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OF SUPERHUMAN BONDAGE 

Book about Superman creator's erotic work optioned for movie

Even if there's never another a Superman movie, the story of the Clevelanders who created Krypton's famous son has more than enough material for another flick. Production company the Gotham Group has optioned the screen rights to Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster, a new book by former Akronite Craig Yoe. (It's pronounced "yo.")

The Los Angeles-based company's previous credits include young-adult fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles and surf documentary Step Into Liquid. The project doesn't have writers yet, and it's too soon to say when it will appear or what form it will take. But the source material is rich.

As Yoe writes on his first page, Secret Identity tells a true story of "evil mobsters; panting sado-masochists; pervy pornographers; blue-nosed censors; a rabid shrink; a pious minister; a slimy publisher; good cops; bad cops; sexy showgirls; book-burning Supreme Court justices; a pretty artist's model; a poetry-spouting, songwriting defense lawyer; a hell-bent, coonskin-capped senator; [and] horse-whipped girls." And that's just the broad strokes.

Illustrator Shuster created Superman's visual component in the early 1930s, while he and writer/co-creator Jerry Siegel were Clevelander teenagers. The two later sold the rights to the character to DC Comics. They made rock-star money for a time. But in 1946, they sued DC for a greater share of profits from their creation. The publisher wasn't happy and stopped sending them work, leaving them to their own devices.

Shuster's post-DC work included a run of illustrated erotica comics, among them the 1954 series Nights of Horror. The mob-funded booklets were sold under the counter at newsstands in Times Square. Each issue was printed in runs of just 1,000 copies, but it was soon the most infamous comic in the world. In late summer of 1954, Frederic Wertham — the psychiatrist and author of the anti-comics manifesto Seduction of the Innocent — linked Nights to the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, Jewish teenagers who moonlighted as murderous neo-Nazis, torturing women and killing bums.

Wertham's accusations became a media frenzy, and New York City mounted a campaign not only to ban the pulps' sale, but to destroy them. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of New York.

"It was a sad day for the First Amendment," says Yoe.

Shuster, who worked on the comics anonymously, was never publicly linked to the books. He had shared his erotic portfolio with some associates over the years, but this facet of his work remained undocumented. In 2007, an issue of Nights of Horror was discovered by Yoe, a lifelong comics enthusiast.

"The title is Secret Identity, and there are a lot of secret identities in this story," says Yoe. "The character Clark Kent. And Joe himself created this hero, the great Boy Scout in blue, and then he's drawing horror and pornography. And the printer printed this stuff in the basement of his print shop. And the main seller and distributor was from the suburbs and went to temple every Saturday — and during the week, he produced and sold pornography."

Yoe grew up in 1960s Akron. A classmate of Chrissie Hynde, he describes his young self as a "hippie" who published the underground newspaper The Acorn. He left the Rubber City before the Devo era, embarking on a behind-the-scenes media career. As designer for Jim Henson's Creature Shop, he worked on various Muppets projects. His designs include the characters for the Dinosaurs TV show. Now a New York resident, he's the head of YOE! graphic design studio.

Yoe has written and co-authored seven previous books, most of them historical studies of pop art. When he saw the Nights of Horror art, he recognized Shuster's distinct, elemental style. After verifying its origins, he began documenting the series. And the whole saga unfolded.

Secret Identity tells the story of Shuster's erotic art and its ripple effect. The bulk of the book is excerpts from all 16 issues — evocative black-and-white pictures of bondage, leather, whips and topless lesbian love.

"[Shuster] and Jerry invented virtually the whole comic-book industry," says Yoe. "And [Shuster] was an innovator in presenting frank sexual fantasies. At the time, public culture wasn't ready for it. Now you see all this stuff in fashion catalogs and the revival of [icon fetish pinup] Bettie Page in our era. I think he was ahead of his time."

Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and other superheroes, wrote the introduction. Lee says the book documents significant work by one of his heroes. Library Journal calls Secret Identities "an incredible find of historic significance to comics art." But other fans weren't so happy to see the kinky pictures come to light.

"Some people feel I should have buried it in my backyard, that the material somehow besmirches Joe's reputation," says Yoe. "But I certainly don't agree about that. I don't think you can ever go wrong with telling the truth about history."

Yoe says he's been in contact with Shuster's sister. She doesn't dispute the art's authenticity, though she thinks her brother took the work for financial reasons, not for subject matter. Yoe admits he's still not sure whether Shuster created them because he had fallen on hard times or because he enjoyed it.

"I think it was a combination of both," he concludes. "He always liked the pulps, racy pulps and things like that. How much was he into it personally? I think that's interesting water-cooler talk. We can't say for sure."

Even those who object to the subject matter agree it looks good.

"It shows [Shuster] had more breadth than we normally associate with him," says Yoe. "The Superman artwork he did, he did when he was a teenager. It was rudimentary and somewhat primitive, but it had a beautiful quality to it. But this work he was doing in 1953, it was the work of a mature artist at the top of his game."

In related news, Shuster's family and Siegel's estate are still grappling with DC and Warner Bros (the movie studio responsible for the Superman movies) over who owns which rights to Superman. In July, a California court ordered an analysis of the complicated copyright issues and history to be prepared by a court-appointed expert.

According to a report by io9.com's Graeme McMillan, the Shuster-Siegel attorney is arguing the copyright will revert to the creators in 2013. Perhaps sensing vulnerability, DC is downplaying Superman's financial worth. A witness for DC (which, along with Warners, is a defendant in the case) described the character as "uncool" and "damaged goods" following lackluster 1987 and 2006 movies. Depending which side is victorious, maybe Superman's next cinematic flight will take a cue from Nights of Horror and add some leather costumes.

dferris@clevescene.comm

Read an excerpt from Secret Identity.

More by D.X. Ferris

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