The Many Faces of the Man of Steel


Superman at The Star

By Henry Mietkiewicz, 1992

BRENTWOOD, Calif. - By the time he was hawking The Daily Star in downtown Toronto in the Roaring Twenties, 9-year-old Joe Shuster had already come to believe he was selling more than mere newspapers.

To this ambitious newsboy, The Star was a passport to wonder.

Within its pages, Joe had discovered the fantasy world of the color comics and, along with it, the inspiration that would make him the co-creator of one of the most illustrious fictional characters of the 20th century: Superman.

Even working as a Star newsboy had long-range effects. By peddling papers amid such imposing office towers as the old Star building on King St. W., Joe was exposed to sights and sounds that would later be incorporated into Superman's home town of Metropolis.

When Superman debuted as the comics sensation of 1938, the Toronto-born cartoonist (who moved to Cleveland at the age of 10) wanted to express his appreciation for those formative, first impressions.

So, Shuster gave the name ``The Daily Star'' to the Metropolis newspaper that employed Superman's alter-ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.

Not until 1940, on orders from a New York editor, did Shuster and his partner, writer Jerry Siegel rename the paper the Daily Planet.

Today Shuster smiles as he recalls the excitement of those early days, when Superman's exploits set the standard for a whole new generation of gaudily costumed crime-fighters.

Memories are all that remain for the frail, 77-year-old artist, who neatly tucks his most cherished moments into the dozens of scrapbooks and photo albums that line his simple, one-bedroom apartment in suburban West Los Angeles.

Reminiscing in public, though, is something Shuster has long avoided.

A bitter, mid-'70s struggle against the DC Comics company and its parent, Warner Communications finally resulted in a pension for the impoverished creators of the Man of Steel.

Fearful of doing anything to jeopardize their hard-won gains with DC Comics, they now shun publicity, having given their last interview to a comics industry journal in the early '80s.

Still in his eagerness to help mark The Star's 100th birthday, Shuster recently broke his 10-year silence by granting an exclusive interview that sheds new light on the early ties between Superman, The Star and Toronto.

``Unfortunately, I was never able to visit Toronto after 1941,'' said the frail, soft-spoken cartoonist during a wide-ranging, three-hour conversation earlier this month.

``That's why I'm so eager to talk with The Star now. I feel so deeply about this particular interview, because I've never had the chance to properly express my gratitude.

``Now that the paper's anniversary has arrived, I can tell you I have very fond memories of the Toronto Star. It was a very important part of my life.''

Mention of The Star sends Shuster scurrying to the cardboard boxes that hold mementoes and treasures from every era sheet music from the Superman Broadway play of 1966, enlarged photocopies of the first Superman sketches from the '30s, a mid-'40s photograph of Siegel, and issues of Reader's Digest, Newsweek and Us that cover-featured the Man of Steel when the Superman movie was released in 1978.

Finally, Shuster locates a hardcover book of reprinted Superman stories that were first published in the late '30s. Settling gently on to the sofa, he lowers his head to the glossy pages and squints while looking for a particular comic panel.

The search goes slowly. Blindness and other ailments are slowly overtaking Shuster, who has lost most of the vision in his right eye and uses oversized magnifying glasses to read the mail and make sense of the fleeting images on his television screen.

Even signing his name is a chore. His left hand the one that once drew colorful figures soaring over futuristic cities can no longer hold a pencil firmly, while his right hand trembles as he labors to shape the letters.

Siegel, too, is feeling the weight of years and cannot participate in the interview, because he's recovering from heart-bypass surgery.

``There it is,'' Shuster says, pointing to a picture of Superman descending toward a Metropolis skyline. The caption on the comic panel says the Man of Steel has landed near the Daily Star building.

``Sure! The Star!'' Shuster exclaims, wheezing slightly. ``Not the Planet. That came later.

``I still remember drawing one of the earliest panels that showed the newspaper building. We needed a name, and I spontaneously remembered the Toronto Star. So that's the way I lettered it. I decided to do it that way on the spur of the moment, because The Star was such a great influence on my life.''

That influence was acquired, quite literally, on his father's knee. Shuster remembers his father, Julius, returning home every evening from his tailor shop in Toronto's garment district, and hoisting his son on to his knee to read him the comics.

Young Joe was enchanted. And on weekends, when the comics were printed in glorious color, they were the ultimate entertainment.

``In those days, color comics were published on a large scale. They would devote an entire page to one comic, usually with vivid colors very bright, vivid colors.

``Of course, I was only 3 or 4 and I couldn't read. So we had a ritual. We would both open up the color comics and my father would read all the dialogue and balloons. I remember the Katzenjammer Kids, Boob McNutt, Happy Hooligan and Barney Google.

``But my sharpest memory is of little Nemo. It was a very imaginative strip and it even had a touch of science fiction in it. It had marvellous scenes Winsor McCay's depiction of the city of the future, the planets all the things I loved. That was among the things that turned me on to fantasy and science fiction.

``Later on, I began to read the comics myself and I had hopes of someday drawing a comic strip of my own.''

It wasn't long before Joe's talent for drawing became apparent. His younger sister, Jean Peavy of Albuquerque, New Mexico, even remembers her 4-year-old brother drawing elaborate scenes on the walls of their Toronto home.

The problem, Peavy says, was that paper was a luxury in a household where money was always tight. Julius, an immigrant from Rotterdam, and Ida, who had come from Kiev, were barely able to make ends meet.

``There were times,'' Peavy says, ``when my mother was able to get Joe some pieces of white paper from the butcher. But that didn't happen often.''

Instead, Joe became a scrounger, honing his artistic skill on whatever scraps of discarded paper and bits of cardboard he could find.

