TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
America's first caped superhero, Superman, stood for morality and righteousness. But the artist who co-created him, like Superman, had a secret identity - drawing illustrations that were the opposite of everything Superman stood for. These pictures had women in their underwear being spanked, whipped, chained, having their stiletto-heeled shoes kissed - though sometimes it was the woman dishing out the punishment. Golly gee, Superman, this stuff is kinky.
My guest, Craig Yoe, discovered the secret identity of Superman's co-creator, Joe Shuster. Yoe tells the story behind Shuster's fetish art and collects many of those illustrations in his new book "Secret Identity." The magazine that featured Shuster's fetish art, "Nights of Horror," was at the center of a gruesome crime case in 1954. In 1957 the Supreme Court ordered all copies of the magazine destroyed.
My guest, Craig Yoe, has written many books about comics. He's also the former creative director for Jim Henson and the Muppets and now has his own design firm, YOE! Studio. Craig Yoe, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to you describe the drawings that Joe Shuster did for "Nights of Horror."
Mr. CRAIG YOE (Author: "Secret Identity"): Well, these are like Superman gone wild. I mean, characters look quite a bit like Clark Kent, Superman, and his counterparts Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and the villain who plagued him, Lex Luthor. You think they're the citizens of Metropolis, yet they're in these very compromising sexual situations. I've been kind of amused and annoyed that some people have called the illustrations kind of quaint or charming because they are from the '50s. But I think they're anything but there's - there's bloodletting and there's whips and chains and a man menaces a young girl with a cactus. And there's pouring of red ants down another young lady's panties, if I could be so explicit and I - believe me, I could be more explicit. The illustrations are quite strong, quite pulpy, yet beautifully composed, beautifully drawn, beautifully rendered in Joe's strong, sure style. You know, the same style he used to create Superman and now he is creating scenes of sexual horror.
GROSS: Give us an example of the kind of similarities in illustration style between the Superman comics and the "Nights of Horror" illustrations that made you think this is the same guy.
Mr. YOE: Well, Joe had an unmistakable style. It was very strong and sure, as I said, and the characters are kind of squat and strong and the - the way it's rendered it's - an artist's style is like his fingerprints. You can't mistake it and I've made a kind of career of detecting artist's styles, because many cartoonists, their comic work was never signed for different reasons. Sometimes the publishers didn't like them to sign it because they were worried about their competitors stealing the artists away or the artist getting too egotistical and wanting more money, and lots of the cartoonists were kind of ashamed to be working in comic books, they really wanted to be doing illustrations in slick magazines. So for variety of reasons, artists didn't sign their works.
So comic historians like myself have - have learned to detect artist's styles, and everything from the squints in the eyes to the sheens on the heroes' hair to the way hands are rendered - which is a usual trait the historians look for, to see which artist delineated a certain strip. All these things just made me, when I first saw the "Nights of Horror" book that I found in a dusty old cardboard box on an antique book dealer's table, made me just exclaim, oh my god, Joe Shuster - it was just so obviously his work.
GROSS: You know, you've made comparisons between the illustration style of Superman and the characters in Superman and this fetish art in "Nights of Horror." So let's look at the cover illustration for the book "Secret Identity." I'm going to ask you to describe the cover illustration and then tell us what similarities you see in the illustration style and in the characters to Superman.
Mr. YOE: Well, the cover is simply a man and a woman, yet the man is half naked, his torso is exposed and the woman is wearing frilly '50s underwear, but she's garnishing a whip above him because he is chained to a table. But the bizarre thing about this - or should I say, bizarro is that these look just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane. And Superman is in pretty much pain here. I guess he is not invulnerable to pain in this guise, and Lois seems determined to thrash out some type of punishment.
It's interesting, you open the flap and it shows what didn't fit on the front cover and there's a woman bound in the background. She looks like Lois's next victim. But she looks like Lana Lang, which in the comic books was always Lois's nemesis in Lois's pursuit to capture Superman's love. So, you know, it's kind of a beautiful yet kind of a disturbing image.
GROSS: You know, your book is a book of history and speculation, part history, part speculation - and you think that Joe Shuster just started doing this fetish art because he was basically broke, which is an amazing story considering he co-created perhaps the most famous character in comic book history, one of the famous characters in history. How did he end up nearly broke after creating Superman?
