The story of how Superman as a book came to be has been well told many times over. We all know that he was the product of two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland working hard during the Great Depression. We know that the character was drawn from various sources of pulp magazines and science fiction stories of years prior. We know that the character was eventually sold to DC Comics, who subsequently built a whole empire around him across all platforms- animation, radio, television, film, and beyond. If you’re a Superman fan you probably know that various incarnations of the character have sprung up over time during each comic book industry “Age,” and you probably heard something at some point about the school newspaper Jerry and Joe used to work for, including what room of Glenville High they worked out of and what articles were published during their tenure at the school.
Although the story of Superman has indeed been well tread, the story of Siegel and Shuster themselves is less so. In his 2013 masterpiece, “Super Boys,” Brad Ricca, a die hard Supes fan and native Clevelander, not to mention talented poet, writer and teacher, dives into Jerry and Joe’s story and how they came to be and what they did. Effused with Cleveland pride, the book goes into absolutely incredible detail on the story of Superman’s creators, right down to what the vines on the front of Glenville High looked like when the boys started there in 1933. What we get here is the best biography of two comic industry legends that this author has ever read.
Ricca’s collecting of so many minute details made this book a ten year project to complete, and it shows. His notes/index section in the back takes up nearly a third of the total page count in the book and is great reading in and of itself! The manifesto of the ship Joe’s parents booked passage on from Rotterdam is included. The floor plan of Jerry Siegel’s father’s secondhand clothing store, as well as what part of the store Michel Siegel was standing in at the moment he tragically died of a heart attack is also here. A photocopy of the first check made to Jerry Siegel by National (later DC), year book notes from classmates, addresses of everywhere the boys and their families lived and so much more are all meticulously compiled into a beautiful narrative that leaves the reader hanging after each chapter. I consider myself to be a huge Superman fan, but even I didn’t know 90% of the details of this book.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly, but if there is one area I might have some hesitation in reading again it would be that much of “Super Boys'” story is not a happy one. Like many stories of Depression America, part of Jerry and Joe’s is being taken advantage of by a bigger bully, that being the corporation which gave them their opportunity in the first place. While great lengths have been taken to emphasize that two or three main figures in the company did the initial swindling of buying the rights to Superman for $130, much damage was done to Superman’s creators nonetheless. Joe Shuster sleeping on park benches in New York in the 1950s and Jerry Siegel’s unsuccessful attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle after leaving DC turn your stomach. The book ends on a happy note however, with both men and their families taken care of, more or less, by the end of their lives, even if the powers that be were immeasurably far more taken care of.
“Super Boys” is an awesome read, but be forewarned, it is not for the casual Superman fan. Many of the reviews of this book on Amazon and other sites bemoan the incessant detail, insisting that it becomes tedious to read through and drags the book’s pace in several places. I personally didn’t mind it one bit, and found the detail to be the book’s greatest strength. I’ve read great books on Superman’s history before, but never one about Siegel and Shuster’s history (see Les Daniels’ “Superman” from 1999 and more recently, Larry Tye’s phenomenal “Superman: A High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” for further reading if you’d like something more on Supes himself). I’m happy to have stumbled across it on a recent eBay search and can say I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the history of the American pop culture industry or loves Superman himself.
For any fan of the character and his history, you cannot do better than this book.
Capeage Meter: 9 out of 10