by Glen Weldon
We've previously noted that the creators of some of America's most noble comic book characters got up to some decidedly ignoble stuff themselves. And yet the artist Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman, is a special case.
I don't refer here to his 1940 arrest in a Miami hotel lobby for "loitering hatless," although God knows that any man who'd indulge in acts of flagrant public hatlessness merits close watching. There's the children to think of.
No, what makes Shuster's case special — and the subject of a new book by comics historian Craig Yoe — is the newly-discovered fact that 16 years after Superman's first appearance, when faced with dire financial straits, Joe Shuster turned his artistic talents has to, well, smut. Dirty, depraved, utterly hatless smut.
After the jump: "Tales of terror and thrilling spiciness that will leave the reader spellbound!"
Understand that Shuster and his co-creator Jerry Seigel were young kids when they sold the rights to Superman — a character who started making millions of dollars for DC Comics almost immediately — for $130. As long as they churned out work-for-hire Superman stories, they made some money. But when they sued for more and lost, the publisher showed them the door. For the nearly blind Shuster, work was hard to come by.
Thus it came to pass that, in 1954, Nights in Terror appeared on the shelves of some of New York's seamiest booksellers. Stories of spanking, humiliation, violence against women and general medium-grade kink were matched to an uncredited Shuster's simple, bright and bold artwork. The result is a study in contrasts. And high weirdness.
In the age of torture-porn like Saw and Hostel, many of the images themselves are harmless enough, falling squarely into the realm of the merely naughty, ribald or risque. Several edge toward a dark place of victimizing women that feels more dangerous and unsavory, and some just plain ol' squick you out.
Yoe is careful to reproduce the captions that originally accompanied Shuster's drawings, and, for those of us who prefer tortured English to tortured persons, they offer their own wince-inducing delights:
"The bite of the whip felt like hot wire!"
"With lusting eyes they examined the girls."
"He proceeded to lave, slavishly, the soles of Estelle's boot."
"The knife flashed as her opened mouth emitted a scream." Which, can I just say: Yick.
"He brought the lash down with a whistling thud across the roundness of Claire." Okay, seriously: a "whistling thud"? "The roundness of Claire?"
And my favorite: "Girls are all bulges and soft."
Yoe traces the history of Nights in Terror, which got in trouble with the law around the same time that comics started getting blamed for juvenile delinquency. He doesn't shed much light on the question of Shuster's motivations, and his prose style can get a little ... excitable:
Superman was introduced as the Man of Tomorrow. But tomorrow is today. Some things have changed; some remain the same....Truth, justice and the American way are now truthiness, O.J., and "We've lost our way."
But he's done comics a service — albeit a leering, lascivious, raincoat-clad service — by bringing this chapter of the medium's history to light.
Because really: The story of how badly those early comic book creators got screwed over by comic book publishers just can't be told often enough.