White Box Hero: Siegel & Shuster: Dateline 1930s
Everybody here at "Are You A Serious Comic Book Reader?" is the type of comics nerd to spend two hours flipping through a quarter box of comics with the hope that there will be at least something sorta cool in there. Every once in a while, the nerdity pays off and you end up with something greater than you could've ever expected...a white box hero!
Dateline 1930s is an Eclipse Comics compilation of a bunch of pre-Superman work by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the dudes who created Superman and got screwed out of a lot of money, and then kinda sorta got paid back for it. This comic was published in 1984, only a handful of years after the 1975 20k and health benefits hand-out by Warner Brothers.
While it features a pretty interesting interview with Siegel and Shuster and is really, the only way you'd ever get to see these comics, the subtitle "previously unpublished work from the creators of Superman" is a little misleading. The strips in the book are all intro stories--basically "pitches"--made by the young team in hopes of getting syndication and pretty much everything in this issue was part of a portfolio made to pitch a comics magazine they wanted to call Popular Comics. It's unpublished but it's also unestablished work, done by guys who were trying to get-on, and none of these strips have a follow-up or anything.
But that's part of what makes this compilation book so fascinating. There's a tendency now to separate commerce from art or downplay the money-making aspect of artistic talent even though it's as pervasive as ever. Even in comics, so many high-selling, main-line writers and artists speak of their "vision" and all that good stuff. What so many of these old guys have is a brutal honesty about the market--in part because the market was way more brutal then--and also, an artisan-like modesty about their work. For example, in describing the actually fairly out-there and still never-been-done "Futurities" panel, Siegel modestly says:
"I figured that a one panel "prophetic" feature which offered Nostradamus like previews of the marvels of the distant future would fascinate readers and could become syndicated to newspaper."
See, these guys were any less "artists" than your current favorite comics artiste, but they're a whole lot less douchey about it.
As a comics fan too, what makes this kind of work interesting or engaging too, is a little more hidden and covert and that's really fun. Pretty much every strip in this book is a play off of or a straight rip on some famous strip or character or movie or something that came out way before it. Tons of cute rascal characters ("The Waif", "Spuds", "Inko"), a Red Grange-like football hero ("Speedy"), a few that clearly stem from 1930s Hollywood glamour ("Flossie" and "Gloria Glamour"), and everything either ends on a cliffhanger if it's an action story and a probably-not-even-funny-in-the-1930s one-liner joke type thing if it's a more light-hearted strip.
Shuster's art especially, has speed to it, with a whole lot of details in some places, and a brilliant dash of line or two in others, that's deceptively simple to look at. You grasp what's going on fairly quickly but if you want to spend some time looking into the panels, there's some really cool or weird stuff to think about. This wide-shot of an elaborate stage, complete with heavy-duty crew lurking in the corners from "Gloria Glamour" is particularly great. There's a really cool tension between the curved shapes and lines of the equipment and the dashed-off ink jobs on the people.
It also conflicts a little bit with the "Peanuts" ruined comics argument put up by certain kinds of comics fans, critics, and artists, as a lot of Shuster's work works within the same basic but expressive line work. Maybe more a testament to my reading comics backwards knowledge, but this work's fairly easy to take on its own because when I think of Superman, the Christopher Reeve movies or like John Byrne's art comes to mind. We simply don't encounter the earliest Superman comics unless we really go out there and look for them. And it seems the only artists who really shows the influence of Shuster is someone like Chris Ware, who's pretty much drawing like that to be ironic.
The "Gloria Glamour" image also highlights another reason this comic's a white box hero. It's sort of terrible in this painfully sincere and hilarious way. If you think for like more than five seconds at this image and you read the caption, you'll realize it doesn't make any sense? This is clearly an elaborate Hollywood movie set, but Siegel's writing ("the orchestra rises to a climax...") and Ms. Glamour's exit and confrontation with a reporter implies she's leaving a play performance. At the same time though, the art's pretty awesome and the story set-up in the next bunch of panels (for some reason, Gloria Glamour accepts a through-the-mail offer of marriage) could've gotten really cool and interesting.
The gag strips especially are pretty much half-assed and although still fascinating, are being phoned-in for some syndication cash pretty obviously. It makes sense these dudes would hit it big--or not so big...--with Superman. Siegel's writing and Shuster's art come alive in the sci-fi and action strips in this book, and not so much in stuff like "Speedy" or "Flossie".
The aforementioned "Speedy" is a football comic wherein the opposing team (for some reason called "the enemy") are ordered by their coach to "get Speedy" and so, they tackle the titular running back, when in reality Coach was telling them to "run faster".
In "Flossie", I'm not even sure what the joke is. There's a "Prettiest Girl" contest with the reward being "a free permanent weave". The winner (or "winnah" as Siegel writes, the only line of dialogue in the strip that goes colloquial) is Flossie who thanks the judge but informs him that she's got "naturally wavy hair" and the judge responds: "Do you think I didn't figure that when I selected you?"
A bunch of these strips are great because of their accidentally-deadpan or anti-joke jokes. One called "The Pinkbaums" has a family eating and the son commenting that his soup's too hot to which the father says "Blow on it dummy". The son blows on it and soup flies all over the face of the dad. Rather than ending it with a simple gag-panel of the dad with soup on his face, the silent for the whole strip mother is heard off-frame yelling "Meyer! Meyer! Remember your high-blood pressure!". One called "The Kooks" features three guys sitting around a table that are "going to have a lesson in self-restraint". The stakes: "The first one who makes a sound gets popped on the head". Two panels of silence is followed by a panel of the guy who set the rules sneezing and a final panel in which he angrily smacks himself in the head with a big-ass mallet.