Joe Shuster’s Artwork for the 1942 Novel The Adventures of Superman

The Adventures of Superman cover

The original edition of the book with dust-jacket.

I used to spend a lot of time as a kid visiting antique (actually, “junk”) shops. It was like visiting a museum, except you pick up stuff and hold it. One of the things I found (probably around 1972) was a book by author George Lowther from 1942 about Superman. I’d never heard about this novel and considering the amount of time I spent obsessing about comicbooks, I was surprised and puzzled by it all of a sudden popping up! It would take quite a few years and the availability of the internet before I could find out anything substantial about it. Basically, it was a rare book but unless it was in beautiful condition with a dust jacket it didn’t command an outrageous price. It’s interesting to note that Lowther, in this, Superman’s first novelization and first story credited to someone besides Jerry Siegel, was responsible for defining Superman’s birth, early life, and the first detailed description of life on doomed Krypton. He also officially named Superman/Kal-El’s parents Jor-El and Lara — who’d previously been known as Jor-L and Lora. . .

As much as I’d hoped that I’d stumbled across a priceless gem, I wasn’t disappointed because of the great illustrations by Joe Shuster! Let me correct that – I wasn’t disappointed because of MOST of the great illustrations by Joe Shuster. Each opening chapter page in Superman includes a black and white pen/brush and ink illustration. These tasty, gestural pieces of inspiration seemed out of place to me. They are so immediate and almost impulsive – also, not what I would expect from a book produced in 1942. I would imagine that this must have been a rare “behind the scenes” sort of approach to take back then. It also puts a focus on the artist as opposed to the character – another rarity. I’m aware that both of Superman’s creators, Jerry (Jerome) Siegel & Joe Shuster received credit on early splash pages of their comic stories, as did Bob Kane with Batman, but this seems different to me. This artwork is daring in its loose expression and vitality, and I can’t think of another (can’t wait to see what THIS comment garners. . .) similar circumstance.

The Adventures of Superman credits page

The Adventures of Superman TOC

The Adventures of Superman Chapter 2

The Adventures of Superman space ship

The Adventures of Superman Chapter 4

The Adventures of Superman chapter 5

The Adventures of Superman chapter 6

The Adventures of Superman chapter 7

The Adventures of Superman chapter 8

The Adventures of Superman chapter 12

The Adventures of Superman sketch

The Adventures of Superman chapter 14
But hold on – this is where it gets interesting, or disappointing. There are other illustrations in the book that almost seem to be done by another artist. They’re stiff and wooden. They’re overworked and totally lack the energy and confidence that the gestural sketches possess.

The Adventures of Superman cover 2

The Adventures of Superman rocket ship illo

The Adventures of Superman swimming

The Adventures of Superman at sea

The Adventures of Superman woodcut

The Adventures of Superman punch

(If you flop this image it's strangely reminiscent (in more ways than one) of "Dempsey & Firpo" mentioned below.)

The closest comparison I can make also comes as a result of my college American Art History class, and it concerns the work of George Bellows. I can still remember sitting in class and looking at examples of Bellows’ art. It was going to be hard to find paintings by any artist that would excite me as much his “Stag At Sharkeys” and “Both Member Of This Club”!

George Bellows boxing

"Stag At Sharkey's" 1909

George Bellows boxing 2

"Both Members Of This Club" 1909

But then comes “Dempsey & Firpo”. WTF?! All that energy and expressiveness gone. I could never figure it out. . .

George Bellows Dempsey Firpo

"Dempsey And Firpo" 1924

I would love to know the back-story regarding the choice and execution of art for the Superman book. . .

Soon after the book’s release, there was an Armed Forces edition issued. These were unabridged versions (but sans illustrations) done in a smaller, more compact paperback format. Easy and more manageable for a serviceman to carry. . .

The Adventures of Superman ad

Cover of "Superman" Armed Forces Edition.

The Adventures of Superman copyright page

First page of Armed Forces Edition.

The book has garnered enough attention that it’s been reprinted by two publishers. Kassel Books did a soft bound edition in 1979 and did such a limited printing that even though it’s a reprint, it commands a decent price for paperback — if you can find it. Applewood Books published a hardbound run in 1995 that is still relatively available but also averages about 40 bucks. . .

Superman purple

Kassel Books softcover reprint 1979.

The Adventures of Superman cover 3

Dustjacket of Applewood Press hardcover reprint 1995.

Finally, I was able to get a copy of the book with a dustjacket (the one I’ve used for this article) quite a few years ago. Below is a scan of the inside front cover. . . “Great Caesar’s ghost !”

The Adventures of Superman signature

 


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9 COMMENTS

  1. Great thread, thanks JJ et al, albeit I’m a couple of years late.

    I was the publisher (there were three of us) of the Kassel Books reproduction of this incredible novel. Quit a story in an of itself, ending in getting crunched by DCs lawyers just before going into our second run (copyright/derivative work).

    Although I can’t offer much in regards to the original book, if anyone’s interested in knowing more about the Kassel Books edition they are welcome to connect.

    Ron Arnone

  2. I found a copy at a local flea market but it had no dust jacket. Could you possibly show what the back cover and jacket flaps look like? (Gave $5 for the copy, by the way.)

  3. any idea the approxomate value of this book, My father had it since he was abour 4 or 5 yrs old, he passed away in 2002 and we have had it since…have no idea what to do with it,

  4. This book is well known to old time radio fans as Mr. Lowther was the producer/writer of most of the episodes of the long-running Superman radio serial. The writing on the show was excellent and it introduced many elements of the Superman cannon including kryptonite, Parry White, and Jimmy Olsen. The radio show debuted only a few months after the comic book character, and we know that Jerry Siegel and Mr. Lowther kept in touch about the development of the character. I would be surprised if the drawings in the book did not originate–at least in part–with Mr. Shuster.

  5. Pingback: Print & Communication | Pearltrees

  6. Steven – There seems to be much speculation regarding whether Shuster actually did the sketches and other illustrations. I asked Neal Adams for his opinion and he’s of the mind that Shuster did do the gestural brush drawings. I’m inclined to think he did those himself but wouldn’t be surprised to find that someone else did the full page artwork – and the dustjacket. I’m in the process of checking around with others.
    Stay tuned. . .
     

  7. Quite a find! Those Shuster gestural drawings are wonderful and publishing them in 1942 is certainly ahead of its time. I guess there’s no jacket credit for the painting? Too bad, a mystery yet to be solved. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I have the 1995 reprint book version and I love the art which has a sophistication and skill level that most of the comics from that era don’t have. And you found a signed one?? time for a trip to the Aniques Road Show!!
    Awesome!