Sunday, May 25, 2008

Saving the Boys of Steel: part 1 of 2

As you will read in Boys of Steel, 1975 was a pivotal year in Superman history.

That year Jerry Siegel turned 61 and resumed his mission to secure financial security from his co-creation. But that time, for the first time, Jerry did not sue. Instead he sent out a press release to hundreds of outlets. He wanted his and Joe's story to be told in the mainstream media. Then public pressure might get him and Joe what decades of litigation had not.

Trouble was, no reporters called.

Until Phil Yeh, publisher of a local newspaper in southern California. At the time, Phil was not much older than Jerry had been when he conceived Superman.

Phil assumed he would have to get in line to interview Jerry, but he became the first person to write on the Siegel and Shuster plight.

I consider Phil one of the two most significant yet unheralded people in the seventies segment of the Superman saga. He's now a friend and he kindly agreed to an interview about his role in nudging Jerry and Joe toward the Christmas 1975 settlement that changed their lives. As for the other person, he's also a friend now and his interview is my next post.

For those not familiar with your link to Siegel and Shuster, could you please give the capsule summary?

In 1975, I was publishing an arts newspaper in Long Beach, California called Cobblestone which later changed its name to Uncle Jam and continued through the 1990s. We did our typesetting at the Marina News, a local paper in the Belmont Shore area of the city (I also worked at the Marina News for a few years). Helen Arterburn, the editor of the Marina News got the press release from Jerry Siegel and thought that I would be interested in the story since she knew that I drew cartoons and often had done interviews with cartoonists.

Phil Yeh and friend 1974; photo courtesy of Phil Yeh

I recall that the press release was single spaced and obviously from a man who had been wronged by a big company. As I read through the whole thing which was several pages long, I too felt anger at this injustice to someone who had created Superman. I actually sold a gag to DC comics when I was 14 and got a check for $5 and all my friends in Los Angeles thought I would go on to work for them when I grew up. It was very ironic that when I started to meet people who worked for Marvel and DC at the very first San Diego Comic Con, I quickly saw how the real people were treated by these companies and made a vow to just publish my own work. So getting this press release at the age of 21 was a very big deal to me. I had started publishing my own work professionally at the age of 16 but was still young enough to get angry about things like artists rights. Now, I have become used to big companies ripping people off.

Anyway, I picked up the phone and called Jerry and arranged to interview him in his place in Los Angeles.

Were you a Superman fan before you wrote your Siegel and Shuster articles?

I didn't grow up reading many American comics. But when I was in junior high, a friend gave me a few hundred DC comics so I started to catch up on the DC titles for a few years. I stopped reading most comics when I started to draw professionally a couple of years later.

Did you know no other paper had yet covered it? If not, when did you find out?

When I got to Jerry's apartment (I am pretty sure he lived in an apartment)—I naturally assumed that the rest of the media was covering the story. He told me that I was the first one to call and do the interview—at that point I could not believe it. I was very young at the time and would learn soon enough that most of the press doesn't cover most of the good stories until someone else does. Journalism in this country has gone steadily downhill ever since.

What was the public's reaction to your articles?

Even with only a few issues of our paper published (we were monthly), we had already figured out that other reporters and editors from the news media in Los Angeles (our paper was distributed through libraries, independent bookstores, museums, etc., from Santa Barbara to San Diego each month) often read the stories we covered and magically, once we covered something, they would do the same piece in much bigger papers. This was fine with us, we were a group of independent writers, artists, and photographers who just wanted to make the best paper possible, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Once the LA Times picked up the piece, the rest as they say was history.

Did you hear from DC Comics?

I called them right after I came back from Jerry's place. I wanted to hear their side of the story and I wanted to see what pressure I could put on them. The executive I spoke to was aware with the Superman movie coming out that this story had to have a better ending than what Jerry was presenting. He called me back shortly after the story ran with news of a settlement of sorts.

Has anyone else ever contacted you to ask about your Siegel and Shuster work?

The guy who did the Men of Tomorrow book and sadly he got some critical facts wrong. I am not Filipino nor have I ever smoked dope. We joke about it but I would love to have the truth be printed especially because the subject we are dealing with is about the truth and the "American" way and justice. All the ideals that Superman stood for so I guess one can see the irony pretty easily here.

What was your proudest moment with regards to your Siegel and Shuster work?

I was just glad to have a chance to help two men who really were treated badly in an art form that I love. Over the years, I have been good friends with many artists who labored for these comic book companies and animation studios and were cheated all over the place. It makes me sad and sick and angry to see good people brought down by these lying greedy people. I am very lucky, I work for myself most of the time and have been always able to speak freely. Obviously DC and Marvel aren't calling me these days. But as for taking credit for what we did or being proud, I never publicly made a big deal of what we did. I never bothered to tell my story in the comic book press and for years always read that Jerry Robinson (a very nice man whom I have met) and Neal Adams were the heroes here. Perhaps in my middle age, I have started to clarify what we did to just be fair to myself.

How did Jerry and Joe respond to you and your articles about them?

I can't recall anything special happening after we did the piece. I don't think that they owe me anything. I was acting as a journalist and covering a story, really nothing is expected when one is in that role.

Are you a Superman fan today?

I will always be a fan of any character created with heart. What I don't enjoy is all these characters who simply look the same and who do nothing for me as an artist. I guess I am old fashioned in that regard.

What are you doing these days?

For the last 23 years, our group Cartoonists Across America and the World has been traveling around the world promoting literacy, creativity, and the arts. Our tour started in 1985—Charles Schulz was the first cartoonist to endorse our campaign—and continues through 2010. A full 25 years of my life. In that time we have painted more than 1,800 murals around the world and spoken to hundreds of thousands of kids of all ages about the creative process and the importance of artists owning their rights.

Phil Yeh today; photo courtesy of Phil Yeh

I often mention Jerry and Joe's story but not my involvement in the saga when speaking to kids. What I want young people to know is that people like Jerry and Joe were young when they created one of the world's greatest superheroes. I want to inspire kids to do things when they are young and that is the lesson there. I also encourage them to turn off the electronic nonsense that fills their lives and to read and to write and to draw and most importantly to dream.

I have also written and published more than 80 books in the last 38 years including one of the first modern American graphic novels in 1977. That is another true story that we have been correcting in the last few years since so many people in the comic book press are strangely afraid of telling the whole story.

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