Joe Shuster’s sordid secret identity


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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.

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