By Craig Yoe, Stan Lee, and Joe Shuster
Review by Drake
“Comic Books are junk.”
Craig Yoe, artist and author, is fast making a new reputation for himself as the historian of comics’ hidden erotic history. Last year he edited and compiled a fascinating volume called Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings that featured unlikely, sexy work from many of the giants in the comic strip and comic book field, rescued from obscure magazines, private collections, and under-the-counter sources. This year, he has topped that achievement with the truly amazing Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. The book is a collection of astonishing comic book style art produced for a series of near amateur periodicals in the early 1950s wrapped in an essay on the publications (most of which were called Nights of Horror), the career of the artist, and a fascinating legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Secret Identity is like a cutaway diagram of the weirdest elements of American graphic culture and an exploration of an unknown side of artist Joe Shuster, best known as the co-creator of Superman. The introductory text is an enthralling mini-history of censorship, do-gooder hysteria, private obsession, and public attitudes and does a great job of putting these drawings into perspective.
Sadomasochism is a pervasive element in American popular culture and D&S elements were part of comic books almost from the beginning, but to see those elements reduced to these iconic depictions of bondage, flagellation, and sexual humiliation is startling and oddly appealing. That the characters are rendered in the clean, familiar style of early Superman comics (and, in fact, many of the characters look a great deal like the Superman cast!) adds considerable interest to them.
Although Yoe does a great job of presenting this material, without leaping tall buildings to any conclusions about Joe Shuster’s reasons for creating these little masterpieces of smut, some of the comments from his interviewees and in the introduction by comics’ graybeard Stan Lee are amusing in a judgmental way. It’s clear that some of these folks see something a little shameful about this work when, in fact, it seems to me nothing less than an appealing distillation of a widespread, quite common American kink.
If I have any criticism of the book, it is that the text doesn’t include at least one example of the stories in Nights of Horror. As it happens, I have seen and read one issue of this rare magazine and the stories are awful, amateurishly told versions of the same sorts of things you can find in countless internet repositories, which involve innocents falling into the sadistic hands of villains and villainesses, so there isn’t much lost here by not including them. Without an example though, they appear more forbidden and interesting than they actually are. I’m always in favor of a good tease though, so perhaps this isn’t entirely a bad thing!
Highly recommended for anyone with an eye on the seamier (more interesting!) elements of American culture, the history of censorship in America, or early comic book art. I can’t wait to see what Craig Yoe does next!
(Angela here! Timing really is everything… This
book hit the store just as I was finishing up a sexy superhero tale for
submission. Now that I’m done pouring steel bar-bending words onto the
screen, I’ve started reading this book with special interest. AC)