that I hope fans of Lois will like. People have been talking that this is the 75th anniversary of Superman — and that’s great — but I wish they would include Lois, too. She is one of the best characters in American pop culture.
CC: Do you find it odd that Superman has never been honored with a butter sculpture at the state fair?
BR: THERE WILL COME PETITIONS.
CC: If you threw their backstories away and had to pick one superhero you would guess might be from Columbus, who do you think it would be and why?
BR: Bruce Banner (The Hulk) was born in Dayton, but I think that is the only thing even remotely close (and it isn’t really at all). This bothered me so I looked it up and sure enough there WAS a character from Marvel Comics from Columbus. Her name is Sandi Brandenberg, which isn’t that flashy. Her origin (taken from Marvel.com):
As a child Sandi would take in stray animals and keep them even if they attacked her, believing that she could not let them go once they knew who she was. As an adult Sandi became a dancer and while on vacation at a Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, she met the mercenary known as Taskmaster while he was posing as “Tony Masters.” Taskmaster impressed Sandi with his ability to roll dice and convinced her to go on a date. He continued to wine and dine her long after, repeatedly flying her around the country on his private jet to meet him while he was conducting business. One of their romantic outings took place on a balcony, so Taskmaster could observe the destruction of a building owned by the Triads, who had crossed him on a previous assignment. Members of the gang tracked Taskmaster to his suite and began a ruthless firefight, during which Taskmaster revealed his masked identity to Sandi. Unfortunately, one of the Triads shot Sandi in the back, but she survived her injury and ended her relationship with Taskmaster, although he remained obsessed with her.
More on Marvel.com:
To your question, I think the Columbus superhero would be a woman who by day would work at the OSU Billy Ireland Cartoon Library, which once it opens at its new location in the fall, will be an international mecca for comics. I think she’ll find some old comics from the twenties with a bizarre scientific formula that will give her powers to see and discover things…but she won’t be called “Lady Columbus” because that would be just awful even though I am already deep into this superhero cliché already. She would have to be able to navigate the wide suburban sprawl of Columbus — especially during home games. But she would also really be into local IPAs and music shows. But it would have to involve comics, whoever this superhero is — so much going on here right now. The Library, great stores, multiple conventions — you even have a Big Fun now! (opened by pal Steve Presser, who is a big Superman fan). Clevelanders wish we had 1/100 of the comics scene you have down here. Sure, we had the Avengers movie but all it did was blow Cleveland up and say it was New York.
CC: In his various iterations, has Superman ever had certain abilities that he later did not have? Like how sometimes on Superfriends the Flash could fly. That makes me crazy.
BR: At one point during the Silver Age, Superman could shoot tiny miniature versions of himself out of his fingertips. I wish I was kidding.
CC: Who was the oddest foe Superman ever faced, in your opinion?
Again in the Silver Age, he actually goes up against Lois and Lana, who always try to find out his secret identity. At one point they turn him into a baby and Lois pushes him around in a stroller. That’s pretty odd.
CC: Which of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies was your favorite?
Superman 2 even though it has that dumb plastic Superman kite-thing in it. 1 is great too, just because of everything and that music. Great stuff.
CC: What? Are you serious? How about in Superman III when he gets exposed to the almost-kryptonite that Richard Pryor makes, then gets all cray-cray, and walks around in a soiled suit and goes to a bar and has some drinks and then flicks peanuts at the booze bottles?
BR: Wait, there was a Superman III? Or did that come out during the time I underwent massive voluntary hypnosis to forget….something…..
CC: But what if you were in that bar, would you have gone up to Superman? What would you have said? Do you think he had super stink? I do.
BR: Can you even picture Superman in a bar? I bet he drinks Coors. Silver can. This goes back to your question and him never changing. DC has been very careful to keep him clean. A few years ago, there was a great comics cover of Clark leaning on the fence at the Kent farm with his dad, and they both had a bottle of beer. DC changed it to bottles of pop. Or, as it is called in Metropolis, “Soder Cola.” East coasters.
CC: What is the most under-appreciated Superman performance on film?
BR: I am maybe the only one who probably thinks so, but I really liked Superman Returns. REALLY liked it. I know he doesn’t punch a robot or anything, but I liked how Brandon Routh played it and I really liked the whole thing with having a kid — that was really risky to do with Superman movie and is probably why they never did a sequel. That was the biggest change to the character in 70 years.
The deleted opening scene to the film, which I think is on Youtube, is maybe my favorite Superman stuff on film ever. I like the 1940s cartoons a lot, too. And Superfriends. And Justice League Unlimited. Ok everything.
CC: Your documentary, Last Son, won awards at the Las Vegas Film Festival, but was never released commercially. How come?
BR: I had a really good time taking it out to festivals and stuff, really fun, but to try to get it to the next level just seemed, I don’t know. I was happy with how it turned out, and I don’t think anyone could have sued me, but I was kind of done with it. Making stuff like that is really difficult, and it felt like it had achieved its small, little purpose. I also realized afterwards that there was a lot more to the story that I couldn’t do in any form other than print. I just had a lot of stuff that couldn’t fit into a film that wouldn’t be Return of the King. I wanted to write it.
CC: How come Superman and Wonder Woman never dated? And if they did date, would they take the Invisible Jet? How did Wonder Woman see the controls to fly the Invisible Jet?
BR: BREAKING NEWS: In the comics they are actually dating right now and it’s a big thing, but most people think it’s just a PR stunt. I think they’ve been on only one real date so far but it got interrupted when Atlantis invaded. The thing I always wondered with the Invisible Jet is how does she park it?? On Superfriends it just sets down like a feather. That is bad physics! You are not really super friends if you skewed my whole view of science! I blame all my chemistry grades on that.
Brad Ricca will be reading from and signing copies of Super-Boys:The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – the Creators of Superman at 6 p.m. at the Easton Barnes and Noble. A potential battle with Validus remains TBD.
Ricca is also the author of American Mastodon, a collection of poems that won of the 2009 St. Lawrence Book award. It’s bad ass.