The Glenville Super Boys behind Superman: CWRU’s Ricca tells their story

Super Boys coverThe very people Superman could not save were his own creators—Jerry Siegel, the writer, and Joe Shuster, the comic artist.

Superman was unable to fly into action to rescue the naïve, idealistic teens, eager for fame and fortune. He couldn’t stop them from selling rights to their creation for a mere $130—what seemed like a windfall during the Great Depression for two young and inexperienced kids from Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.

Now, Case Western Reserve University English instructor Brad Ricca gives Superman’s creators their due, bringing them from near obscurity in the first comprehensive (448 pages) biography of the artists, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—The Creators of Superman.

St. Martin’s Press officially will release Super Boys on June 4, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Superman’s creation and the release of a major motion picture this summer. Ricca will host a book signing at the Crocker Park Barnes and Noble that same day at 7 p.m.

“Superman’s lasting appeal is that it is a story about the American myth of goodness overpowering evil. It’s one kids around the world know without reading the comics,” Ricca said. “Superman is a character from the comics that flies around in a cape and bodybuilding suit, yet everyone acts like he is real. You don’t see that with Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland.”

It took seven years after Superman’s creation before DC Comics bought the rights to him. Lone Ranger and Tarzan were popular on the radio, but the superhero concept was too new for comic publishers to embrace. As Hitler came to power, people needed a savior like Superman.

So did his creators, who suffered poor self-images, Ricca said. They created this good-looking character with a bodybuilder’s physique that would attract the Lois Lanes of the world.

Super Boys is also about living the American dream for the creators, who had it and then lost it just as fast,” added Ricca.

Ricca’s book title is a takeoff on Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a fictional account of a couple of superhero creators.

“This is the real-life version,” Ricca says. “Chabon’s is obviously fiction, but in many ways, the real story of Siegel and Shuster is even crazier.”

Ricca invested years of research, during which he also produced the award-winning documentary, Last Son, in 2010. His curiosity to learn more about Superman’s creators sent him searching library archives in Cleveland and New York. He read old Glenville High newspapers and yearbooks, police records, legal documents and other sources. He discovered some of the creators’ first collaborations were filled with teenage angst about looks, girls and the desire to be popular.

“As nerdy as it sounds,” Ricca said, “I even sat in Siegel’s old bedroom thinking about him and imagining him writing the Superman story.”

Along the way, Ricca made several discoveries. One was a letter from an apparent third partner in Superman’s creation. He also found evidence of an unrequited high school crush on a Lois Amster, who helped inspire the Lois Lane character. (The actual model for Lane would later become Siegel’s wife.) He also found police records that identify suspected robbers (never found) of the family’s clothing store on Central Avenue, during which Siegel’s father died of heart failure.

“Siegel and Shuster used what they knew—Cleveland,” Ricca said.

Today’s Cleveland is far different from the days of Cleveland Police Chief Eliot Ness, who would become the head of the Untouchables (team of law enforcement agents) that took down mobster Al Capone in Chicago. Ness chased street crime that inspired the Superman stories.

Both Siegel and Shuster died in the 1990s. They kept alive their hope and determination that someday they could reclaim national attention for Superman, according to Ricca. Super Boys, then, gives them another chance at fame.