The Rumpus Interview with Craig Yoe


Was Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster mad at DC Comics–or even his own creations–for betraying him? Was he taking some sort of delight in putting his characters through this alternate world? (NSFW)

I learned to masturbate by learning how to draw. I wasn’t very good at either, but I would make little sketches, elaborate my fantasies. I’d plan to destroy the drawings, then end up wanting to keep them. The poorly rendered figures became real, or real enough.

So I can imagine Craig Yoe’s moment of revelation when he picked up an issue of a pulpy old comic book called Nights of Horror in a used bookseller’s stall and saw characters who looked remarkably like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and other Superman mainstays doing stimulating things with whips and paddles in offices and dungeons, bathtubs and pulpits. Yoe instantly recognized the style of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster (1914-1992), a nice Jewish boy from Toronto (via Cleveland). It’s like Shuster was finally asking us all to enter his world, not just his signature creation. Experts soon confirmed that the art in the underground comic series was indeed Shuster’s, drawn anonymously when, having failed to reclaim the copyright to Superman, he was down on his luck in the early 1950s.

In Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster (Abrams Comicarts), we get a healthy dose of Shuster’s artwork, displayed in a slick, large format, one cell at a time. In his intro (featured online by NPR), comics maestro Stan Lee talks about fictitious heroes. Yoe then details Shuster’s rocky career and the eventual banning of Nights of Horror after the comics became entangled in the murder trial of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a group of teenagers who dressed up as superheroes and committed atrocious crimes in the mid-1950s. The case against Nights of Horror went all the way to the Supreme Court; in 1957 the court ordered the destruction of the books. In a dissenting opinion (the vote was five to four), Justice William Douglas stated that the banning of the books was “censorship at its worst.” Yet the final opinion was in agreement with the result of an earlier appeal to the New York State Court, where Judge Matthew M. Levy stated that Nights of Horror saw “a direct incitement to sex crime and the sordid excitement of brutality.”

Yoe is the author of over thirty books, from The Art of Mickey Mouse to Clean Cartoonists, Dirty Drawings. He was the VPGM/Creative Director for Jim Henson and the Muppets and he runs the New York-based design firm YOE! Studio with Clizia Gussoni. With an endless supply of energy, he’s been blogging about the book and doing a number of readings. He also happens to be a really nice guy.

The Rumpus: I love the book. Design-wise, it’s immensely successful. The artwork has breathing room.

Craig Yoe: I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you start the conversation with that. A big part of my life is being a designer. I wasn’t trying for really flashy or aggressive design, or any design that would necessarily get people’s attention. I thought that maybe if it were really good, it would disappear, people wouldn’t be thinking about the design. I think we achieved that, and the other side of the coin is that people are telling me how nice the design is. It just makes me feel so damn good!

Rumpus: The subject matter of the illustrations aside, Joe Shuster’s lines are so immensely beautiful. The large-format design emphasizes this, and the lines are very clear.

Yoe: I’m hoping this book will draw more attention to Joe Shuster’s artwork, which has been overshadowed by his creation and his hard times. People rarely talk about how he was a great artist. He always was a great artist, but most–practically all–of what we’ve seen of his work is from very early in his career, from his teenage years and very early 20s, because right away Superman became so popular that he was using assistants, then he became an art director. Here we see him as a mature artist, all this great figure work and beautiful lines and pencil rendering.

Rumpus: Until I read your intro, I hadn’t realized how Shuster was equally inspired by not only his own family and other real people that he knew, but also by pop-cultural artwork, especially body building magazines, which were a part of the whole world of “pulp” at the time.

Yoe: Yes, he was influenced by magazines such as Gladiator and Strength and Health. They were magazines for people who wanted to be healthy and build up their muscles, but there was also a lot of gay interest. That’s where gay guys could see nice pictures for themselves.

Rumpus: And those magazines would have in-house illustrators, right?

Yoe: For sure, there were a lot of photos and original illustrations. It was about the idealized human form, and it was almost like a religion. The photos and illustrations are interesting in those old magazines, and the copy is, too. Your body was a temple and by working out you were creating an ideal form. It was high-minded. Superman was that–the super human, the super man, the ideal form, both in concept and in the way Joe drew him, hands on his hips with a wide, heroic stance.

Rumpus: The way people reacted to the Superman comic, in relation to some of the other, darker material Harry Donenfeld was putting out at the time, was that they finally had an idealized American hero. In Secret Identity, I was initially struck by how Shuster gave the same strength, something slightly super-human, to the characters in these kinky fantasy worlds–whatever he may have thought about the subject matter–as he did to the Superman entourage.

Yoe: His sister wrote me and said that she feels that he detested the content. I’m not sure I agree with her. I like her and I value her opinion, but she had never seen this material before. She thinks that he enjoyed drawing the people but not what they were doing. Alexander Ross, on the back cover, says that this work proves that Shuster’s work is worthy of greater acclaim, writing that “I have spent much of my career trying to emulate his male and female ideals.” There is a dignity. Even in these drawings where there’s a lot of villainy and S&M, there are still human ideals. It’s beautiful.

Rumpus: Of course, it’s impossible to tell, looking at the illustrations, what Shuster was thinking about the content, but there’s an enticing sense of remove, maybe because the forms are “idealized.” The sense that he wasn’t as excited by the drawings as his readers might have been actually makes them even more beautiful because it lends them an unexpected tension. I think you said somewhere that the art in Secret Identity is like Superman without any heroes.

Yoe: I probably said something similar to that, but not exactly that. There are a few heroes in the book, but they always show up too late, pretty much. Rather than “Just in the nick of time,” it’s “Uh, just a little bit too late….”

