No Retro-Hugo for Ira Yarbrough?

This year’s Retro-Hugo (1945) for Best Graphic Story or Comic went to Superman: “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Just imagine them on the podium, if it had been a real Hugo ceremony, receiving the prestigious award from Fritz Leiber, the previous year’s Best Novel winner. The War is over, a new world seems to be building, and this Hugo gives Siegel and Shuster the recognition they so sorely crave: they’ve sold the rights for Superman to their publisher for a mere $130, split between the two of them, and have since then produced Superman stories as work-for-hire, while DC Comics get rich off the increasingly popular comicbooks, newspaper strip, radio show and cinema serials. Perhaps this Hugo win and its publicity will give them enough leverage even to have their contract annulled and regain the rights to Superman!

Superman 30: introduction of Mr. Mxyztplk (1944)

The 2020 Hugo ceremony was mired by controversy, partially due to the mispronounciation of nominees’ names. Getting names right at an event like this is important. It gives nominees and winners the respect due to them; it shows them – especially minority nominees – that they deserve to be there; and names can even be integral to the identity of the nominee: not pronouncing FIYAH magazine’s name correctly means not being aware of its roots in the 1926 magazine FIRE!! which was published to combat marginalisation of and strictures on Black writers and artists.

How embarrassing, then, that in awarding the Best Graphic Story or comic, the Hugo committee’s sloppiness isn’t in failing to ensure a correct pronounciation of the winners’ names. It’s worse: the Retro-Hugo has been awarded to the wrong person! While the story in Superman #30 is signed by Siegel and Shuster, the art was by Ira Yarbrough and not Joe Shuster.

A captive audience, and a captive Siegel and Shuster doing PR in the ’50s

In the ’40s and ’50s it was common practice for comics to be produced in art studios, so-called ‘shops’, sometimes by assemby line. Will Eisner (from The Spirit) had a shop with Jerry Iger where they produced a whole slate of forgotten comics and launched the careers of artists like Bob Kane, Jules Feiffer and Jack Kirby. After Kirby left Eisner/Iger he started his own ‘shop’ with Joe Simon, where they thought up Captain America. Then there were break-out talents like the Black and gay artist Matt Baker who worked in relative obscurity (now there’s someone not recognised during his lifetime!), while his style became much copied; so much, that thatheadlights‘ Phantom Lady cover was likely not his.

Joe Shuster also ran an art shop in the ’40s to deal with the high demand for Superman product, as well as the other comics his name appeared on. The artists working for him worked in anonymity and uncredited. It’s only by examining the details of their work, like the way they drew Superman’s “S”, and comparing with art they did under their own name, that comics historians have puzzled together who did what. Over time, the art drifted further away from Shuster’s, and Wayne Boring’s barrel chested and lantern-jawed Superman from the 1960s is instantly recognisable.

Boring Superman

You can find a great history of the Shuster Shop on the DC Comics Artists pages on Shuster & Assistants 1939-40, the Shuster Shop 41-42, and the War Years. On Ira Yarbrough (1911-1983) it writes: Yarbrough’s style was heavily comical, vaguely reminiscent of Al Capp’s stuff from “L’il Abner”. It fit in with the lighter tone being pushed, possibly as an antidote to sombre war news. He was the perfect artist to entrust with the introduction of Mr Mxyztplk. Notice Yarbrough’s unique flying stance with both of Superman’s arms curled above his head.

Yarbrough’s Superman – dynamic and cartoonish

Cora Buhlert is doing a lot of work on the Retro-Hugos to break through the ‘received wisdom‘ idea: she’d like to see the Retro-Hugos go to people who have really been forgotten; people who may not be white, and male, and straight. Received wisdom is also that Siegel and Shuster were robbed, while their colleague Bob Kane was a crook: not only did Kane take credit for the creation of Batman (while Bill Finger had a major input), he had a whole army of artists drawing the Batman comics, while he himself did little more than supplying the signature! Artists like Jerry Robinson toiled in anonymity, while designing such memorable characters as The Joker.

But, if we honour artists like Jerry Robinson, then we also need to acknowledge the artists who worked under Shuster’s name. Siegel and Shuster definitely sold Superman down the river (don’t “they signed the contract!” me) and DC could have been far more gracious much earlier: Siegel and Shuster only received an allowance under the threat of bad publicity when Superman: The Movie came out. We need to learn from this, and actively seek to honour the artists who anonymously contributed to Superman’s mythology, like Ira Yarbrough.

Siegel and Shuster’s credit, Ira Yarbrough’s art

And here’s another thought: when looking at the Retro-Hugo winning Superman comic, I immediately saw that it wasn’t drawn by Joe Shuster. The DC Fandom Wiki immediately gave me Yarbrough as artist. That a lot of ghost artists (and writers) were used for comics is also fairly well known. How is it then that the Retro-Hugo committee, who administer the Best Graphic Story or Comic category can not do the most basic due diligence? Is that a sign of how comics are still being viewed by “tru-fans”, as grudgingly tolerated bastard children of real fantastic fiction?

(RvS)