Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Stacks - Secret Identity

Secret Identity
by Craig Yoe
Abrams ComicArts, 2009

In 1937, Joe Shuster and his boyhood friend Jerry Siegel created the first and arguably the greatest of all superheroes -- Superman, The Man of Steel! Fifteen years later, having lost the rights to his character to DC Comics in a bitter lawsuit, Shuster took a very different kind of job: illustrating the S&M pulp magazine Nights of Horror, sold under the counter in Times Square bookshops. This fact has only recently come to light when author Craig Yoe, a comics archivist, recognized Shuster's distinct artwork. It should have come to light much sooner because Shuster had a tendency to make his fetish drawings resemble the Man of Steel and his supporting cast.

The drawings themselves are simple pen and ink sketches which illustrate kinky pulp stories (included in this book only in summary form, alas). The pictures are still tintalating today although they don't hold a candle to modern BDSM porn in terms of graphicness. Still Shuster depicts a surprising variety of kinky activity: men and women in both the dominent and submissive role, manacle restraints, single-tail whips, canes, paddles, lesbianism, voyeurism, master/slave activities, rope bondage, electrostim and branding all make appearences (although male homosexuality is nowhere to be seen). Notably missing is the black leather fetish look that is so ubiquitous today -- in the mid-'50s this look hadn't yet migrated from gay biker fetishism to the straight imagination so here we see mostly lingerie or plain old nudity.

A 35-page essay at the beginning that gives the basic history -- that Shuster, hurting for cash after being blacklisted, illustrated the kinky stories and that, when Nights of Horror was connected to a group of Brooklyn teen thrill killers by anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham, the State of New York banned the publication and had it destroyed. Shuster was never connected to the work which was fortunate for him. The publisher and writer went to jail.

When reading this book it's important to remember that it's written for comics enthusiasts, not for alternative lifestylers interested in a fascinating period of censorship for "deviant" sexual tastes. To his credit Yoe writes about kink in a relatively positive way with the only possibly offensive moments owing more to cluelessness than anything else: at one point, Yoe holds up the fact that Shuster was short and liked to date tall women as possible proof that he was a submissive. Yoe seems to feel the censorship of Nights of Horror was an overreaction of a more innocent time -- my only complaint is that he doesn't bother to mention that numerous studies have failed to find any link between BDSM and criminality (though I'm sure many have tried!).

This complaint against Yoe is mild compared to the bone I have to pick with Stan Lee's introduction. Lee writes, "Whereas everything about the stories and artwork of Superman was positive and morally uplifting, the pages of Nights of Horror that appear in Secret Identity cater to the basest of man's character and morals." Apparently the creator of Spider-Man and X-Men has never noticed in his long career that violence, rope bondage and busty, scantily-clad women occur with delicious frequency in superhero comics as well.

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