Haunted by Artist Interviewed 36 Years Ago: Superman’s Co-Creator

Deceased illustrator Joe Shuster has been haunting me this summer—in a good way. Felt his presence in a movie theater while watching Man of Steel and later at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con.

How can you not love a guy who, while just a teenager, created the most iconic superhero to ever fight for truth, justice, and the American Way along with high school buddy Jerry Siegel.

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Heady times for the boys from Cleveland. They managed to sell their superhero to D.C. Comics. The powerhouse comic book publisher hired them to write and illustrate Superman. For the next ten years, illustrator Shuster and writer Siegel cranked out Superman tales from D.C. headquarters in Manhattan. One major catch, however. They had to sell all rights to their superhero. The selling price? A paltry $130, but they were very young and naive, and this took place during the Great Depression.

After D.C. Comics replaced Shuster and Siegel, the pair spent the rest of their long lives in court trying to right that awful wrong.

In 1977, I had the privilege of interviewing Shuster. It took place in Shuster’s modest apartment in Escondido, CA, some 30 miles north of San Diego. Even though I was a newspaper reporter who had met many accomplished people, I remember feeling a bit giddy while driving to meet him.

To talk at length with one of the men who gave birth to Superman brought me back to treasured childhood and early teenage moments, devouring Superman and other superhero comics.

Shuster, 63 at the time, greeted me at the door with a warm smile. We sat in the small living room of his modest apartment along with his wife. Retired and just married for the first time, he had recently moved from a San Diego beach community.

The short, timid artist told me that best friend Jerry conjured up Superman in a dream in 1933.

“I just learned after all these years that Jerry got the idea in a dream,” but Jerry was “afraid to admit it,” he said, nestled in a recliner in the small living room. “Superman is everything that Jerry and I wanted to be—our alter ego. Jerry and I are both shy and introverted.”

The quote may appear rehearsed, but Shuster sounded sincere.

When I queried him about the copyright lawsuit, Shuster was critical of DC and not happy about how long the litigation continued to drag on.

Fortunately, Joe did have good news, too. Just two years earlier (1975), a court awarded each of them a $20,000 per year pension, cost of living increases, medical coverage, and published credits in all Superman comics and movies. The ruling came a long 28 years after Shuster and Siegel originally sued D.C.

Two years after our interview (1979), I went to see the first Superman movie ever produced. The Christopher Reeve movie mesmerized this Baby Boomer. And sure enough, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel received film credits as creators of the beloved Kryptonian.

The next day, I phoned Shuster to get his take on the movie. However, the person who answered told me that Joe had moved back to Manhattan.

Fast forward to July 2013.  That’s when I discovered that my 36–year-old interview, published by the Escondido Times-Advocate, played a small role in piecing together the brand-new non-fiction book chronicling the lives of Shuster and Siegel.

Superboys, the Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is considered the most comprehensive account of these two extraordinary men. Author Brad Ricca was promoting his book during the final day of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

After I introduced myself as a former San Diego-area newspaper reporter who interviewed Shuster in the late Seventies, Ricca asked, “which newspaper?”

I told him the Escondido paper (now part of the North County Times), to which Ricca beamed and said, “Your article was of immense help.”

Of course, I purchased Superboys on the spot. Ricca signed the book, “For John, You’re a part of this story!”

A gratifying moment that was completely unexpected. Writers, you see, write to be heard. Writers also keep copies of published material that have special meaning. I kept a hard copy of the 1977 Shuster article.

When a journalist interviews accomplished people of special note, memories of those moments often stick.

In 1992, Joe Shuster passed away of natural causes. In tribute, I wrote a guest editorial for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Shuster had died in such obscurity that his death was not reported until several days later by the Los Angeles County coroner.

Ironically, Joe Shuster died just a few months before his co- creation’s demise. After 54 years of defending earth, Superman was killed off in his comic book. That’s more than a half-century of reaping major bucks for D.C. Comics and long-time parent company Warner Brothers Entertainment.

To no one’s surprise, Superman’s comic book death was nothing more than a clever marketing ploy to resuscitate the superhero’s waning popularity. Eventually, the man from Krypton was revived through the now infamous creative vehicle popularly known as “reimagining.”

Four years after Joe died, co-creator Jerry Siegel passed, also of natural causes.

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A few weeks before the July 2013 Comic-Con, I feasted on the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. Enjoyed the darker, controversial Superman depicted. Especially appreciated the considerable amount spent on Krypton before infant Kal-El was placed by his parents in rocket ship bound for Earth just before Krypton implodes.

The weakest element in Steel: too many fight scenes between Superman and General Zod. Half of the punch outs could have been cut without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

I wondered if Joe Shuster would agree.

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