By Nicole Hennessy
There are artists, directors and writers who become part of their work – Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson or Marilyn Monroe. They themselves become characters, icons.
Others, like Walt Disney or Edgar Allan Poe, survive as myths almost as compelling as the classic works they produced.
Then, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – the creators of Superman – there are those whose stories get forgotten.
A Cleveland story set in a little Glenville house where, in the 1930s, the boys would imagine who Superman would become, it is also an American story, an underdog story and, in a way, a tragedy.
As a child, Brad Ricca never really liked Superman; he found the series boring, gravitating instead to comics heroes like the X-Men.
But as he got older, he became more interested in the Superman series, particularly in the men behind the iconic superhero. They became the subject of “Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the Creators of Superman,” Ricca’s new book.
In his introduction Ricca wrote, “When my dad would tell me that Superman was created here in Cleveland, I never really believed him. We took excursions downtown from the suburbs and explored it like it was some once-great civilization, with huge parts of it empty and exploded away. There were secrets and stories here, of a past that might once have been golden.”
“Superman is not real,” he continued. “But here, at some point, he somehow was.”
Seated at a table in the Westlake Barnes & Noble, Ricca signed copies of “Super Boys” for fans wearing Superman shirts. They smile over small talk for a few moments, shake Ricca’s hand, the yellow hardcover book carefully folded in their other arm, and then leave or join small groups of people that have formed near the front of the store.
Between conversations he waited patiently, glancing around the bookstore as if he were trying to get a grasp on where he was and why.
For bits and parts of 10 years, Ricca uncovered information about Siegel and Shuster, always finding that layers kept coming as he dug.
Along the way he met many Superman collectors who, he was surprised to find, were very competitive over memorabilia and information, to the point of being unwelcoming.
Also, over the course of phone calls and long letters, he formed a friendship with Joe Shuster’s sister, whom he managed to track down in New Mexico.
And he became friends with the Grays, who own the Glenville house where Siegel first invented the character that would become Superman.
While “Super Boys” is mainly about Shuster and Siegel, Ricca said it’s also about bigger issues surrounding creation in general.
“It’s about living too much in the world of the imagination,” he explained. “You can make great things with the imagination, but sometimes it can trap you. And I think there’s a lot of a tragedy in this book, where different people become trapped in this Superman world that’s not real at all.”
Ricca continued, “As great as a fictional universe is – we absolutely need it to stay sane – I think there’s a danger to it, too.”
While there are many side effects to creating a superhero, the most tragic part of Siegel and Shuster’s story is the fact that, after years of failing to find a publisher, they ended up selling the rights to Superman to DC Comics for about $150, followed by subsequent payments, often the result of lawsuits.
There is also an underlying tragedy: the death of Siegel’s father, who suffered a heart attack after an attempted robbery in his East Side clothing store a year before the first Superman comic was published.
“What do we think of them now?” Ricca hopes people ask after reading his book.
“Does it change our view of these guys? Does it change our view of Superman? Do we still like him, or is he outdated? Are we thinking too much about these fictional characters? Are we not thinking enough? Are there more layers to this character?”
At Barnes & Noble the crowd changed, a few faces staying the same, as Ricca continued to discuss his book, his previous poetry book and the traffic crisis that resulted from the current filming of “Captain America.”
People leaf through signed and unsigned copies.
“Joe Shuster blinked at the back of his art teacher,” chapter one begins. “She was bent over a student who clearly needed help portraying the simple bowl of fruit at the front of the room. Joe had finished his sketch a good ten minutes ago and was looking for something else to draw. With his left hand, he brought his pencil down at a forty-five-degree angle over the paper. It hovered there for a moment, floating over the page. His books wobbled in a pile under his desk. He tried to shift his dangling feet so no one could see they weren’t hitting the floor.”
Confident that the traffic had finally cleared, Ricca headed back to University Heights, leaving his “sorta” hometown of Westlake, still a bit surprised to see his book lined up in the window of a national bookstore.