HOLLYWOOD—Anyone remember Superman? No, not the Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh movies, nor the George Reeves TV show, but the comic book—and not the versions drawn by such stellar artists as Murphy Anderson, Neal Adams or even the (unfairly reviled) Wayne Boring, but Superman's graphic creator: Joe Shuster?
As comic book fans already know, in 1938, both Shuster and Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel got screwed out of any rights to the character they created by the predecessor of what is now DC Comics. Though Shuster drew several other strips and comic books during his long career, he eventually began losing his sight, and by 1976, he was living in a California nursing home, unable to work.
But what's not commonly known is that besides creating some of the world's best-known characters—Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor—Shuster also did work for magazines that were considered not quite so savory; notably, Nights of Horror, whose stories of murder and depravity allegedly inspired a group of neo-Nazi juvenile delinquents known as the "Brooklyn Thrill Killers," who ran around Manhattan in the late 1940s setting vagrants on fire, horse-whipping girls in Central Park and even committing murders.
Shuster's connection to Nights of Horror was discovered earlier this century by artist and comic historian Craig Yoe, who found several issues of the magazine in a used bookstore, and couldn't help but notice the resemblance of the faces in the illustrations to those of the early Superman entourage. That, in turn, led to his writing a book, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster (Abrams ComicArts; April 2009), exposing Shuster's darker—and, as it turned out, sexier—side.
For example, Shuster's illustrations accompany a story titled "Satan's Playground," where Joe Howard, a feature writer for the syndicated magazine Advancing World, describes fellow writer Ellen thusly: "As I looked and drank in the warmth of her smile, I could not help to let my gaze wander over her figure. Even bundled in the winter coat I could see the roundness of her curves, the pressure of her twin breasts thrust the coat delightfully outward. Ellen had the body of a Venus. She snapped her fingers and said 'Come, come boy don’t go into another dream. We have work to do, remember?'"
One of the captions to a Shuster illustration for this story reads, "The pageant of the young, white girl, naked, trying to do a lewd dance while a huge, black-as-coal negro chased her about the stage with a whip brought the already inflamed audience to a fever pitch."
Yoe describes another story in the same issue, "Never Been Kissed":
"When seventeen-year-old Dorothy gets initiated into a teenage sex gang, she gets far more than her first kiss. It’s Kenny Bowers, a Jimmy Olson look-alike complete with bow tie, who introduces our heroine to a private club of teen libertines. Kenny tells the gang that she's a 'Little Bo Peep who hasn’t lost anything—yet.'"
Almost needless to say, Shuster never owned up to the fact that these were his illustrations, and in Secret Identity, Yoe tells the story first of his finding this treasure trove of Shuster art, and then of the effects that Shuster's and others' illustrations of this sort had on the comic book industry of the 1950s, culminating in Dr. Frederic Wertham's muckraking book Seduction of the Innocent, congressional hearings and the creation of the now-defunct Comics Code Authority, which had censorship control over all newsstand comic books for more than 30 years.
Plus, of course, the book reproduces all of Shuster's drawings for all 16 issues of Nights of Horror.
Now, Secret Identity has been optioned by the Gotham Group—CEO Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Lee Stollman and Julie Kane-Ritsch—who are currently looking for screenwriters to turn the twisted story into what may be the weirdest comic book movie ever made.
"Some people felt that when I discovered these books, I should have buried them in the back yard," Yoe told Daily Variety. "To me, it's part of his legacy, the idea that in addition to the great character of Superman, he had this whole different side to him, and did brilliant work, in secret."
So as Americans follow the revelations of extramarital affairs of the rich and famous—and conservative politicians—it's nice to know that other icons of our youth were equally sexually obsessed.
You may never look at Superman the same way again.