The cautionary tale of Superman
Superman has always been identified as representing truth, justice and the American Way. He was an unambiguous superhero, no hints at darkness, not a trace of the anti-hero. Certainly, Superman has never been identified with any type of critique of capitalism. In a time where America represents neither truth nor justice (if it ever did) there may not be a rush to the bookstore to buy a graphic novel about the creator of the Superman mythos. However, that would be a mistake. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist behind Superman, has a lot to say about the politics of popular culture. More specifically it has a lot to say about the intersection of comics, culture and capitalism.
Superficially, it is simply the basics of the Superman story: keeping fairly true to the origin story of Superman as one of the first superhero comics. The comic lays out Shuster’s parents immigrating to Canada and how he was born and raised in Toronto until the age of 10. It covers Shuster meeting Jerry Siegel, the writer and co-creator of Superman, in high school in Cleveland. The early story also acts as homage to all the popular culture that inspired the two Superman creators: movies like Metropolis, comics such as Little Nemo, and pulp science-fiction magazines. However, it also tells a darker story. The opening panels of the graphic novel show Shuster being rousted by the police for sleeping on a park bench. It is clear he is homeless. The story then tells us how he got there. It shows that once they took their first cheque from their publisher, they had lost the rights to Superman; they just didn’t know it yet. Shuster and Siegel take on an agent, but they are contractually employees. The oldest story in show business, capitalists squeezing artists’ rights away from them, starts to play out in comic-book form. In this way, the comic functions to simultaneously honour popular culture and reveal the tensions created when art and commerce intersect. This is more than a simple origin story.
The Joe Shuster Story uses the tale of one of the most iconic superheroes to critique the system that made Shuster and Siegel temporarily well off before writing them off. It deftly covers the political events of the time that influenced the creator’s lives: The Depression, the Second World War, McCarthyism and then the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that investigated the comics industry in the 1950s. It is a lot of history to cover and while it is not done perfectly, it provides the larger context of the story. The graphic novel does not directly challenge the dominant discourses of the time, but it does highlight the contradictions of capitalism mostly by showing rather than telling.
The way the graphic novel tells the story is unique; it plays with the divide between truth and fiction, history and myth. It bills itself as “a meticulously researched fiction based on the true story of Joe Shuster’s life.” The artwork creates a buffer between the harsh realities of the story and the reader. Artist Thomas Campi lovingly illustrates the graphic novel with the use of watercolours that evoke the illustrations of magazines from the 1950s. Julian Voloj does a good job writing a story that spans decades without bogging the story down with too much exposition.
There are parts to the story that are problematic. At the height of McCarthyism an embittered Siegel writes to FBI head J. Edgar Hoover in an attempt to spark an investigation into the publishers of Superman. He invokes anti-communist rhetoric to achieve this goal. He is unsuccessful in this. However, Siegel himself is a contradiction. He has a raw, personalized critique of capitalism that he does not name as such. In the late stages of his life, having been separated from the profits of his labour for over 37 years, he pens a letter to the comic book industry, stating, “I consider National’s executives economic murders, money-mad monsters.” The graphic novel illustrates the tensions between both art and commerce and culture and capitalism by letting the story of Shuster and Siegel unfold. This comic works because of the contrast between what we think we know about Superman and what really happened. The narrative most definitely contains contradictions, but art as commodity is not without contradiction.
John-Henry Harter lectures in history and labour studies at Simon Fraser University. He has published in the journals Labour/ Le Travail, Popular Culture Review, The Otter, and Active History. He writes on class, the environment and popular culture when not consuming too much coffee and TV. @JohnHenryHarter.