Joe Shuster (1914–1992), a Canadian sequential artist, was the co-creator of Superman, the ultimate comics superhero and one of the most recognizable characters in popular culture. He and his friend Jerry Siegel invented Superman during their teen years in Cleveland, Ohio, and he brought Siegel's storylines to life with his inked images of the all-American hero.
Born Joseph Shuster on July 10, 1914, in Toronto, Canada, Shuster began drawing at age four. He avidly read the daily comic strips and Sunday comic supplements in a local newspaper, especially “Little Nemo,” a fantasy series created by Winsor McKay and set in the world of Slumberland. At age nine, he moved with his family to the United States and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. By age 12, influenced by science-fiction magazine artist Frank R. Paul, Shuster was drawing rocket ships and futuristic cities. At Glenville High School in Cleveland, he befriended aspiring writer Jerry Siegel, who lived a few blocks away and shared his interest in science-fiction publications such as Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories. They collaborated on comic strips that they published in the student newspaper, the Glenville Torch.
Other than comics and science fiction, Shuster's main pursuit as a teen was fitness, an interest that would be useful when he began to draw Superman's muscular physique. “I tried to build up my body,” he recalled to Tom Andrae in a 1983 interview for Nemo: The Classic Comics Library. “I was so skinny; I went in for weight-lifting and athletics. I used to get all the body-building magazines from the second-hand stores.”
In 1932, Shuster and Siegel began to publish mimeographed copies of their own magazine, simply called Science Fiction. In the magazine's January 1933 issue, Siegel included an original short story, “The Reign of the SuperMan,” about a villain with unusual intelligence. His accompanying illustration depicted a man with a huge, bald head, who was reaching out menacingly with clawlike hands.
Later that year, he developed a new idea for his “SuperMan” : as a hero with superhuman strength who used his power to protect people. Shuster and Siegel drafted an early comic book and, although it attracted the interest of a publisher, it was ultimately rejected. Upset, Shuster discarded most of his work on the project. “I'm a perfectionist, and I think the fact that the drawings had been turned down made me want to tear them up,” he recalled to Andrae in Nemo. Two of Shuster's early illustrations of The Superman survive. One, a detailed ink drawing, shows a handsome flying figure about to pounce on a crook committing armed robbery. The other, a pencil sketch, shows a very muscular figure holding a crook in the air with both hands.
One night in late 1934, Siegel had a new idea for his muscle-bound comics character. He decided to give The Superman two identities, one as an ordinary man and the other as a superhero. He hurried over to Shuster's house the next morning to see what his friend thought. “That was one very important day in our lives,” Shuster later recalled toAndrae. “We just sat down, and I worked straight through. I think I had brought in some sandwiches to eat, and we worked all day long.”
As conceived by Siegel, Superman was now an alien from the planet Krypton who came to Earth in a rocket as an infant. Adopted by a Midwestern farming family, Superman grew up to possess superhuman strength, which he used to fight crime. “He put the superhero in ordinary, familiar surroundings, instead of the other way around, as was done in most science fiction,” Shuster later commented to Andrae in Nemo. Shuster drew Superman in his now-famous red cape, blue costume, and yellow shield with an S on his chest.
Later in life, Shuster revealed that he modeled Superman on Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., a dashing actor from the silentfilm era. From Fairbanks films such as Robin Hood, he adopted Superman's confident, masculine pose, with his hands on his hips and his feet spread apart. He based Superman's mild alter ego Clark Kent on silent-film comic Harold Lloyd.
The early Superman was far less serious than the righteous Man of Steel he evolved into. “Jerry and I always felt that the character was enjoying himself,” Shuster told Andrae in Nemo. “He was having fun: he wasn't taking himself seriously. It was always a lark for him, as you can see in my early drawings.”
Shuster also drew on his childhood memories of Toronto skyscrapers as inspiration for Metropolis, the city where Superman often fought crime. “Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was, and it was not as big or as beautiful,” he once remarked, as quoted by Burt A. Folkart in the Los Angeles Times. The name Metropolis itself came from the Fritz Lang–directed science-fiction movie Metropolis, which Siegel and Shuster had seen at its release in 1927.
Shuster and Siegel drafted several sample comic strips featuring their new superhero. Although they shopped their new “Superman” strip to several newspaper syndicates, it was rejected as being too fantastic.
Meanwhile, in 1935, Shuster and Siegel were hired by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the publisher credited with inventing the modern American comic book. The major's National Allied Publications had been founded the previous August and specialized in original multi-page sequential-art stories, many of them created by Sheldon Mayer. Collaborating with the Major, they created series characters such as Dr. Occult the Ghost Detective and their comics began appearing in the comic-book series New Fun and New Comics.
In March of 1937, Shuster and Siegel debuted a new action character, Slam Bradley, which ran in Detective Comics, a publication produced by Wheeler-Nicholson in partnership with financial backer Jack S. Liebowitz. A character co-created by the Major, “Slam quickly became Joe's tour de force,” according to Bob Hughes on the Who Drew Superman?website, and in drawing this strip “he unleashed all of his artistic talent in a combination of science fiction machines, giant skyscrapers, beautiful girls, comic sidekicks and relentless fisticuffs.”
