Joseph “Joe” Shuster was a Canadian-born artist best known for co-creating Superman with Jerry Siegel. The son of Jewish immigrants, Shuster worked as a newspaper boy for the Toronto Star and, as a hobby, liked to sketch. At the age of ten, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met Siegel. Only four months separated their ages and, having discovered their mutual interest in fantasy, the two became close friends. By the age of 18, they began publishing their short-lived Science Fiction magazine in which Shuster drew the content and Siegel wrote the stories.
One of the characters they created for their magazine was an evil scientist in a story they titled Reign of the Superman. Shortly thereafter they re-imagined the villain as a hero. The pair first tried to sell Superman in 1933 after they created a few different comic strip formats of the character (even a cartoon version).
After many rejections they reworked their creation and incorporated the familiar elements recognizable today- such as the red cape and the “S” shield- the two again tried to sell Superman. But every editor to whom they submitted it also rejected the new version. Siegel and Shuster had faith in their character, however, and they patiently waited for their opportunity to see their creation published.
During the period of trying to sell Superman the two had successfully broken into the comics field. They worked on such comics and characters as New Fun, Spy, Slam Bradly, Henri Duval, Radio Squad, and Federal Men. In New Fun #6 from 1935 they created the magician Dr. Occult: a character who still occasionally makes an appearance in modern comics.
While trying to sell Superman during this period Siegel and Shuster received back some nasty replies from various editors. Bell Syndicate told them, “We are in the market only for strips likely to have the most extra-ordinary appeal, and we do not feel Superman gets into this category.” United Features said that Superman was “a rather immature piece of work.” Other insults were hurled at the future Man of Steel- such as “crude” and “hurried.”
But in 1938 everything changed. DC launched a new series, Action Comics, and picked Superman as the lead feature. An instant success, less than a year later Superman received his own series and was soon appearing in a nationally syndicated newspaper strip and on radio and merchandise. The character single-handily launched the Golden Age of Comics, spawning scores of imitators, and raising comic books from a fledgling industry into an art form.
Shuster very quickly became famous as the co-creator of Superman. At the time, in the midst of the Great Depression, he made a very good living from producing Superman stories- $75,000 a year. However, the copyright to his and Siegel’s work belonged to their employer. When the company refused to compensate them to the degree they believed appropriate, the pair sued. In 1948, the New York State Supreme Court limited their settlement to $60,000 each, at the time a large amount, but still very small compared to the multi-millions in profits their employer was generating annually. After a bitter legal dispute, Joe Shuster left the comics business and DC dropped his and Siegel’s byline on all Superman stories.
During this period and beyond Superman appeared in movie serials, television, cartoons, Broadway, books, toys, and more. When plans were revealed that Superman was to be made into a motion picture, Siegel – knowing the profits such a film could generate – again began to fight for his and Shuster’s character. The two again sued DC in 1978 for royalties and, through the help of then DC publisher in charge Carmine Infantino and comic artist Neal Adams – as well as public outcry from fans and collectors – they received a settlement from DC for $35,000 each per year for the remainder of their lives. And, perhaps just as importantly, DC agreed to also reinstate the Siegel and Shuster byline they had dropped more than 30 years earlier.
Many have commented that Shuster’s artwork was done in a crude, narrative style (which comic artist Jim Steranko likened to editorial cartooning) that was reminiscent of Milton Caniff’s art. However, despite the eye problems that plagued him throughout his career, Shuster produced quality artwork. Indeed, under his own inks, he was very polished and illustrative. His style itself became a model for many artists in the comic book industry during the thirties until the art of Lou Fine, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and the influence of Hal Foster and Caniff and Alex Raymond revolutionized the medium.
Near the end of his life Shuster was legally blind and still bitter about his treatment from DC. Having left the comics field completely after the 1940’s Shuster spent his last years in Los Angeles, CA just three blocks away from Siegel. He died in 1992 just short of his seventy-eighth birthday and DC did not even recognize his passing.
Despite the ignominious treatment of Siegel and Shuster, Superman himself is one of the most well-known and commercially successful fictional characters of the 20th century. Indeed, he ranks among the most recognizable fictional creations of all time. According to Science-Fiction writer Harlan Ellison, Superman shares this distinction with only four other universally cherished characters- Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes. And though denied the credit by a publisher that should have eulogized he and Siegel as the founders of their industry, the two will nonetheless never be forgotten by the millions of fans worldwide that have thrilled to the adventures and heroics of the legendary Man of Steel. Through their creation Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel will live forever as every new generation of children discover the first and greatest in the American pantheon of legendary heroes- Superman.
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