Superman: Hiding in Plain Sight

I’ve just finished reading Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster for a review I’m going to write for Guttergeek.   What a weird and fascinating story Yoe has to tell!  And he got on Fresh Air–I’ve been listening to Fresh Air for twenty some years, so this marks a particular point for me in terms of reaching the mainstream culture (and the book got blogged on NPR as well). Why hasn’t he gotten on the Colbert Report?

Craig tells the story of how Joe Shuster in the 1950s took to drawing bondage porn in Nights of Horror, a cheap, poorly printed collection of torture sex stories sold under the counter in New York city.  Nights of Horror figured prominently in the case of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of Jewish neo-Nazi killers who in 1954 killed vagrants and whipped girls walking in parks with a bullwhip they ordered from those little classified ads in the back of a comic book.

The oddest thing about this story to me is the way Superman is tied up (no pun intended) in the middle of the thrill killers’ story.  Frederic Wertham was brought in to determine the boys’ sanity, and their leader, Jack Koslow (a tall, skinny red-head who wore a Hitler mustache), volunteered that he took his inspiration from comics and specifically mentioned that he had read every issue of Nights of Horror.  By 1954, Wertham had published Seduction of Innocent and had spent years researching the effects of comics on young readers and reading (or at least looking at comic books).  When Craig Yoe found a tattered copy of Nights of Horror in a used bookseller’s stall, the art immediately leaped out to him and Shuster’s name rang through his mind.  The same thing happened when he showed the magazine to others in the comics industry.  But never to Wertham, who specifically pointed to Superman comics as purveyors of an ideology that corrupted youth and turned them into criminals.

How could Wertham have read so many comics and never retained the images of Superman that have been burned on so many comics reader’s retinas?  The cover of Yoe’s book shows, essentially, Lois Lane whipping a bound prone Superman (or Clark Kent sans glasses). It’s freaky seeing Lois (in a skimpy bra, panties, and ultra-high heels) and Clark, well, doing it (or nearly so).  Yet Wertham never really saw the art.  There’s a Wally Wood story, “Whipping,” from Shock Suspenstories 14 (April/May 1954) that told the story of a racist sheriff who mistakenly beats his daughter to death because he mistakes her for her Hispanic boyfriend.  Wertham used this story as an example of how comics teach race hatred, noting the use of the slur “spic”, but failing to note that the characters who use the epithet are all presented negatively and that the lesson of the story is tolerance.  Wertham seems only to have looked at the pictures in the comic book, he doesn’t seem to have taken in the words or the meaning of the story.

Wertham repeatedly made the claim that reading comics damaged one’s ability to read.  Maybe reading all those comics damaged poor Freddy’s brain.

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One Comment on “Superman: Hiding in Plain Sight”

  1. Diana Says:

    As has been observed numerous times elsewhere, it’s easy to paint Wertham with a broad brush. Cast as the mustachioed villain of comics history, he is pilloried as the catalyst of the comics witch hunt.
    While there’s truth in that, it obscures the issue of what he was really saying.
    Apart from some ill-conducted research (no control group for the kids he interviewed, prejudiced questions, etc.), Wertham contended in part that comics as an art form and a literary form are too sophisticated for the younger reader. As such, in an odd way, he presaged comics scholarship and our yearning for legitimacy, while lambasting the form simultaneously.
    No simple answer to the complex question of Wertham!

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