The starving artist is one of the most curiously enduring cultural images of the last four centuries or so. Its Romantic origins established a sense of noble prestige to the cycle of poverty, sacrifice, and professional obscurity in which many artists found themselves in the pursuit of a career. These days, there’s more scorn behind its invocation, starving artist showing up frequently in concerned comments by well-meaning parents and judgmental corporate ladder climbers.
It’s always been easy for the art community to debunk the first interpretation. There is truly nothing glamorous or noble about struggling to make a living, no matter what the #RiseandGrind crowd will try to sell you. However, the second criticism holds up a little stronger against the pushback—making a living on personally fulfilling art alone can be fraught.
On one hand, these latter naysayers are not necessarily right. We could sit around for years listing the many positive effects of art as a cultural influence and vehicle for personal self-expression, after all. But even the most passionate art supporters must admit there are far too many examples of destitute creatives in our modern society—particularly famous ones at that.
In the comic book world, there is no artist whose troubles are more well-known and tragic as those of Joseph Shuster. Today, we celebrate the man and his childhood friend Jerry Siegel for their creation, Superman, arguably the most iconic comic book character and superhero of all time. Yet the dynamic duo’s path to fame was nothing short of a nightmare during their lifetimes.
After first conceiving their Superman concept in a 1933 fanzine, Siegel and Shuster spent almost six years desperately trying to find a home for their character in a reputable syndicated newspaper. Instead, they eventually caught the attention of an editor at National Comics, the historical predecessor of today’s DC Comics. In order to get their Superman stories published in National’s Action Comics series, Siegel and Shuster sold their rights to the publisher for a measly $130 contract. The pair soon realized that their paychecks in no way reflected Superman’s immediate popularity among comic book readers … nor, more importantly, the sudden financial windfall blessing their bosses’ coffers.
They thus spent almost a decade of their comic careers battling the fledgling DC Comics for proper ownership. Their efforts culminated in a lawsuit against the publisher in 1947, a bittersweet affair returned the rights of a Superboy spin-off concept to Siegel and Shuster but officially reaffirmed National’s legal ownership of Superman. To add insult to this devastating injury, National Comics went on to fire Siegel and Shuster and remove their creator bylines from its subsequently published Superman stories.
As can be imagined, the years immediately following their lawsuit were tough for Siegel and Shuster. They made one last attempt to capture lightning in a bottle with a new comedic superhero named Funnyman, but the series proved to be a commercial failure. The once-dynamic pair split up creatively soon after.
For his part, Siegel tried bouncing back from the Superman loss with an unsteady series of freelance comic writing and editing gigs, even returning to work at DC Comics in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Shuster took on a much different approach. With suddenly declining eyesight and increasingly mounting debt, Shuster hid under the cover of a pseudonym and launched a short-lived career in hardcore erotica.
The subject matter for Shuster’s illustrations was far from fluffy tales of love and romance. While superhero comics were in the middle of its fabled Golden Age, horror comics were enjoying a fever pitch of popularity in the late 1940s. Looking to capitalize on this cash cow, an anonymous writer only known as Clancy joined forces with print shop owner Eugene Maletta to revolutionize horror comics with their own kinky interests. Together, they established the Malcla Publishing Company and began publishing Nights of Horror in 1954.
The sixteen-issue comic series reveled in a fetishistic focus on explicit sexual violence and taboo. Inspired by dark pulp fiction, Nights of Horror commonly got its literary rocks off with stories of spanking, flagellation, voyeurism, tasteful nudity, homoeroticism, dominance and submission games, druggings, murder, necrophilia, teenage sex cults, devil worship, gang rape, incest, sexual slavery, and medieval-style torture, with a hardy helping of racism and misogyny to really tie the knot on its shameless exhibitionism. And Shuster’s highly detailed illustrations depicted all of these graphic scenes, granting Nights of Horror a certain kind of legitimacy thanks to his masterfully rendered smut.
How in God’s name did Shuster get involved in these seriously sordid tales? Well, Maletta was his neighbor; it was as simple as offering Shuster a job. Beggars can’t be choosers, after all.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss Shuster’s side hustle as the shameful actions of a poor and hopeless man, one who would have much preferred the light, bright, and idealistic world of the Big Blue Boy Scout. Craig Yoe noted as much in his well-researched book Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster.
Therein, several comic historians confidently diagnosed Shuster as “so disillusioned and desperate” that he was quite literally forced to take any job offer that came his way. His resulting illustrations apparently reflected the utter “loathing and despair” Shuster felt at the time. Hell, even the late Stan Lee kinkshamed Shuster in the introduction to this book, lamenting his descent into “low-paying markets” representing the “basest of man’s character and morals.”
At the same time, perhaps this interpretation skews too far to the depressing and puritanical. Capitalism is a prison, undoubtedly, and the threat of total impoverishment was a reality continuously haunting—and honestly, almost killing—Shuster despite his best efforts. But it also cannot be discounted that he made the best of a bad situation while working on his erotica artwork commissions. Perhaps, at least for a time, he might even have genuinely enjoyed and pursued this line of work.
It is curious to note that Shuster didn’t stop drawing erotica once the Comic Code Authority started to crack down on the comic book industry for its hand in promoting juvenile delinquency. The famous Seduction of the Innocent author Dr. Fredric Wertham even cited Nights of Horror as a direct cause of the savage summertime rampage of the Brooklyn Thrill Kill Gang, which assured all those involved in erotic comic books would sooner or later be punished for their crimes against society. While Malcla Publishing packed its bags and burned its books, Shuster quietly moved onto drawing sexy greeting cards and cartoons for raunchy reader’s digests in the 1960s, despite how lowly and poorly paying these jobs apparently were.
What’s more, astute comic book fans will notice that many of the characters in Shuster’s erotic artwork bear striking resemblances to Superman and key members of his original cast, such as Lois Lane, her sister Lucy, Jimmy Olsen, and even Lex Luthor. While it could certainly be a bad case of same face syndrome on Shuster’s part, it’s also likely that Shuster was amusing himself by inserting Superman AU fan art into his paid erotica work. There are just a few too many illustrations of spit-curl sporting muscle men being whipped by their brunette girlfriends in the Nights of Horror issues to think it a coincidence.
Speculate as we might, we will forever be unable to ask the man himself about this sexy blue period. All we know for sure is that these kinds of illustrations were among the last Shuster seemed to have worked on, as it wasn’t long before his accelerating blindness severely hindered him from drawing professionally. Sporadic odd jobs and minor freelance work kept the lights on during this time. The injustice under which Shuster suffered was finally rectified in 1975, thanks to his old friend Siegel. Upon hearing about the development of a live-action Superman movie, Siegel launched a publicity campaign and rallied enough public criticism of DC’s treatment that the publisher agreed to restore their bylines and grant them annuity for the rest of their lives.
Shuster died about twenty years later. The legal battles between his and Siegel’s families against DC continue still to this day, but the hard-won recognition that Superman is their creation stands as a decisive victory. And the long, hard road to get to this moment will now forever be known as a fascinatingly kinky period in comic book history.