Rumpus: It’s a lot more like real life.

Yoe: Yeah, unfortunately. You know, I think he enjoyed drawing this. As a kid, he was into the pulp scene, the spicy pulps and Weird Tales, the drama and the sexiness. On “Fresh Air,” Terry Gross and I talked about how much bondage, tying up people and spanking, was a part of mainstream culture in those days, especially in movies. They were always tying people to chairs and slapping people. A guy would turn a girl over his knee, or even sometimes a girl would turn a guy over her knee, and spank them. It used to be a part of our mainstream media instead of our underground media.

Rumpus: I think part of that migration has been the world of Westerns and spy movies entering the world of offices and suburban life. I interviewed Kyle Baker a little bit ago and we were talking about the initial reactions to his new Special Forces series.

Yoe: I’ve always known that he was a talented guy, but I don’t know that one.

Rumpus: It’s probably the most extreme of anything he’s done. It’s a parody about a mentally disabled soldier, but it’s based on real stories and images, though the imagery appears to be sardonic and masochistic. It was interesting to hear his take on it, with his truly grand sense of humor, and then see the reactions. Has there been a conservative outlash against your new book?

Yoe: Actually, I haven’t heard very many cries of the material being politically incorrect. Along with that, there has been an equal amount of women, many of them young and beautiful, coming to the book signings. That has pleasantly surprised me. I guess the younger generation is more accepting of fantasy sexual material. There have been some detractors–comics historians who feel that when I found this stuff I should have buried it in the backyard. But I feel that this work is a credit to Joe.

Rumpus: Nights of Horror is pulpy but simple. The stories and the drawings are celebratory in that way. While the influence of dark, kinky pulps such as Weird Tales is clear, there’s also an obvious delight in the lines themselves, like an experiment in basic sexual psychology.

Yoe: Yeah, it’s straight-forward, it’s simple, it’s basic.

Rumpus: I can’t think of many direct relatives today, with the same formal power. Artists like David Lapham are more noir than pulpy.

Yoe: I agree that comic books and other media today can be overwrought, over-colored, and complicated.  You’ve got to follow each and every issue to figure out what the story’s all about. I like the “simpler” media. In Nights of Horror, it’s “boy whips girl” or, sometimes, “girl whips boy.”

Rumpus: And that’s it! The same theme is there in your Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings book. (Batman co-creator) Bob Kane’s work is ridiculous but delightful.

Yoe: I love those drawings. I have buddies who say that Kane never drew a thing in his life, he just had his assistants do it. They saw that book and said, there’s Kane taking credit for someone else’s work again. But I think that as a humorist cartoonist, he’s as good as anybody. His publisher, DC, told everybody, go home and come up with a superhero, like Superman but different, and so he and Bill Finger came up with Batman and he kind of fell into it. In one sense, he wasn’t a great, realistic artist. On the other hand, there was a certain verve and gusto and simplicity—a lot of use of black, which might have been to cover up his lack of drawing skills—but it worked, you know? It was strong, it worked, and the character was great.

Rumpus: Has your opinion about the similarities between these fetish characters and the characters in Superman changed since you started working on Secret Identity? Was he doing this on purpose?

Yoe: It’s mostly because that’s how Joe drew. But it’s interesting to theorize. Was he mad at DC Comics–or even his own creations–for betraying him? Was he taking some sort of delight in putting his characters through this alternate world? I don’t know his motivations, but he did enough of these that he must have paused to think that the characters look like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

Rumpus: After the Supreme Court trial, when they got 80 detectives to track down everyone involved with the Nights of Horror comics, it’s astonishing that they didn’t identify Shuster.

Yoe: Yeah. Jeff Trexler, a professor at Pace University, recently wrote a thoughtful review of the book. He notes that some critics such as Dr. Frederic Werthem didn’t see comics as art. Unlike those of us who are fans, who love the stuff and have studied the artists and their styles, their peculiar tics and everything, they probably couldn’t tell Joe Shuster from Jack Kirby. In their minds it’s just lumped together as iconographic badness.

Though Werthem did get awfully excited about this stuff, and he did equate it with comics. I would love to hear what he thought about this material. That’s actually how all my research on this opened up. I sold the book to Abrams solely on the basis that this is Joe Shuster’s artwork, it’s erotica, and it would make a fascinating book to look at. Then I started doing research and showing the artwork to comics historians, and one said, “It’s sure good that Dr. Frederic Werthem, the anti-comic-books crusader, never knew about Nights of Horror.”

Rumpus: Yet he did know about it, he just didn’t know that Shuster was involved.

Yoe: Yes, I found out that after the Brooklyn Thrill Killers had been captured and were sitting in jail, Werthem was called in to interview the leader to see if he was sane enough to be tried. He found out that the leader, Jack Koslow, a Jewish Nazi juvenile delinquent, had a complete collection of Nights of Horror and was influenced by the pictures and the text. Koslow did horrible, horrible things. But the trial went all the way to the Supreme Court and when the court ruled against Nights of Horror and ordered all of the comics destroyed, it was a very, very sad day for freedom of the press. And the presiding judge who gave the opinion in the trial was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union!

Rumpus: Secret identities.

Yoe: Shuster, above all, certainly had a secret identity. But the printer who printed these was printing wedding invitations and stationary for small businesses upstairs while downstairs he was printing Nights of Horrors. The publisher and distributor was a Jewish man who lived in the suburbs and went to temple, yet he was distributing this illegal porn under the counter. Everyone in the Brooklyn Thrill Killers’ neighborhood thought they were the nicest boys, but by night they were dressing up in superhero costumes and whipping and killing people. There are a lot of secret identities here. Take me, a nice guy, doing a book of porn!

Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →