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Issue Date: January 2009


Secret Identity

You may already know that two Glenville High School students created Superman here in the 1930s. But Brad Ricca delved into the origins of the two teenage creators for his film Last Son, a documentary that revisits the city and times in which Siegel and Shuster lived. It explores tragedy and unearths long-forgotten influences that show how the iconic superhero the world knows today as the Man of Steel was forged by the Cleveland of their youth.
Erick Trickey

On Saturdays, when he was growing up, Brad Ricca would ride along on his father’s window sales rounds, listening to his tales of Cleveland and imagining the city of the past.

His favorite story was how two teens from Glenville, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created the first comic superhero — one of the world’s most instantly recognizable characters, the ultimate double-identity figure, the American man idealized by high-flying imagination. Shuster, the original illustrator of Superman, had gone to the same middle school as Ricca’s father, and they’d had the same art teacher.

Superman
Brad Ricca, mild-mannered Case Western Reserve University lecturer, reveals the secrets of Superman’s origins in his documentary film, Last Son.

“Even as a kid,” says Ricca, who’s from Westlake, “the idea that Superman was from here was really cool.”

Now Ricca is 38, a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University who co-teaches a freshman seminar on superhero comics. A few years ago, he picked up Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, a 2004 book by Gerard Jones. It described how Siegel had written the story of Superman and Shuster had brought him to life on the page, and the tragedy of how they sold Superman to their publisher for $130 then lost their jobs producing their creation after they sued to regain the rights.

A single paragraph stood out: Jones wrote that Jerry Siegel’s father had been murdered in a robbery at his clothing store. Ricca, like Jones, thought that never-before-reported story might be a key to understanding Siegel and his famous character. Yet the account was vague. Something about it didn’t add up.

Ricca scoured Cleveland for new clues to Superman’s origins. The result is his documentary, Last Son, screened in July at the Ingenuity Festival — and, Ricca hopes, elsewhere in Cleveland this year. (See his Web site, greendoorfilms.com, for more info.) The hourlong film shows the many influences that Siegel and Shuster weaved into Superman, from the crime that left Siegel fatherless to the unattainable Glenville High classmate named Lois to the tall downtown buildings reaching for the sky that only a superhuman could surmount. The film also delves into the two men’s imaginations, which reached far beyond their city into worlds of early science fiction and Hollywood archetypes.

More than that, the film is a mood piece evoking the Cleveland of the 1930s, its Depression desperation, brutal crime wave, urban skyscraper grandeur and futuristic spectacle of the Great Lakes Exposition. Ricca argues that all those facets of Siegel and Shuster’s hometown made their way into Superman’s story. He also makes a visual case for other possible influences on the two men’s art, from physical fitness magazines and pulp short stories to shopping ads. And he reveals his new discoveries about Superman’s history — confirming the tale of how Jerry Siegel found a real-life Lois who became his wife and solving the mystery of Siegel’s father’s death.

That, in turn, reminds Ricca of the very human super-heroism at the heart of Superman’s creation.

“If you’ve lost your father, there’s no income, you have a choice: Either you go out and get a job, or you try to imagine your dream job,” Ricca says. “They were crazy enough, lucky enough and good enough that their dream job came true.”

 

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