Mr. YOE: Well, it's interesting, a lot of his historians have painted Jerry Siegel the writer and Joe Shuster the artist as always getting a raw deal, and they did in fact sell Superman for $130. They sold out all rights. But they're really living the life. I think they were millionaires just on the comic strip alone. DC was paternalistically letting them have the lion's share of the proceeds from the newspaper comic strip and just on that they were earning $750,000 - the equivalent of what's today's $750,000 a year on just the strip alone, not to mention, you know, some of the licensing profits and they had a whole studio of writers and artists working for them to produce the material for DC.
So they really did make a lot of money, but I think maybe they went through it, maybe just as fast as they made it. And they did see, and it bugged them, that there was disparity between how much they made and the publisher. And so in 1948 they sued DC Comics to try to reclaim the rights to Superman and lost that trial. And then they did fall on hard times. And I think somewhat, this fact that Joe did this work, is more of the speculative part as far as his motives than the actual fact, because we don't really know quite why he did it. Many artists were falling on hard times from the comic book industry because it was under a lot of criticism at the time, titles were being canceled right and left. But these artists were finding work in education, or advertising, or different venues for their work. And Joe chose to do this work. And I'm not sure he made a heck of a lot of money doing it - only about $100 per copy, according to the printer who I tracked down. And so that's where the speculation begins. What was his motive? Was it revenge against DC Comics - the fact that the characters do look so much like Lois and Clark, and Superman and Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen or was it, did he have a feeling or a fantasy or an enjoyment about this material? So that's when the story kind of gets interesting, as you imagine what was his reasons behind delineating this.
GROSS: My guest is Craig Yoe. His new book is called "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Craig Yoe. And he's the author of the new book "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster." You know, the fetish magazine that Joe Shuster ended up drawing for, "Nights of Horror," figures into a gruesome crime case from 1954 - a case of kind of famous known as the Brooklyn Thrill Killers. What were the crimes and who were the killers?
Mr. YOE: Oh, that's fascinating. The killers were four teenage juvenile delinquents who happened to be Jewish, and happened to be Nazis. They were followers of Hitler and even sported Hitler moustaches - and ordering bullwhips through comic book ads, and switchblades. They went into the parks of Brooklyn and terrorized victims, flogging girls with the whips, and setting bums on fire, and punching them, and kicking them - according to things they saw in "Nights of Horror."
GROSS: Did you say that they ordered the whips through comics?
Mr. YOE: Yeah. This is one of the big criticisms of comic books is that the kids were able to get things like bullwhips and switchblades, and all kinds of toys that you wouldn't want the average kid - or any kid - to have in their hands. But they had at least two murder victims, the second one being Willard Mittner, who they were captured for and put on trial for.
GROSS: The way "Nights of Horror" ends up figuring into this murder is that the court asked a psychiatrist named Fred Wortham to interview one of the defendants and what was Wortham famous for by this point?
Mr. YOE: Well, he was a psychiatrist who dealt a lot with kids and he was famous for being an anti-comic book crusader. He, early on, was horrified by the horror comics and aghast at the superhero comics for their fascism -alleged fascism.
GROSS: And he - he was on a campaign against "Nights of Horror" but the defendant who he was interviewing didn't know that. Tell us what happened in the interview and how it was used in the court case.
Mr. YOE: Yes, he had written a book called "Seduction of the Innocent" against comic books and called in by the court to interview the head of the gang, Jack Koslow, in his Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn. And Koslow revealed to Wortham that he was an avid comic book reader and also had and read every one of the 16 volumes of "Nights of Horror." And that many of his crimes were based on ideas of things he found in "Nights of Horror."
GROSS: So, after two of the defendants were sentenced to life in prison, there were successful attempts to destroy the remaining magazines. There was a court case that made it as high as the Supreme Court. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it was a - you write all about this in your book - it was a five to four decision. Felix Frankfurter, who was the founder of the ACLU, declared the books to be quote "clearly obscene, dirt for dirt sake." And it's amazing the court ruled not only against the further distribution of "Nights of Horror," it ordered their immediate destruction.
Mr. YOE: Yes. Well, the public, I think, put a lot of pressure on the courts and the police force to get rid of "Nights of Horror," you know; they were so concerned about juvenile delinquency, they were so horrified by the Brooklyn Thrill Killers crimes, you know, that they wanted some immediate action. And Mayor Wagner, in New York at that time, assigned 80 detectives to the case to find out who was behind "Nights of Horror." It's interesting, they found the printer, they found the publisher.
They were starting to get - get to the writer, but then no one ever connected the illustrations to Joe Shuster at the time. And I think they were satisfied just to get their Brooklyn Thrill Killers behind bars and - and the books banned, and then the public wanted to move on.