Shuster and Siegel used the “Slam Bradley” comics as a way to test some of their ideas for Superman. “Jerry often says that Slam Bradley was really the forerunner of Superman,” Shuster related to Andrae, “because we turned it out with no restrictions, complete freedom to do what we wanted; the only problem was that we had a deadline. We had to work very fast, so Jerry suggested that we save time by putting less than six panels to a page: four panels or three panels, and sometimes two panels.” When WheelerNicholson was presented with the “Superman” strips and gave his approval, Shuster and Siegel quickly converted them to comic book format.
Meanwhile, Wheeler-Nicholson lost his hold on Detective Comics when Liebowitz's business associate, magazine distributor and pulp printer Harry Donefeld, forced the Major's business interests into bankruptcy. In June of 1938, Superman debuted in the first issue of Action Comics, a product marshaled by Liebowitz and Mayer. Shuster drew the comic book's cover, which showed Superman holding a crook's car over his head, in much the same pose as his sketch from years earlier. The publishers paid Shuster and Siegel $130 for their first 13-page Superman story as well as the rights to the character.
The first issue of Action Comics sold out quickly, and the publisher asked for more “Superman” stories. To keep up with demand, Shuster and Siegel were soon creating six multi-page stories per month. “In the beginning, we had a great deal of freedom, and Jerry wrote completely out of his imagination—very, very freely,” Shuster explained to Andrae in Nemo. “We even had no editorial supervision to speak of, because they were in such a rush to get the thing in before deadline. But later on we were restricted.”
On January 16, 1939, Shuster and Siegel's first daily “Superman” comic strip ran in daily newspapers, and a full-color Sunday strip would become syndicated on November 5, 1939. The increased workload required Shuster to set up an art studio and hire several assistants to help ink, color, and letter the comics needed for his deadlines. Shuster would create the layouts and pencil sketches of the art and draw people's figures and Superman's face, amd then leave the detailed inking to the assistants. He also handled the artwork for Siegel's new character, Superboy, which debuted in Action Comics in 1945.
In 1947, Shuster and Siegel sued Superman DC for a share of the profits; in response, the publisher fired them. As the dispute over rights wound its way through the courts, they created a new comic character, Funnyman, who used jokes to defeat his enemies. This new creation did not sell well and lasted only six issues. By 1953, Shuster was in dire straights financially and was also losing his eyesight.
During the mid-1950s, Shuster and Siegel were able to team up on several projects for New York City–based comics publisher Charlton, but Shuster was forced to retire from illustrating due to his failing vision. For years, he lived on very little money in a sparsely furnished New York City apartment, and a brother supported him financially. He and Siegel eventually resorted to selling their copies of the “Superman” comic books to collectors, where a single issue could be worth several thousand dollars. He moved into his mother's home on Long Island during the early 1960s and worked as a part-time delivery person.
In 1975, with their efforts to sue for royalties now failed, Shuster and Siegel turned to the public for support. Joined by several colleagues in the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, they argued that, as young men, they were not clearly informed about the consequences of signing away the rights to their creation. “We were young kids,” Shuster said in an interview quoted by Lambert in the New York Times. “What did we know?” Fearful of bad publicity, Warner Communications now addressed the issue. By then, Warner owned the company that controlled the rights to Superman, and it reached a settlement with Siegel and Shuster that granted them pensions of $20,000 a year. It also agreed to include their names as creators of Superman on all films, comic books, and other published media. Shuster used the money to retire in Los Angeles, where his blindness required him to live in an assistedliving community.
The 1978 film Superman, which starred Christopher Reeve, would be a blockbuster production, inspiring interest in Shuster and Siegel's superhero character and making $275 million for Warner. Three years after its release, Warner increased Shuster's and Siegel's pensions to $30,000, with a one-time $15,000 bonus. (In 1999, Siegel's heirs made an attempt to reclaim copyright to the Superman character through termination of contract, but they were defeated in court in 2013, and Time Warner retained legal ownership of the superhero.)
According to Denis Gifford in the London Independent, by the 1980s, Superman was “one of the three most recognizable characters on Earth, alongside Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin.” Shuster was recognized late in life for his work on the character, and he expressed pride and satisfaction. “There aren't many people who can honestly say they'll be leaving behind something as important as Superman,” he told an interviewer, as quoted by Richard Pearson in the Washington Post. Shuster died on July 30, 1992, of hypertension and congestive heart failure, in Los Angeles, California. He was 78.
Independent (London, England), August 6, 1992, Denis Gifford, “Joe Shuster.”
Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1992, Burt A. Folkart, “Joe Shuster, Co-Creator of Superman.”
Nemo: The Classic Comics Library, August 1983, Tom Andrae, “The Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster Interview,” p. 7.
New York Times, August 3, 1992, Bruce Lambert, “Joseph Shuster, Cartoonist, Co-Creator of ‘Superman’; January 12, 2013, “Warner Brothers Wins in Superman Case,” p. C3.
Washington Post, August 3, 1992, Richard Pearson, “Illustrator Joe Shuster Dies.”
Who's Who in DC Comics?, http://dccomicsartists.com/superart/superart.html (August 22, 2015), Bob Hughes, “Who Drew Superman?” □