Now that superheroes – especially Marvel superheroes – rule the entertainment spectrum, it behooves us all to know a little something about them and how they came to be. Art Spiegleman, the man behind Maus, fills us in, and includes some very uncomfortable truths about today.
by Art Spiegelman
ack in the benighted 20th century comic books were seen as subliterate trash for kiddies and intellectually challenged adults – badly written, hastily drawn and execrably printed. Martin Goodman, the founder and publisher of what is now known as Marvel Comics, once told Stan Lee that there was no point in trying to make the stories literate or worry about character development: “Just give them a lot of action and don’t use too many words.” It’s a genuine marvel that this formula led to works that were so resonant and vital.
The comic book format can be credited to a printing salesman, Maxwell Gaines, looking for a way to keep newspaper supplement presses rolling in 1933 by reprinting collections of popular newspaper comic strips in a half-tabloid format. As an experiment, he slapped a 10 cents sticker on a handful of the free pamphlets and saw them quickly sell out at a local newsstand. Soon most of the famous funnies were being gathered into comic books by a handful of publishers – and new content was needed at cheap reprint rates. This new material was mostly made up of third-rate imitations of existing newspaper strips, or genre stories echoing adventure, detective, western or jungle pulps. As Marshall McLuhan once pointed out, every medium subsumes the content of the medium that precedes it before it finds its own voice.
Enter Jerry Siegel, an aspiring teenage writer, and Joe Shuster, a young would-be artist – both nerdy alienated Jewish misfits many decades before that was remotely cool. They dreamed of the fame, riches and admiring glances from girls that a syndicated strip might bring, and developed their idea of a superhuman alien from a dying planet who would fight for truth, justice and the values of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Barely out of childhood themselves, the boys’ idea was rejected by the newspaper syndicates as naive, juvenile and unskilled, before Gaines bought their 13 pages of Superman samples for Action Comics at 10 bucks a page – a fee that included all rights to the character. Not only was Siegel and Shuster’s creation the model for the brand new genre that came to define the medium, their lives were the tragic paradigm for creators bilked of the large rewards their creations brought their publishers….