Craig Yoe’s recent book Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster explores an unexamined period in the life of the artist and some of the salacious work he did to survive after losing control of his and Jerry Siegel’s celebrated character. Craig has graciously agreed to talk to Comics Bulletin about the book and the strange period in Joe Shuster’s life.
[WARNING: This interview contains content that may be considered “Mature”.]
Charles Webb: In the book you mention how you came across some of this “lost” art by Shuster. Could you recount for our readers what this discovery was like?
Craig Yoe: As a comics historian and Joe Shuster fan it was a thrill of a lifetime! These S&M drawings by Joe are a key body of work of comics history. Joe Shuster was the artistic architect of both superheroes and the comics industry. We basically only had the first Superman story that was pure Shuster work. Now here’s a large amount of work Joe did as a mature artist without assistants that answers a big question in regards to his activities post-Superman. And the government suppression of this work that I reveal in the book was a landmark Supreme Court case about censorship and freedom of the press. And, importantly, the work is the great Joe Shuster at his artistic zenith — beautifully composed and rendered art!
CW: Were you shocked knowing that Shuster was responsible for this work or did it seem like it was part of the downward trajectory he was in after losing the rights to Superman?
CY: Very surprised to make this discovery, yes, but [I] don’t feel that Joe doing brilliantly drawn, frank, groundbreaking, sexual fantasy art is part of a downward trajectory of the artist.
CW: Were the people you talked to surprised that this was Shuster’s work? Did any of his friends or family members know?
CW: It’s sad; you note that Siegel and Shuster had a cut of the Superman radio program and for a time were pretty flush with cash. Where did the money go?
CY: Joe didn’t have investment counselors or investors. I think he enjoyed his bachelorhood, in New York City. Joe was very loving, caring and generous with his family.
CW: What was the level of resistance/cooperation like when you were seeking interviews for the book?
CY: People I interviewed like cartoonists Jerry Robinson, Dick Ayers, film critic Judith Crist, comics historians Brad Ricca, Bill Blackbeard, and Ron Goulart were all very helpful. Why shouldn’t they be? Writing the truth about history has integrity and importance. Yes, there were a couple of critics saying that when I found this material I should have buried it in my backyard, but they have been in the minority of opinion. And I personally see nothing wrong with expressing sexual fantasies, a time-honored tradition from the Bible’s “Song of Solomon” to contemporary erotic art.
CW: What was the most striking discovery in the course of your research into Night of Horrors (the original publication that was home to Shuster’s fetish art)?
CY: That the famed anti-comics crusader Dr. Frederic Wertham not only knew of it, but interviewed, in his jail cell, the leader of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers that were dementedly and tragically inspired by Nights of Horror. And that, Wertham testified to a Senate investigation on pornography and comics about the Nights of Horror books and their part in the Brooklyn Thrill Killers’ murders. The press and Wertham lumped Night of Horror and comics together but never knew that Joe Shuster was the artist of this material. An amazing, fascinating and important piece of unknown comics history!
CW: This period in Shuster’s life was pretty low financially and in terms of his health. Was there any indication that this artwork was in some way cathartic for him? Or maybe some of it reflected his personal kinks?
CY: Something I have tried to dispel in the book is how Joe’s weak eyesight has been overblown by previous histories. This work itself is a testament to this amazing abilities at this time and the prowess of Joe Shuster as an artist. His sister, who I greatly respect, wrote me and told me she strongly feels that Joe must have enjoyed the drawing of the idealized male and female figures, but absolutely detested the content of the work and was in a desperate financial state to have undertaken it. Stan Lee in his introduction takes a very similar position. Myself, I look at the drawings, having lived with them on a daily basis for well over a year while researching, writing and designing the book, and get the feeling that Joe enjoyed portraying the sexual fantasies and situations. I could be wrong and Stan Lee and Joe’s sister could be right.
CW: Do you have any information on the next project you have lined up?
CY: A book I did, The Art of Ditko, is days away from being released as is The Great Anti-War Cartoons, the latter for Fantagraphics. I’m finishing up a 350 page book The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story. I’m excitedly in the middle of an art book on George Herriman and Krazy Kat for Abrams. The Ditko and Milt Gross book are part of the new imprint I have, Yoe Books, books on comics history for IDW which I’m stoked about. I have many other books in the works for Yoe Books and the esteemed publishers I have the privilege of working with. And the Gotham Group in Hollywood is lining up a director for a major motion picture based on Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster. I’m having fun!