Joe Shuster’s sordid secret identity

April 23, 2009 | 6:05 p.m.

Shuster whipping


You know how people tend to reflect on “the good old days” and hold on to a sort of Norman Rockwell or Frank Capra vision of America as a wholesome land of plenty? I was thinking about that when I opened the mail a few weeks back and found a copy of “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster,” a survey of the startling 1950s S&M drawings by the Cleveland artist who had sent the comics industry leaping over tall buildings by ushering in the superhero era in the summer of 1938. Superman is as American as apple pie but, well, so is porn, I suppose, considering the national commitment to it in money, time and Internet acreage.

Secret identity

Shuster was down on his luck in the 1950s. Sadly, he and Superman’s other creator, Jerry Siegel,always watched as others made the real money generated by their signature creation. He started drawing kinky tales with curvy women and some truly nasty torture scenes for a “Nights of Horror,” a randy, low-rent series of booklets with delicate titles such as “The Flesh Merchants” and “The Bride Wore Leather.”

All of this is made more interesting by the fact that many of the bare-chested women look like Lois Lane, and a fair number of the brawny men cracking the whips look like leering versions of the Last Son of Krypton. Comic historian Craig Yoe came across a full-run of the 16 issues of “Nights of Horror” in a dusty corner of a used book shop. It was a disconcerting but momentous discovery, and he has done a excellent job presenting it in a context that is more than purient. “Secret Identity” delves into the sleazy characters in the publishing scene of that era and traces the surprising subplots involving crime and politics and this sad career moment for an artist whose career should have been leaping tall buildings.

— Geoff Boucher


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“Secret Identity” Images courtesy of Craig Yoe




2 Responses to Joe Shuster’s sordid secret identity

  1. Jerry says:

    I'm so old, I misremembered Joe Shuster as the writer, Jerry Siegel as the artist of "Superman." But what do I know? The first question that occurs to me is whether the artist signed the S&M material. If not, what evidence is there that it is the work of the Superman originator?
    Next, it is common knowledge that these men made very, very little from their lucrative creation. The industry (I remember hearing) was shamed into giving them something, a mere pittance compared with the profits gleaned over the years–and when one of them had already lost his sight.
    Is it possible that the artist–whose work was never outstanding as comic book art–may have taken the S&M job as just a job? Occasionally, a hard up movie star has taken work waiting tables.
    Even if it reflected his predilictions, it might have been kinder to spare him another kick by not publicizing it. I noticed that Wonder Woman's stock is running pretty high nowadays. I remember as a little kid looking at an early issue and being confused by all those amazons back home at the court of Queen Hippolita at an athletic "initiation" contest– running blindfolded and barefoot over sharp stones, being whipped through the woods by other amazons and being baked in a collective "doe" pie. And this kids got at the corner newsstand.

  2. Trent Hunsaker says:

    I really appreciate Jerry's comments (especially since I imagine that is the legendary Jerry Robinson). While I have yet to open the cover of the survey, I hope that the publication of the book doesn't add even more insult to the injury that Shuster's career endured.

    Jerry was classy when he said, "Occasionally, a hard up movie star has taken work waiting tables." I am less classy and will say they end up doing porn. If Sylvester Stallion's stinit in adult films was never made public until after he died, we would look at "Rocky" in a whole different light. But, he had time to change that image; show that sometimes a job is just a job, even if it is fun at the time. We all know of the Italian Stallion, but that is over shadowed by Rocky and Rambo. Let's let 'The Flesh Merchants" stand in the shadow of "Superman."

    Trent Hunsaker

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