by Brad Ricca
In all of the recent conversation about when writers should pay artists, what about writers paying other writers? And what about attribution? If more than one writer is involved in a story, who gets paid what? Do comics work like Hollywood where Jon Peters can sit around and get some miraculous payday for Man of Steel? Len Wein and Chris Claremont do not appear in the credits for The Wolverine, though it was welcome news that Wein at least got a check from Marvel. How did that work? Did the creator trump the storyteller? Was it a mysterious Amazon-like algorithm kept in a Stark briefcase? Or was it just an act of good faith? Or was it some old percentage that someone thinks sounds good?
Siegel and Shuster were the first major comic book team to get their names on their early work from the very beginning (thanks to The Major, I think). But when Superman’s popularity exploded, the new names of the artists who were hired to help Joe weren’t noted. Sikela, Boring, Nowak, Dobrotka – these men were phantoms to the reading public. They were paid for their work, but they weren’t given credit. Even when it was obvious to every mop-haired kid reading those comics that everything looked different, they were still being told “Art by Joe Shuster.” There is something good about that; Joe was the creator, after all. But there are deep, obvious problems, too. In recent reprint editions, the real artists are given their overdue credit in the table of contents. All of them are dead.
But what about the writing end of things for the biggest character in comics? Writing took less time than drawing (Note: totally debatable) but every one of Superman’s adventures from 1938 up until World War II, according to the official reprint credits, was written by Jerry Siegel.
It turns out that might not be true.
Jerry did (or had to do) the same thing Joe did – farm out to freelancers for plots in order to keep up with the unyielding national demand for more Superman. This has always been a hushed rumor surrounding Superman, but it has never been publicly proven. Until now.
For my new book Super Boys, I spent years trying to track down Bernard Kantor, AKA Bernard J. Kenton, AKA The Man Who Was Not There. For half of that time, I thought I was chasing down someone who was fictional. After all, everything on Siegel and Shuster assured us that this name was a popular alias for Jerry. But it wasn’t. The real person this name belonged to was a writer, a scientist, a Communist, a would-be sci-fi film producer, and sold real estate – on the moon. He is the strangest person in the whole story. He is what can happen to a comics writer who doesn’t make it big. See the book for more. He was Bizarro.
I got this letter from John L. Coker, III, the celebrated historian of science-fiction fandom who, among countless other amazing things, interviewed Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka. John got a copy of the letter from Julie Schwartz himself. The only previous mention of this letter occurs in an essential article (“The Big Bang Theory of Comic Book History”) by Bob Beerbohm. Published in Comic Book Marketplace #50, Bob’s incredible article is the only few lines in print to say that Kantor was a real person. Christopher O’Brien, another historian of fandom (with a great eye for detail) helped mediate the whole thing. I don’t want to leave names out here.
I share this not to judge or tell on Siegel or those around him. It’s easy to forget how much of an industry comics was back then. Not in terms of giant smokestacks and factories, but of cramped, upstairs rooms with people smoking cigars and being industrious. It wasn’t high, pristine art to the people paying the bills or most of the creators; it was manufacturing. That’s where these practices we are talking about now – work for some shadowy future tense pay – came from, when everything was being invented on the spot. This model is as old as the Golden Age – but that doesn’t mean they are golden. To Siegel’s credit, I think he was trying, in addition to keeping his name on the byline, to give work to an old friend – someone he knew could just as easily been himself.
All this proves is that for every ghost we know, there are perhaps many many more we do not. If we didn’t know about Kantor, working on the first, biggest superhero ever, how many more are out there, whispering between the panels? These people were paid for their industry, not for an ongoing creation. That should be part of this conversation we’re having now. Colorists and letterers are now given credit for their work, but that is a fairly recent development. What other things should we attribute in a comic book? Or in a movie based on one?
Kantor died alone, and unknown. I couldn’t even find a photo of him, not even in the school yearbook. I could only find him here, under a sad, misspelled name.
[Brad Ricca is the author of the new book Super Boys (St. Martin’s, 2013), the first full biography of Siegel and Shuster. You can visit his website at www.super-boys.com.]
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.