Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
In time for the 75th anniversary of the Man of Steel comes the first comprehensive literary biography of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, creators of the DC Comics superhero Superman.
Excerpted from Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the Creators of Superman by © Brad Ricca (footnotes omitted). Published by St. Martin’s Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
In the back of the store, the white-haired man was reading the late edition of the city newspaper. He pressed it flat, like a map, over the long cutting table. The sheets of ink reflected nothing of the lights above. Outside, a fat, black lake of a thunderstorm was brewing over the flickering streets of Cleveland, Ohio. The clothing store, small and narrow, was on the corner of Central Avenue and East Thirty-first Street. Because of the weather, it was almost empty, as were most of the stores that night. But there was money to be made, the owner thought, so his lights were lit, still hopeful for some customers. It was June 3, 1932.
Inside, clothes and hats filled every corner and table. A slight wisp of smoke curled below the overhead lamp. This was not the glass-counter fantasy world of Higbee’s or Taylor’s, the massive downtown department stores with their endless displays of merchandise. There were no men in vests working the elevators or pretty girls spritzing strong perfume. There was only this dark building with a white, roughly painted sign that read, “2nd Hand Clothing.” The place was exactly what it claimed to be. The rain began to fall.
The store had a smell like any father’s closet: dark blazers, thick wool pants, and brushed-cotton shirts all hung from golden hooks. They all had stories, these suits and slacks, ties and bracers, sliding up and down the wooden dowels. But most of their stories were sad ones, because these clothes were sometimes sold to pay for things like rent or birthday presents. Many were even sold off the backs of the dead.
The white-haired man reading the paper was the owner, a sturdy man with a frowning mouth. In a corner near the front, a thin black man shuffled through some loose shirts and ties. The clock read eight o’clock. The owner hoped the man would buy something so he could close the store and go home.
The handle of the front door began to turn, and then it stopped. The white-haired man in the back raised his head slightly. The doorknob turned again, and three men entered the store, their scuffed shoes dragging, their eyes toward the floor. The white-haired man asked in a thickly accented voice if they needed any help. The new customers looked at him from underneath their hats as if he were speaking another language. One of them smiled.
Across town, in the tree-lined neighborhood of Glenville, seventeen-year-old Jerry Siegel was reading. Short, with bushy hair and glasses, he plomped onto his bed. The house was quiet and close. His mother was downstairs doing something. It was so warm that Jerry left his window open, even though rain was starting to come in. Jerry didn’t care about his bed, but he made swift motions to move the important stuff out of the way of any possible drops.
Library books were scattered here and there, but they were outnumbered in favor of the floppy magazines from the thick pile under his bed. They had strange names that baffled his parents: Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Argosy, and Detective Monthly. As the sky cracked and lit up the room, bald scientists and massive, hulking robots stared out from the bright covers. Jerry even had an issue of Weird Tales with a woman on the cover who was almost completely naked. He kept that one on the bottom. Jerry loved this stuff—especially how writers with names like Walter. Gibson or Dr. David Keller could make you scared or believe in made-up things like four-armed Martians with ray guns. These pulp magazines, named after the cheap wood paper they were printed on, were churned out monthly by publishers such as Street & Smith, Munsey, and Gernsback. They arrived at drugstores and newsstands in huge, colorful stacks for ten to twenty cents each. They had thick, painted covers from artists like Margaret Brundage, Jerome Rozen, or Frank Paul, who was his friend Joe’s favorite. Jerry turned the pages again and again until it seemed they might tear. There were columns and columns of small, smudgy text preceded by giant black-and-white illustrations. Jerry even knew the ads by heart—the ones that sold home detective courses, forbidden secrets of magic, and strength-training manuals. He read these magazines over and over. These names, these situations, these things: This was why he wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world. He glanced at the black typewriter on his desk and its big, heavy letters: Underwood. Words gave things weight.
