Monday, June 24, 2013

Super Boys by Brad Ricca

I haven't seen much written about this book. A not so kind review ran in the New York Times, a favorable review in The Sci-Fi Christian. That's it, aside from the book store websites.

Ricca has done a tremendous amount of research, and that's the strength of the book. I've been reading about this stuff for four years now, and still I could only fill a single chapter's worth of stuff, though in my own defense I'm not writing anything about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Ricca focuses almost entirely on these two men. What comes through is the intensity that drove them to write and draw, write and draw, write and draw...seemingly forever, if they could have. At times the sheer volume of ideas Jerry was throwing at the wall is astounding. When I was asking comic retailers which Superman story people were buying most often, or asked for most often, they told me about Red Son. When I did a little digging, I found out that pretty much everybody liked it because of the ending, in which it's revealed that Superman isn't from Krypton's past, but from Earth's future, sent back in time. Grant Morrison gave that idea to Mark Millar when Millar was having trouble finishing his Red Son. But right there on page 101 of Super Boys:

The version [artist Russel] Keaton drew is an origin story of a three-year-old Superman who is rocketed to 1935 from the future instead of a faraway planet.

So Jerry Siegel came up with that more than half a century before Red Son. (I'm not saying that Morrison would have known about this story, which was never published--I don't think he stole the idea at all).

Yes, the overwhelming results of research kept me reading this book, but the writing didn't. I was put off by the very first sentence of the book, and I never came around to liking Ricca's writing style. Alas, I can't describe why, but that first sentence (of the acknowledgements) "I wrote this book myself" just bothers me. The rest of the book is like that. It's inconsistent in its perspective and style, too.

I will say that it nearly brought me to tears at one point, though, because of this:

Dated March 1
I, the undersigned, am an artist or author and have performed work for strip entitled SUPERMAN.
          In consideration of $130.00 agreed to be paid by me to you, I hereby sell and transfer such work and strip, all good will attached thereto and exclusive right to the use of the characters and story, continuity and title of strip contained therein, to you and your assigns to have and hold forever and to be your exclusive property and I agree not to employ said characters by their names contained therein or under any other names at any time hereafter to any other person firm or corporation, or permit the use thereof by said other parties without obtaining your written consent therefore. The intent hereof is to give you exclusive right to use and acknowledge that you own said characters or story and the use thereof, exclusively. I have received the above sum of money.
Sgd. Joe Shuster
Sgd. Jeronme Siegel
Returned by mail on March 3, 1938.

That breaks my heart.  But it's really a separate topic.

Super Boys spends more time on Siegel, but is probably the only way you can tell this story. Shuster became more and more reclusive as time went on, and Siegel was more active in trying to get Superman back.

I knew the broad strokes of this story, from Steranko's history, Jones' Men of Tomorrow, and Tye's recent Superman book. But this gets into detail. Hundreds of footnotes. Looks at their stories more than I had thought possible. It's a tough book to read, knowing the outcome, but it's worth reading. The one thing it makes clear is that the ideas that form the core of Superman--the vocabulary used to construct him--was floating around in culture everywhere Siegel and Shuster looked. His attitude, his appearance, his powers...these were fruits that the Super Boys plucked from a tree and mashed together into a brilliant character (I'm not sure what to make of this, though, since Ricca at one point tells us that if they hadn't done it, sooner or later someone else would have; it may not be a fair assessment of the situation, though I'm not in a position to fully evaluate it). Ricca credits them with creating Lois Lane whole cloth, though, since he can't find precedent for her. And I've got to say that he may be on to something with that one. Lois is constantly struggling against the constraints her world puts on her, to her credit. She probably deserves a book all her own.

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