On April 11, 2014, I got a message from Sean Howe, the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Sean had found evidence of a Master’s Thesis about comics at the University of Wisconsin that he had never seen before. He wanted to know if I knew anything about it. It was news to me, too.
All Sean had was a title and some library information. And an author. But that was the interesting part. The thesis was written by Paul Cassidy, who is widely acknowledged as one of the very first “ghost” artists on Superman. This thesis was dated 1942.
This was potentially a big find. But what did it look like? Was it 50 pages long or three? Was it an art portfolio or a book report? I asked Sean how he found it and he said: “Google Books.”
There was only one copy available in the world, as far as we could tell — in the library of the University of Wisconsin. So I made a request through academic channels to get a copy. As we both waited, research revealed that Paul, after he left Cleveland, did indeed return to Wisconsin to pursue a Master’s Degree.
When the document finally arrived, I sent it to Sean immediately: it was 156 pages and included statistics, footnotes, and anecdotes about the comics industry.
According to Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s great site ComicsResearch.org, the oldest American comics academic work is a 1944 dissertation by Anna Florence Heisler titled “Characteristics of Elementary-School Children Who Read Comic Books, Attend the Movies, and Prefer Serial Radio Programs.”
Cassidy’s work is dated two years earlier. His thesis is, we think, the first graduate-level American scholarship on comic books.
The work itself is a survey of the practices and methods of the comics industry (newspapers and books) in 1942.
His response level was around 50%, which is enough to give us a snapshot of the industry based, for once, on actual data. Much as Jerry Bails would do decades later, Cassidy sent out questionnaires:
Though we do know a lot about the early days of comics books, much of it is wholly anecdotal or filtered through paid “educational” research. Cassidy’s data was directly from the artists themselves. Who responded to his survey? You may have heard of some of these guys:
Cassidy’s work is also interested in readership, especially to explain how and why comics were growing so quickly.
Cassidy also writes about some of the outcry against comics that was simmering at this time. He puts it under a section called “Taboos”:
Cassidy’s thesis comprehensively cites many sources we already know of — and some enticing ones we apparently all missed. The thesis also reveals much about the process of creating comics in the forties. Cassidy includes several drafts of scripts for his strip “Red Ryder,” showing how stories developed from very simple beats to full scripts. He also includes art from his short-lived “Hemisphere Patrol” to explain how panels should alternate from full “atmosphere” panels to close-up shots. He suggests that would-be comics creators should study “English” and “motion pictures.”
Cassidy’s thesis is remarkable because it provides a behind-the-scenes look at how comics were produced that is contemporary with the industry it studies. It is not an educated guess back through several decades. He also talks about his own experiences working on Superman.
After reading the whole thesis, I was struck by how much it focuses on issues of authorship — out of all the people who respond, many report to using ghost “assistants.” In some ways, Cassidy’s thesis tries to understand this practice, probably because it was his own occupation. He asks if any artist had worked as an assistant before getting a byline. An artist responded: “There is no byline.”
The majority of ghosting was lettering and backgrounds. Note the last entry.
Ashe seeks to understand ghosting, Cassidy also tries to build a framework for how comics artists can assure their own success. I was surprised by Cassidy’s — an artist’s — insistence on the importance of story first:
The “knowledge of people, places and things” is what literature is. That is what Paul Cassidy is claiming, I think. And it is not an easy art.
We’ve reproduced portions of the thesis here with the permission of Paul’s sons, Larry and Dick. When I sent them the document, Larry replied: “What a terrific email to receive on a sunny, breezy California Sunday afternoon.” It turned out that neither of the Cassidy Bros. — now in their seventies and doing very, very well — had known about this unknown part of their Dad’s life. Dick said: “This is a bit of a surprise. I knew Mom got her Master’s Degree at Wisconsin – that’s when and where they met – but I didn’t know Dad did that as well.”
Paul Cassidy was a ghost. His thesis is about what that means. For the ghost, it is the comics that must be memorable. But they can only accomplish that when their work is about about real people and situations. As a creator without a byline, Cassidy was deeply concerned about the spirits he placed on the page.
So much so that he dropped his own work and wrote a Master’s Thesis built upon an insistent argument that comics are art, not throwaway, invisible things.
Paul Cassidy, like the rest of the Shuster Shop, is always given short shrift in the accounts of Superman’s Golden Age. Now, with this discovery, we may claim him — the artist who first put the “S” on the back of Superman’s cape — as possibly the first American academic to produce graduate work on comic books. He began work in the industry as an artist, but he would return to school to argue for its status as art. The fact that he drew Superman is just icing on the cake.
Paul Cassidy died in 2005. For more on his fascinating life as an artist and his own rediscovery of how popular his work had become, read the L.A. Times’ obituary here.
We hope that comics scholars who are interested in this document will seek it out at The University of Wisconsin-Madison for further study. And thanks to Jeff Trexler for his much-appreciated advice and counsel.
One more thing: Andrew Dyce at Screen Rant notes that although Cassidy is obviously not as well-known as Siegel or Shuster, he was still acknowledged in Man of Steel. In the background, yes, but now perhaps less invisible.
Note: I was supposed to present this work at the 2014 ICAF today at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, but Cleveland got hit by a fantastic November blizzard. I’m very sorry to have missed it. I hate snow today.
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, now available in paperback. He also writes the column “Luminous Beings Are We” for StarWars.com. Visit www.super-boys.com and follow @BradJRicca.