Jerry thought of his father, working down at the clothing store he owned on Central Avenue. “The store,” as it was known around the dinner table, always filled Jerry with a sense of dread. Though the business had given the family their nice house (as his father so often reminded him), it was also a constant point of contention. Stop that writing and come down to the store! Jerry’s father would yell at him from the bottom of the stairs. Friends and classmates would recall this exchange as a frequent one. But try as Jerry might to fight this battle, his father’s words had their own sense of tightening inevitability. As both he and his father were getting older, it was looking more and more as though Jerry were going to have to work at the store full-time after his graduation from high school.
Jerry sighed and took a look at the cover of Astounding Stories. On it, a spongy alien with a curved orange beak and green tentacles threatened a silver-clad space hero with a jaw like an anvil. Jerry thought the monster looked a bit like his father. Especially the eyebrows. The storm made the branches outside his window look like long fingers. His father wouldn’t be home for a while. With all that lightning and rain, Jerry was trying to come up with a good story himself. Maybe the best ever written. It had to be if he was going to get out of this. He looked at the notebooks on his bed and his typewriter on the desk. He had been sending stories to some of the magazines, but none of them had been published. Not yet. A few of his letters had been printed, though, which he still found incredible. He turned to the back of one of the magazines, the one with a yellow flying saucer on it (a saucer?), and read, again, his very own words, which still looked strange in their set, blocked type:
Dear Editor... I have bought all the pamphlets that have appeared in the Science Fiction Library, and am immediately awaiting the appearance of some more. I read all the stories immediately upon their arrival and it wasn’t long before I had finished them and had nothing to read. So hurry up with some
This was how Jerry always felt: Hurry up. He wanted to do everything he could in that very same second, even if others told him to slow down. It wasn’t that he hated his shared, little brown room in the back of the house, now hot as blazes. He just wanted more. Jerry knew the next part by heart but was still struck by their audacity:
10622 Kimberley Avenue Cleveland, O.
This was his introduction. He was a writer, after all. And Thursday, June 2, 1932, whether he knew it yet or not, was a good night to write.
Back at the store, unbeknownst to Jerry, the men who walked in the front door were moving like slow chess pieces toward an uncertain conclusion. The black man in the front eyed the three men suspiciously. Something was wrong. They all congregated around the front of the store as Siegel’s father came out to help them. One of the three had picked out a suit and had it draped over one arm like a bodiless ghost. His hand smoothed the dark fabric. The others started to move in closely. The man with the suit paused, then went for the door. Or they took it after the owner gave it to them. It didn’t matter; they were going, either way. Or they were still there. People were moving. The white-haired Michel Siegel, in his early sixties—who throughout his life was known as Michel (pronounced “Mitchell”), Michael, and Mike—shouted, fumbled, and made his way toward the door as fast as he could. But then something hit him, hard. It felt as if the strongest fist he could ever imagine had punched him square in the chest. This was too much. This is too much. He is sweating. He is closing his eyes.
Over at the house on Kimberley, the phone rang, and Jerry’s eyes shuddered open. He wasn’t sure if he was even awake. He heard his mother cry out. Then he heard another call being made. Then his mother’s voice, calling out: Jerome! Jerome! His room, his magazines, were in his peripheral vision as he ran downstairs.
Later, at the hospital, the reporter talked to his mother, who for all her usual imperiousness now looked small and alone. She kept grabbing at her purse as if it were going to fall into the exact center of the earth. She steadied herself, looked away, and gave a small answer. The raindrops fall into their eyes. The reporter wrote it down in a little notebook in fast, light script. He used the word murder. He couldn’t stop writing. Jerry’s father was dead. He couldn’t stop writing. His father was dead. His father from Russia, who had brought over his bride and children to save them from evil, was dead. A tall, dark cop was comforting him. The rain was falling. His father was dead. Is dead.
The next day, The Plain Dealer, the city’s biggest newspaper, ran no mention of the crime whatsoever.
And it rained and cracked all night, like the end of the world.