GROSS: I just want to - while we're on the subject of the Supreme Court case. I just wanted to quote Hugo Black's dissenting opinion. Justice Black wrote, "In my judgment the same object may have wholly different impact depending upon the setting in which it is placed. Under this statute the setting is irrelevant. It is the manner of use that should determine obscenity. It is the conduct of the individual that should be judged, not the quality of art or literature. To do otherwise is to impose a prior restraint and to violate the Constitution. It savors too much of book burning."
Mr. YOE: Yes, I mean no matter what you think of this material, whether you're pro or con, I mean, I think every freedom-loving American would - would deem this is a sad day in the history of freedom of the press when these books were banned.
GROSS: How did the Brooklyn Thrill Killers case and its connection to "Nights of Horror" affect the future of comic books and the comic book code?
Mr. YOE: Well, the public was outraged. I mean the Brooklyn Thrill Killers was like the Columbine of its time and was written up in Life, Time, Newsweek Collier's, Saturday Evening Post. And the - the government, the police force, you know, the psychiatrists and - and just religious folks and - and everyone was wanting something to happen to, like, stop this kind of work from being published. And so even the newspapers were reporting on the anti-comic crusades and then they would give an update on the "Nights of Horror" crusade against that. And so within weeks, just mere months, after the Brooklyn Thrill Killers trial, that's when the comics code came into being.
GROSS: You know, as shocking as it may seem, that the artist who created Superman also did this fetish art, there is a kind of connection in some way through the publisher, in the sense that the original publisher of Superman first made his living publishing porn and then he published a lot of fetish art stuff, you know, like, magazines for, quote, art students, of you know, naked or semi-clad, you know, models. So I mean, there was not necessarily through the artist himself but through that world some kind of pre-existing connection.
Mr. YOE: Well, yes, it is true. Comics definitely had their roots in the pulps and one of the seamiest pulp publishers was Harry Donenfeld, who did publish pulps like Spicy Tales and Spicy Detective and spicy this and spicy that, and these were, like, pulpy tales of, you know, half naked folks and bondage and villainy and definitely for prurient interest. And so when he did get into, lucked into publishing Superman and saw that it was so good and saw that so many young kids were buying it, he did try to, you know, keep a strong hand about Superman.
And there's even letters that have resurfaced recently from the editor of Superman at the time telling Joe to keep Lois's bosom small and, you know, no suggestive poses. So I think there was something, you know, Joe and Jerry, his writer, you know, did enjoy the pulps and were very much influenced by them, and they're - now, seeing the "Nights Of Horror" work, you can look back on Superman and see how they're - you know, that this was kind of part of Jerry and Joe's makeup but, you know, wasn't allowed to maybe really come out in full force like Joe eventually did in "Nights Of Horror."
GROSS: You know, in making the connection between Superman and the fetish art that Joe Shuster drew, some people always thought Superman's tights were a little kinky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. YOE: Well, I mean he was in tighty whiteys or his tighty reddies, his little red shorts there were awfully tight, and I think the superhero costume in itself has a bit of a kinky side to it, this skin-tight costume with capes and then these powers that dominate over people; I mean the whole thing, you know, does have a kind of a kinky side to it.
GROSS: When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s watching westerns and old movies and TV shows about buccaneers, there were always people getting whipped. There were always characters getting hung by their arms. Women were always getting kidnapped and bound and gagged. And a lot of the poses in westerns and pirate movies and buccaneer TV shows were really very similar to the poses in Joe Shuster's fetish art. The difference was people were clothed in the TV shows and the movies.
Mr. YOE: Yes. And even apart from genre pictures, I mean just, you know, comedies of the time, films, there was always a spanking scene and, you know, it's interesting to see the things Joe drew. I mean, this material was illegal; it was under the counter. Yet there's no showing of genitalia and there's also a very curious convention of the time. The women had nipples but the men didn't. Illustrators never showed men's nipples in this era because that was somehow considered obscene or politically incorrect for its time.
GROSS: What did Superman comics mean to you when you were growing up?
Mr. YOE: Everything. I mean comic books were my life, and I was a skinny kid who was getting sand kicked in his face at the beach, and to see that me, Clark Kent, could actually become a Superman, you know, I loved Superman. And due to the status - working on this book has given me a new appreciation for Superman, certainly for the art of Joe Shuster.
GROSS: Craig Yoe, his new book is called "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art Of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster." You can see several of Shuster's tamer illustrations from the book on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.