Friday, 25 April 2014

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman Review (Marc Tyler Nobleman, Ross MacDonald)

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were teenagers when they created the world’s first – and greatest – superhero, and then sold the rights to Superman to the company that would become DC Comics for a measly $130! 

Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald’s short picture book – at 26 oversize pages with a large paragraph or two per page, it definitely feels aimed at educating younger readers – succinctly recounts Siegel and Shuster’s lives up to seeing their creation take off in popular culture in the 1940s, while sadly realising they’d given away a fortune to get him there. 

Superman was an ingenious and revolutionary character for many reasons. While stories of Flash Gordon, The Shadow, and Buck Rogers were popular, it was Jerry Siegel who imagined a man with incredible strength and the ability to jump so high it looked like he was flying and, in so doing, had created the world’s first superhero! The timing was fortuitous as comic books were just then taking off and Superman’s inclusion in Action Comics #1 helped cement the popularity of the character while clearing the way for many more superheroes to follow. 

That Siegel and Shuster made Superman an alien and not a human was the other masterstroke – his disguise isn’t the superhero identity and costume, it’s the mundane human clothing and ordinary identity as Clark Kent that is the disguise. This totally original setup and the Superman origin story would become staples of the character’s canon, being retold and explored numerous times over the years while still retaining its potency to enthral audiences. 

And while DC would refuse to credit Siegel and Shuster as Superman’s creators for several years, the two indelibly left their mark on the character. The “S” symbol on his chest stood for “super” as well as Siegel and Shuster (the chest symbol’s meaning would be retconned years later to stand for the Kryptonian symbol for peace) while Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, means “all that is God” in Hebrew (both creators were Jewish). 

Though brief, Boys of Steel is informative for anyone who wants to know the basics behind Superman’s creators without wanting to spend too much time on the subject but, while Nobleman includes an afterword that covers the numerous legal battles between the Siegel/Shuster estates and DC Comics, if you’re looking for an in-depth look at those stories, this isn’t that book. 

The infamous legal battles over the creators’ estates looking for more compensation from DC for the millions – billions at this point, surely – that the character has made them, are why I don’t count myself as a DC Comics fan. I’m a Superman fan; I’m a Batman fan; I don’t care for DC Comics, the company, at all. The way they treat their creators, but Siegel and Shuster especially, has been appalling (you could argue that culture persists at DC today with the many, many creators who’ve worked and left DC in the last few years alone, of which more than a few have bitter words to say about the company). 

It took decades of legal battles, and years after the creators’ deaths, for the Siegel and Shuster families to receive a meagre $20k per year from DC, while the character continues to reap enormous profits for the company. There was even a time in the late 50s/early 60s when Siegel had to go hat in hand to DC to ask if they would employ him to write for them, which they agreed to but refused to credit him, even refusing to put his and Shuster’s names down as creators of Superman. That’s an utter travesty. 

Ross MacDonald draws the book in Joe Shuster’s style and looks absolutely fantastic, while Marc Tyler Nobleman’s writing gives the reader everything they need to understand Superman’s creators. It’s a fine tribute to the imagination and creative brilliance of these two artists and their remarkable legacy. 

In the comics, Superman’s two dads are Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, but his real two fathers were called Jerry and Joe – and their story is well worth reading.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman

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