Shuster, Joseph E. (“Joe”)
Shuster, Joseph E. (“Joe”)
(b. 10 July 1914 in Toronto, Canada; d. 30 July 1992 in Los Angeles, California), comic book illustrator best known for creating and drawing the character Superman with Jerry Siegel.
Shuster was the oldest of three children born to Julius Shuster, a Dutch tailor, and Ida Kaklarsky, a Russian singer and actress. The family moved to Cleveland when Shuster was nine. A fragile child, Shuster lifted weights to build stamina, delivered newspapers, and worked in a sign-painting shop to help his family, which was beset by poverty. When not working, he escaped into pulp magazines and the Sunday newspaper comic strips. Despite the objections of his parents, he decided to take up art and wrote and drew his first comic work for the Alexander Hamilton Junior High School student newspaper. In 1931 he met >Jerry Siegel, a fellow science fiction enthusiast, at Glenville High School, and the pair soon wrote and illustrated a Tarzan parody, “Goober the Mighty,” for the Glenville Torch. Shuster graduated from high school in 1932 and his talent won him a scholarship to the Cleveland Art School, which he attended from 1931 to 1933. He paid for additional lessons for a single semester in 1932 from the John Huntington Polytechnical Institute a dime at a time. He did not graduate or receive a degree from either institution.
Shuster and Siegel created numerous comic strips with Shuster drawing and Siegel writing. They sent the strips to the larger newspaper syndicates but generated little interest. To stay busy they produced their own fanzine, Science Fiction, beginning in October 1932. Its third issue, in January 1933, introduced “The Reign of the Superman,” in which the title character was a villain. Siegel rewrote the character as a hero, a strongman dressed in a muscle shirt and trousers—a man of genius and action but not a superman—for a comic book they tried unsuccessfully to sell to Consolidated Book Publishers of Chicago in 1933.
In 1934 Siegel and Shuster again reworked the character, this time giving him superpowers, and Shuster created the visual image that launched a half-century of imitations. Following the design of Buck Rogers, Shuster placed the character in tights but added a cape and the emblematic S on the chest. The city of Metropolis setting was modeled on his childhood memories of Toronto. If the “man of steel” was his fantasy, however, Clark Kent was Shuster’s reality. Superman’s socially awkward, bespectacled alter ego was based on Shuster himself. The strip met rejection again. The financial situation for the team was so desperate that their work was submitted on the back of unused wallpaper and brown wrapping paper. They did some work that year for the Christmas advertising supplement for the Cleveland Shopping News.
In 1935 Shuster and Siegel were finally successful with two comic features, “Henri Duval” and “Dr. Occult,” published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson for New Fun Comics number six (October 1935). The team continued with Wheeler-Nicholson, producing “Federal Men” in New Comics number two (January 1936), “Radio Squad” in More Fun Comics number eleven (July 1936), and their first great success, “Slam Bradley” in the company’s flagship title, Detective Comics number one (March 1937).
Harry Donenfeld, who partnered with Wheeler-Nicholson to publish Detective Comics (DC), was looking for original material for a new title. He saw Siegel and Shuster’s Superman strip and purchased it on the stipulation that they redraw it and produce it as a comic book. Siegel and Shuster signed the standard contract, earning $10 a page for the thirteen-page story, and all rights to the character became the property of DCs subsidiary company, Superman, Incorporated. Action Comics number 1 (June 1938) and the popularity of the character Superman initiated the golden age of superhero comic books. By 1941 Action Comics sold over 900,000 issues monthly, while a second title, Superman, begun in the summer of 1939, sold 1.25 million issues, together grossing $950,000 a year. On 16 January 1939 McClure’s Syndicate, which had originally rejected the strip, debuted it in four newspapers. Two years later the strip ran in over 300 newspapers and reached some 20 million readers.
At first Shuster drew the bulk of the art in a primitive but cleverly laid out style that fit the energy of the character. He deviated from the rigid small panel approach of the period by incorporating larger panels and angular visions of the action. His characters were rounded and fluid and evoked a dynamic sense of speed and movement. The uncluttered style was well suited to the technology of comic book publishing in the late 1930s and became the template for countless imitators.
