27 April 2009

The Lasting Impact of Joe Shuster's Secret Work

Last summer I first read about Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster, in a Publishers Weekly article:

[The book reprints] an unusual collection of S&M comics secretly created by Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster. Thought to have been destroyed, the comics were discovered in a shop in Britain by [Craig] Yoe, who has verified that Schuster [sic] was the creator. Called Nights of Horror, the comics are fetish fantasies with characters that look just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane. “They’re chained and being whipped and there’s women kissing women,” said Kochman, “It’s a great story and no one ever connected them to Schuster [sic].”
Yoe had previously assembled Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings; Shuster's work appears to be the rare example that gets beyond the mildness of a Playboy cartoon. I found more explicitly "dirty" cartoon sex in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section of my local library. Of course, that was From Hell, the Jack the Ripper book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

All Secret Identity seemed to show is that Shuster was desperate for work in the 1950s, and was used to drawing men who looked like Clark Kent and women who looked like Lois Lane. But Steve Bunch's more recent comments at Publishers Weekly mentioned those drawings' indirect effect on the industry:
With famed psychiatrist Dr. Frederick [sic] Wertham spearheading the anti-comics witch hunt over several years, the case against comic books was given more credence by an incident in 1954 that was committed by the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of four Jewish teens who idolized Adolf Hitler, flogged girls in Brooklyn parks with a bullwhip and murdered vagrants during evenings of “bum hunting.”

The shocking crimes of these disturbed youths lead to interviews with Dr. Wertham and the revelation that the leader of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers was inspired by horror and crime comics, including most damningly, the Nights of Horror series. [Wertham's encounter described here.]

By conveniently lumping the hard-to-obtain S&M porn material in with comic books, Wertham now had “proof” of the mind-warping contents found between the covers of comics and easily convinced high-ranking government officials that such publications were easily obtained by children. Thus it was that Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman, unwittingly helped bring about the Comics Code Authority of America
So Shuster's anonymous work turns out to have been significant after all.

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