Steel Life

Brad Ricca's Super Boys delves deep into the origin story of an American icon and the two Clevelanders who launched him.

Brad Ricca's father used to drive him through downtown Cleveland, showing him the fading grandeur of what had been America's fifth-most-populated city when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster spawned the idea for their Man of Steel.

"My dad would tell us they were from here," says Ricca, 42, who grew up in Westlake. "It was one of those things you hear, and it seems so impossible."

Ricca remembers the Cleveland of his youth as a fascinating setting but one with mystery as well — something that seemed hidden beneath the surface he saw through the car windows. "Downtown was this weird place," he recalls. "It seemed like parts of it were missing — that it was really cool at one point."

Ricca, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University, has worked off and on for the past 10 years sifting through the dates, names and details of the Cleveland that Siegel and Shuster called home. Super Boys (St. Martin's Press, $27.99), which will be released June 4, provides a narrative of their lives, offering fresh insight into the genesis of Superman and how the Cleveland his creators inhabited forged his identity.

Why do you think no one has done such a vivid and detailed book about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before?
"I think it goes back to comics don't get much respect. I'm not saying they should be on the same pedestal as Shakespeare — they're different things. But because of where they are in culture, no one really went after it. I also think it makes the story kind of easier for us to digest if it's really general and it doesn't have a lot of problems — if it's a happy fairy tale as opposed to something more complex."

How did you handle properly representing the facts of Siegel and Shuster's lives while giving yourself permission to build a compelling story?
"I was really careful. Any time I made a claim in the book as to a fact, I made sure that I worded it that way, and then I backed it up with stuff in the notes. Any time it's more of a speculation, I make that clear, but I also back that up in the notes. At the same time, I did want to tell a story. ... Until we develop a time machine, we kind of have to imagine. So I really tried to get in that time frame. I read the papers, watched the movies and listened to the radio stuff. I read what they read, read what they wrote and looked at what they drew and tried to get into that mindset."

You point to a copy of The Plain Dealer [June 18, 1933] as potential evidence for the day Superman was conceived. How did that come about?
"For years, [Siegel] said, 'Oh I had this idea late at night.' ... We don't know for sure if it was that date. What I'm trying to say overall is these ideas were swirling around, and it's hard to ignore this one date. I was looking for clues. He kept saying it was a really hot night, and I wanted to narrow it down to a year. And I noticed looking through newspapers [from 1933] there was this enormous heat wave that year, and I knew he had read the papers. ... I started browsing through papers from that summer and found one that had it all: The weather was hot, it had Jesse Owens, it had a radio column mentioning a 'superman.' ... I was just astonished."

Why do you think Superman has had such lasting appeal?
"For kids, it's the colors and the flying and the punching Braniac into space. Certainly, when you get older there's the nostalgia for your childhood, but it's also nostalgia for a simpler morality. ... Superman is always good, he's always right. ... It's definitely not just escape, it's kind of this belief that we can be better, I can be better."

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