Joe Shuster blinked at the back of his art teacher. She was bent over a student who clearly needed help portraying the simple bowl of fruit at the front of the room. Joe had finished his sketch a good ten minutes ago and was looking for something else to draw. With his left hand, he brought his pencil down at a forty-five-degree angle over the paper. It hovered there for a moment, floating over the page. His books wobbled in a pile under his desk. He tried to shift his dangling feet so no one could see they weren’t hitting the floor. Joe was short and skinny, parted his dark hair carefully on the side, and wore glasses that were incredibly thick. When it seemed that no one was looking, Joe put his face close—so close—down to the page, about two or three inches away, so he could finally see it.
Joe looked down at his drawing. He really wanted to draw something coming out of the apple—maybe an arrow or a smiling worm with funny eyebrows and a big cigar—but he didn’t want to get into trouble. He liked his teacher too much. Someday he would be a famous artist and he would come back to this classroom and she would be impressed. Class, she would say, this is a former student of mine who is a very successful artist, and his name is Joe Shuster. Or maybe Joseph Shuster. There would be clapping and she would smile and look very pleased. Joe looked at her and in his mind started drawing beams radiating from her head. But she straightened up and caught him staring even though he wasn’t really. Turning red, he went back to his sketch, brushing thick lines all going one way in the background. He hoped he could bring this one home to show his mother, he thought. He drew more lines.
At home, Joe’s mother, Ida, moved between the laundry and the stove. She knew she had only an hour or so before her boys, Joe and Frank, would be home from school. Their little sister, Jeanetta, was already staring out the window in anticipation of her two favorite, patient brothers. Ida’s husband, Julius, was working downtown at the Richman Brothers clothing store factory. Ida stopped for a moment, looked around her small apartment, and blinked. It looked small, but it was still an empire, so far from home.
Ida was born to Shemon Katharske and his wife, Chesie, around 1890 in a small town in the central region of Russia. Like many of the towns in the region, it was known by several names, depending upon where, whom, and when you asked. Here, in the town of many names, protected by a weak and crumbling fortress, Ida lived in a world of farms and hills. The area had enjoyed some peace, but there was always the promise of dreadful violence, especially against her people, the Jews, who were uneasy neighbors to the Russians. On April 27, 1881, a fight at a neighborhood bar resulted in the midnight destruction of several Jewish homes and businesses as police looked on. This went on for two days without any interest by the military authorities. The common news spread fast through the towns and cities.
Another wave of anti-Semitic violence was reported by The New York Times on December 13, 1905:
RUSSIAN CITY BURNING, JEWS BEING MASSACRED ODESSA IS PANIC-STRICKEN
Reports received here through refugees are to the effect that since Sunday the town of Elizabethgrad, Russia, has been burning and that a mob has been killing and plundering in the Jewish quarter.
The looting was done by torchlight. The streets were covered with glass and feathers. The mob got larger as government officials looked on. Fires raged down the little streets. The midnight reports were terrifying. As the government internally debated the legality of the “action,” news spread that a Jew had been killed. Ida, whose name in Hebrew meant “life,” had heard enough of this word pogrom and its simple meaning, “destroy.” In a short, sad range of years, thousands of Jews were killed or financially ruined. Some of them organized into renegade militias, but they were no match for the Russian army, who marched with bright medals and silver swords. The army were not all soldiers, not all blood-thirsty, but they all had their orders.
Ida never thought she would have a child who would one day end up going to an American school in a place called Cleveland and sketch a simple bowl of fruit for her. America was not a place for her to think of. But she did anyway. When she saw the men marching up the streets, she knew there had to be a better place. Not in specific details, but more as a vague idea, like an exotic photograph of Paris or Rome. This imaginary escape had at least the possibility of being real in the most extravagant way imaginable. America ganef, they said. The future of the place she was would see people beaten, bloodied, and stiff. These were old, inscrutable grudges. If these ways would not change, the place must. Imagination had to become real.