To meet the burgeoning weekly demand for thirteen comic pages, six daily strips, a full Sunday page, plus artwork for merchandising and advertising, Shuster rented a studio in Cleveland and hired a staff that included his brother Frank Shuster and such recognized names as Paul Cassidy, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley, John Sikela, Dennis Neville, and Leo Nowack. Suffering from failing eyesight, Shuster still did the layouts, rough sketches, and facial details but let others do the pencils and inks. At the height of his success he shared $500 a story plus a small percentage of the merchandising profits with Siegel. He averaged an estimated $36,000 a year and covered the cost of the studio and artists out of his own pocket.
DC published another Siegel and Shuster idea, Super-boy, in More Fun number 101 (January-February 1945) but refused to pay the team for its original idea. In 1947 the pair sued to regain the rights to Superman and Superboy and to recover $5 million of revenue lost during their nine years with DC. In the end they settled for a reported $400,000 and signed away all rights. Their names were withdrawn from the strips, and they were in effect released from DC. They went to Vincent Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises to produce Funnyman number one (December 1947) and a subsequent newspaper comic strip. When the effort failed late in 1949, Siegel and Shuster dissolved their partnership, although they remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Shuster then moved to New York to live with his brother in Queens.
In 1954 Shuster returned to comic books at Charlton Publishing to illustrate Crime and Justice, Racquet Squad in Action, Space Adventures, Strange Suspense Stories, and This Magazine Is Haunted. But poor eyesight and a depressed market ended his career. In 1960 Shuster made some rough sketches for a strip called “Stormy Weathers,” but no publishers were interested.
The copyright to Superman came up for renewal in 1963, and Shuster and Siegel again tried to reclaim the rights. The case dragged on until 1975, and their effort failed. When Time Warner, which now owned DC Comics, announced the production of a Superman movie in 1976, Siegel and Shuster took their plight to the media. The resulting publicity led to a settlement in 1978 in which Warner Brothers agreed to pay the pair an annual stipend of $20,000 each for the rest of their lives, to give them full medical coverage, and to restore their names to the comic book they had created.
By that time, however, Shuster’s personal life was in disarray. He could no longer see well enough to draw. His 1976 marriage to a showgirl, Judy Cantro, ended in divorce two years later. They had no children. In December 1978 Shuster moved to California to be close to Siegel and his wife Joanne. For the remainder of his life Shuster worked odd jobs and lived in obscurity. He died in his apartment on 30 July 1992 from congestive heart failure. He is buried in Los Angeles. In 1992 he was posthumously elected to the Comic Book Hall of Fame.
The people who knew him said that the picture of Joe Shuster in his later years was a sad one. He never reaped any considerable financial reward for creating one of the most prominent icons in American culture. Still, he maintained a positive attitude and felt honored to have his creation be recognized and enjoyed by so many people.
Although Shuster’s professional illustrating career lasted only twelve years, it changed the face of American popular culture and mass media forever. Shuster almost single-handedly created the visual style and form of the superhero genre and launched the golden age of mass marketing and production of comic books.
Reprints of Siegel and Shuster’s work that offer informative introductions include Siegel and Shuster, Superman: The Dailies (1998); Siegel and Shuster, Superman: The Sunday Classics (1998); The Golden Age of Superman (1993); and Siegel and Shuster, The Superman Archives (1994-2000). Among the collections that discuss Shuster’s work are Mike Benton, The Comic Book in America (1989); Ron Goulart, The Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990); Ron Goulart, Over Fifty Years of American Comic Booths (1991); Mike Benton, Masters of Imagination (1994); Paul Sassienie, The Comic Book (1994); and Les Daniels, Superman: The Complete History, the Life and Times of the Man of Steel (1998). Michael Catron’s informative obituary in the Comic Journal (Oct. 1992) focuses on Shuster’s work. Another obituary is in the New York(Times (3 Aug. 1992).
Patrick A. Trimble
"Shuster, Joseph E. (“Joe”)." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shuster-joseph-e-joe
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