Exclusive: The Ghost of Jerry Siegel

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.

proof Exclusive: The Ghost of Jerry Siegel

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.

4E Photo Christopher M Ricca Exclusive: The Ghost of Jerry Siegel

[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.]

 

Comments

  1. This is fascinating stuff. Sometimes sad, but fascinating. I look forward to reading this book. Just checked it out from the library yesterday.

  2. patrick ford says:

    Great book Brad just finished it.
    One of my favorite bits was near the end.
    “I didn’t apologize.”

  3. Jeff Trexler says:

    To borrow an image from Breaking Bad …

    –Spoiler space–

    For me, this was the book’s Gus-Fring-at-the-nursing-home moment. I hadn’t read the Bob Beerbohm article, so the reveal came as a total surprise.

  4. Jerry Siegel mentions his friend and fellow-writer Bernard Kantor in a letter he wrote to “Amazing Stories” in 1929 (when he was only 14 years old). I posted the entire letter some years ago over at a Superman site run by some friends of mine:
    http://www.dailyplanet.cl/carta-de-jerry-siegel-de-1929/

  5. Thanks Patrick and Jeff. It is a strange story — without giving too much away (hey, have to save some for the book), Kantor’s life is, hyperbole aside, borderline unbelievable. It is the story of how hard it was to make it in the business, I think. Yet he plays (I think) a pivotal part of Superman. Steve — let me know if you agree once you finish the book.
    And thanks for the link, Rodrigo — that is one of the letters that people point to as proof that it was an alias (that Jerry was building up to the editors). But as you say — it wasn’t. Over on my site, I’ve posted some similar appearances of Bernie, including an actual letter from him. Over at http://www.super-boys.com.

  6. Thanks Brad, I read what you posted over at your site, a fascinating story.

    I notice that Jerry Bails had included Kenton as a plot supplier for Siegel in his “Who’s Who”, who knows where he got the data from:
    http://www.bailsprojects.com/bio.aspx?Name=KANTOR%2c+BERNARD

    Your finding confirmation of this is impressive, I’m looking forward to reading the complete story in your book.

  7. Thanks Rodrigo. The apocryphal story is that after early sci-fi pioneer Sam Moskowitz first reported “Kenton” as an alias, he (many years later) allegedly got a letter from him. I searched Sam’s archives for that letter, but no luck. Sam allegedly got into contact with Kantor and tried to set things straight, which might be how Jerry Bails got the info. Beerbohm was the one who first said that Kantor was real in print in CBM, though it passed under the radar. The problem is that some of these early sci-fi/fandom people know this stuff — they just need to be lured to print/Internet/etc. before the info is lost.

  8. Kate Willaert says:

    Is the Krypton capital city of Kandor a coincidence?

  9. Great question Kate. Otto Binder is credited with creating Kandor — though Jerry was back at DC at the time, writing (in my opinion) his best comics work, though (except for one moment) in complete anonymity. He worked with Binder on occasion and I found Binder-credited plots with references to Jerry. So whether Jerry had a hand in Kandor or Binder did it for him (or as a dig towards him) — we don’t know for sure, but seems too close to ignore, right? Like Kandor, Kantor was the one case Superman (and Jerry) could never really get away from.

  10. patrick ford says:

    Brad, There is a truly massive archive of old science fiction fanzines online:
    http://efanzines.com/
    Some of this stuff goes back to the ’30s. Lot’s of hunting.

  11. Yo Brad, thanks for the mention re that ground breaking Big Bang Theory of Comic Book History article I put together for CBM #50 August 1997 which built upon the one i did titled The First Superman Cover in Comic Book Marketplace #36 June 1996. I meant to come back to building it even further (which I am working on now BTW after some years of medical imbroglio) then got side tracked distracted when I got on the hunt and scored a copy of America’s first comic book Brother Jonathan Extra #9, “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck,” Sept 14 1842 published by Wilson & Co out of New York City. Spent the next years figuring out there are literally thousands of comic strips in hundreds of publications back in the 1800s which had been forgotten.
    Similar in nature to Bernard Kantor(e) being forgotten for so long. I was given that same letter my good friend John Coker was given by Julius Schwartz. Seventeen years ago was I trying to track down who he was and where he was gone to, the wonders of the internet makes such research a lot easier now, still a long ways to go.
    I have been meaning to score your book (among a ga-zillion other neat ones come out the past years). Still digging out of the medical pit which saw me lose half a decade of my life, looking forward to reading it and chiming in what two cents worth of comment I may be able to add in to your research

  12. Now that I think back on the research events now well over 15 years ago, the “Bob” referenced by Julie in that letter from Jerry to Bernard is me. Methinks I passed on a xerox to John as I had sent him a number of items Julie passed on to me. Julie and I also discussed the concept that Mort was brought in to work for Harry Donenfeld to “handle” Jerry, who by 1939 had moved to Long Island in order to be closer to the growing Superman energy post Superman #1 hitting around a million sold copies. It was late 1939 the contract with Donenfeld was renegotiated to reflect exactly the contract Bob Kane’s father had worked out on Batman. I interviewed Irwin Donenfeld for some 18 aggregate hours over a few years 1999-2001. Lots of fun stuff for my long overdue next Big Bang updated piece.

  13. Hey Bob — good to see you here — your research/articles/posts over the years were of immense help (and duly credited).

  14. Hi Brad, Just wanted to make a pit stop saying am still going over your book. As in I re-read important stuff over and over letting it absorb in. What to state categorically you took the research of myself and others who had been puzzling thru Jerry & Joe’s convoluted life – and made a miracle!

    Super Boys is a wonderful tome I have been recommending to many far and wide since you first sent me a copy. You went far beyond what I had even imagined possible. It is rare these days for me to learn “new” data on a subject related to the world of comics prior to 1990. You taught me MANY things about Siegel & Shuster I never new and for that I thank you very much!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Over at The Beat, I wrote a post titled “The Ghost of Jerry Siegel” about the mysterious third man who contributed plots to early Superman stories. His name has not been lost to comics history, only misdirected, mostly because he has, 99% of the time, been attributed as an alias of Jerry.  He wasn’t. […]

Speak Your Mind

*