``I would go from store to store in Toronto and pick up whatever they threw out,'' Shuster recalls. ``One day, I was lucky enough to find a bunch of wallpaper rolls that were unused and left over from some job.

``The backs were blank, naturally. So it was a goldmine for me, and I went home with every roll I could carry. I kept using that wallpaper for a long time.

``Years later (in the mid-'30s), Jerry and I sold our first two stories to DC Comics one was about (swashbuckler) Henry Duval and the other was (magician) Dr. Occult. One was drawn on brown wrapping paper and the other was drawn on the back of wallpaper from Toronto.

``And DC approved them, just like that! It's incredible! But DC did say, `We like your ideas, we like your scripts and we like your drawings. But please, copy over the stories in pen and ink on good paper.'

``So I got my mother and father to lend me the money to go out and buy some decent paper the first drawing paper I ever had in order to submit these stories properly to DC Comics.''

Shuster's recollections of Toronto are happy ones, although he does remember his family having to move regularly, most likely when rent became a problem. Details are hazy now, but he recalls living on Bathurst, Oxford and Borden Sts. and attending Ryerson and Lansdowne Public Schools.

Joe was also greatly impressed by Toronto's vitality and size, especially when he became a newsboy and began to get a clearer sense of his surroundings.

When, in the '30s, it came time for him to draw the skyline and landmarks of Metropolis, Shuster dismissed Cleveland from his mind and turned instead to memories of Toronto.

``Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was, and it was not as big or as beautiful. Whatever buildings I saw in Toronto remained in my mind and came out in the form of Metropolis.

``As I realized later on, Toronto is a much more beautiful city than Cleveland ever was.'' Pausing for a moment, Shuster chuckles and adds, ``I guess I don't have to worry about saying that now.''

Even after Julius moved the family to Cleveland in 1924 for business reasons, Joe maintained his Canadian link through a close friendship with his cousin, Frank the same Frank Shuster of the Wayne and Shuster comedy team.

Interestingly, Joe and Frank were double first-cousins: Their fathers (Julius and Jack) were brothers and their mothers (Ida and Bessie) were sisters.

Jean Peavy even recalls that at one point, her family and Frank's family cut expenses by sharing a house Frank Shuster downstairs and Joe Shuster upstairs.

Joe and Frank became ardent movie-goers, often spending entire days together watching the silent pictures in the downtown theatre where Frank's father (Joe's uncle Jack) worked as a projectionist.

In later years, when Shuster tried to imagine what Superman and his friends would look like, he drew upon actors in the movies he'd seen in Toronto with Frank.

Superman, with his heroic physique and glowing optimism, was patterned largely after Douglas Fairbanks Sr. And Clark Kent his name derived from movie stars Clark Gable and Kent Taylor was a combination of timorous, bespectacled Harold Lloyd and pale, mild-mannered Joe Shuster himself.

(Lois Lane, by the way, came not from the movies, but was modelled on Joanne Carter, who later became Jerry Siegel's wife.)

But could that be right Joe Shuster as Clark Kent? ``No question about it,'' says Frank Shuster, who spent summer vacations with his cousin in Cleveland and watched Joe's talent develop.

``I'd try to get him to come out and play ball,'' Frank says, ``because I was a much more active and physical kind of guy. I'll admit that Joe believed in lifting weights and making himself strong, but he was never one for actual activity.

``He looked like the stereotypical, 90-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face. And it later occurred to me that he was Clark Kent the sort of nebbish in glasses that everyone wanted to kick around but underneath he was the Man of Steel.

``It came from him being the quiet, pensive kid who sat there drawing, and underneath it all, really just wanting to have that strength and that power.''

Power and fame were showered on Shuster and Siegel within months of Superman's first appearance in June, 1938, in Action Comics no. 1. Among the first publications to acknowledge the character's impact was Time magazine, followed closely by The Toronto Star.

``I do remember that when Superman was sold, The Star was one of the first to send a reporter,'' Joe Shuster says with a smile. ``That's another reason I'm grateful. They called long-distance to set up an interview. And then, I remember being interviewed by The Star in New York, soon after Superman became a success.''

Before long, Shuster and Siegel had time for little else but scripting and drawing Superman one story a month in Action Comics, three or four stories in the quarterly (and later bi-monthly) Superman Comics, a daily and week-end newspaper strip, and a host of merchandising spinoffs.

The workload kept Shuster tied to his easel, but he did manage one, final visit to Toronto in December, 1941, to be best man at his cousin Frank's wedding.

While in town, he also attended a benefit at the Eaton Auditorium hosted by the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund. The highlight of the show was an auction of an original painting of Superman by Shuster, with proceeds going to needy children.

Today, despite his illness and the professional setbacks of the '50s and '60s, Shuster still thinks of those less fortunate than himself.

One corner of his apartment is jammed with stereo components three turntables, several tapedecks and amplifiers, a number of CD players and a dozen high-power speakers that will be donated to the visually impaired.

Classical music, especially his rare collection of opera overtures, is among his greatest pleasures and he never misses the chance to get the most out of his recordings by acquiring the latest in audio technology even if it means giving away equipment that's less than a year old.

Relations with DC and Warner have improved greatly ``We're happy with the way we've been treated; they've been really good to us'' and, health permitting, the old partners still get together for dinner several times a month.

But, Shuster says, the biggest thrill is knowing that new generations of comics fans are growing up with Superman, even if the Man of Steel is drawn by other hands.

``There aren't many people who can honestly say they'll be leaving behind something as important as Superman. But Jerry and I can, and that's a good feeling. We're very, very proud and happy and pleased.''

This story ran April 26, 1992 in The Toronto Star and is the last interview Joe Shuster gave before his death on July 20, 1992.
Created by: Erin Barnes • Dave Hendrick • Chris Yeung