Obituary: Joe Shuster

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Joseph Shuster, artist, born Toronto 10 July 1914, died Los Angeles 30 July 1992.

JOE SHUSTER was the cartoonist who created Superman, the world's first comic-strip superhero.

Superman, who began life in perhaps the world's most rejected strip cartoon, rose in a little over half a century to become one of the three most recognisable characters on earth, alongside Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin. At a current reckoning, Superman has starred in at least 44 different comic-book series, plus radio, records, film serials, animated cartoons, television and four of the world's top-grossing feature films. All of which should have made Joe Shuster and his writing partner, Jerome Siegel, two of the world's richest men. But it did not.

Shuster was born in Toronto in 1914. The family crossed the border in 1923, settling down in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe had been drawing with his left hand since he was four years old. He loved the strip cartoons and Sunday comic supplements in the newspaper his father read. His favourite page was the incredible fantasy series Little Nemo, drawn by Winsor McCay. As he later remembered, 'fantastic imagination and marvellous detail were there, which I have never seen since'. Little Nemo's fabulous world of Slumberland combined with the futuristic fantasies of Frank R. Paul, the illustrator who drew the coloured covers of early science-fiction magazines, to influence Shuster, and by the age of 12 his sketch-books were peppered with rocket-ships and interplanetary city-scapes. His first published strip, drawn at the age of 15, was in The Federalist, a school magazine published at the Alexander Hamilton Junior High School.

Shuster was 17 and a student at Glenville High School when he had the encounter that was to launch him on a career for life. He met another boy with a penchant for science fiction and an ambition to be a writer. This was Jerry Siegel, also 17. The shy Shuster, who tended to hide his drawing away from the crowd, and the ebullient Siegel made a perfectly balanced pair. Beginning with the school newspaper, the Glenville Torch, they designed strips of all kinds, posting them off to every syndicate they could locate, who just as regularly posted them back. Among their many rejects were Ma Jenkins (a lookalike for Harold Gray's Maw Green), 'Snoopy and Smiley' (a pair of pranksters not unlike Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff), and 'Inko' (a clone of Max Fleisher's Koko the Clown). But there were also some totally original strips, science-fiction heroes like Steve Walsh - Scientific Adventurer Extraordinary, and his amazing Penetrascope, set in the year AD3000. While still at college they used a mimeograph to publish their own highly illustrated magazine. It was called Science Fiction and featured a prophetic story entitled 'The Reign of the Supermen'. That was in 1933.

The following year, Siegel and Shuster were out on their own. They talked the local giveaway paper, the Cleveland Shopping News, into taking their cartoons for their Christmas number, then persuaded them to publish a complete colour comic entirely produced by themselves. Entitled Popular Comics and priced at five cents, it featured more science-fiction series, such as Bruce Verne: G-Man of the Future, in which a one-man G-ship fired space torpedoes at an escapee from a Prison Planetoid. Unfortunately the team was ahead of its time once again, and the comic was completed but never published until a comic fanatic issued it in a limited edition 50 years later.

In 1935 the modern American comic book was born when Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson converted his failing tabloid comic New Fun to the familiar format still in use today. The rechristened More Fun was issued in January 1936 and included two series by Siegel and Shuster: Henri Duval, a period French swashbuckler, and Dr Occult the Ghost Detective. Nicholson's companion comic, New Comics, also carried their crime strip Federal Men. Siegel and Shuster, sometimes working under the semi-anagram of Leger and Reuths, were kept busy throughout 1936, creating two new series for yet another companion comic, Detective. Spy, and Slam Bradley made their debuts in No 1 of Detective (March 1937). Meanwhile, the team still found time to pursue their ambition to create a successful newspaper strip.

Shuster drew up a number of sample strips of their newly contrived character, an alien from the far-off planet Krypton, shot to earth as a baby, adopted by a farming couple, and who rapidly grew in the span of a strip or two into the cloaked and costumed crime fighter they christened Superman. On his chest was the emblazoned 'S' which would become a symbol instantly recognised all over the world. But not yet. At first, Superman was rejected by every newspaper syndicate in the business. 'Too fantastic for our readers' was the frequently received rejection.

Siegel and Shuster heard from their editor, the youthful Sheldon Mayer, that yet another new comic book was being planned, and submitted Superman. Mayer loved it: others did not. Eventually Harry Donenfield, who had taken over the group from Major Nicholson, was prevailed upon and Action Comics No 1 was launched in June 1938. Shuster cut up his newspaper strips, pasting them into standard page format, and drew the first cover, Superman slinging a crook's limo over his head. The comic book was an instant sell-out, and today a mint copy of Action No 1 is valued at dollars 65,000. For their 13 pages, Shuster and Siegel were paid between them dollars 130. In addition, all rights in Superman were signed away to the publisher.

Shuster was forced to set up his own art studio to produce the ever-increasing quota of Superman strips demanded by his publisher. In addition, from January 1939 they finally achieved their original ambition by producing Superman as a daily newspaper strip, with a full-colour page every Sunday. A club, Supermen of America, was organised and the long-running daily radio serial began. Max Fleisher produced a series of brilliantly animated cartoons which for super-heroic effects have never been bettered, despite all modern improvements in the art. Columbia Pictures produced two long serial films starring Kirk Alyn as the 'Man of Steel'. A novel was published, and all this was only the beginning. Not that it did very much for either of the creators.

In 1947 Shuster and Siegel brought a suit against their publisher, now known as Superman DC, for a share in the profits. A long-running series of court battles between Siegel and DC Comics ensued. Little was heard of Shuster, whose failing eyesight forced him into early retirement. Virtually penniless, married to the loyal Joanna, the original model for Superman's long-suffering girl friend Lois Lane, Shuster remained in the ever-darkening shadows until several of the young wave of new comic artists, infuriated, took up his cause.

Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached with Warner Brothers, who had taken over the comic company and were then involved in launching the first of their blockbusting Superman movies. An annual income of dollars 20,000 a year was arranged for both Shuster and Siegel. Shuster moved from his half-furnished New York apartment and settled in California.

Joe Shuster was no great artist by today's standards, but it was his original depiction of Superman that gave the youth of the world a brand new all-American hero.

(Illustration omitted)