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Boys of Steel

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman

Author: Marc Tyler Nobleman
Artist: Ross Macdonald

Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers (August 26, 2008)

Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

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"Boys of Steel" tells the story of the creation of Superman from the perspective of the original comic geeks, Superman's co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The story begins with Jerry's timidity in school and explains how he escaped by reading stories of Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. "Boys of Steel" covers the story of Superman's creation as we've all heard it a zillion times before: Jerry was a dreamer. Joe brought Jerry's dreams to two-dimensional life. Jerry conceived of Superman in 1934 shortly after his father's death. He ran over to Joe's the next day and, standing over his shoulder, Joe drew the character as Jerry conceived him. By the time they were finished, they'd birthed the first superhero.

Of course this isn't just a happy story about the creation of the Man of Tomorrow. "Boys of Steel" may be laid out like a children's book but it deals with concepts that could be a bit confusing to a child. The insecurity that led to escapism is certainly relatable to a child. Devoting an entire page to the death of Jerry's father Mitchell from a heart attack after a robbery might be a bit intense for kids as it's portrayed here. It probably should have been played down by including the death in the text but not the art.

The artwork in "Boys of Steel" has an art-deco feel to it. It isn't exactly drawn in early comic book style - more like a melding of pulp art, comic art, and children's book art. The art melds Jerry's and Joe's realities with their dreams. We've all heard Jerry's explanation of that late hot summer night when he laid in bed and conceived of Superman, but the story takes on more of a fairy tale quality when it's Jerry we see leaping a tall building and holding an automobile over his head.

At this point in the story, the two pages of Jerry envisioning his hero are drawn like comic book panels - four panels per page with narrative boxes. It's in this two page comic-like spread that I read my favorite dialogue in the book. While evoking the strange visitor concept, the author writes: "The other heroes Jerry and Joe read about were regular humans in strange places. [Superman] would be a stranger in a regular place."

"Boys of Steel" may have as a moral the power of dreaming, but the "Afterward" titled "The Greatest Superhero of All Time" is a stark reality check. I would recommend that parents read the "Afterward" before reading the book to their children. It tells the rest of Jerry's and Joe's life story and it isn't pretty. It discusses their $130 sale of Superman to DC, and the decades of lawsuits over ownership of the character that, it's noted, are still proceeding in 2008. It's a bit like reading "Goodnight Moon" and then going on to find out that the cow who attempted to jump over the moon imploded when he hit the upper atmosphere. Well, maybe that's a bit exaggerated, but this is most definitely a book that a parent or adult guardian should evaluate in the context of their own child's maturity.

To me, "Boys of Steel" reads like a children's book written for adults - and that's OK. The meshing of the real world and the fictional world may be a little confusing to kids. The page devoted to the death of Mitchell Siegel is a little intense. And, yes, I know Bambi the doe didn't traumatize a generation when his mother died but it's a bit closer to a child's reality that their parent could go to work and never come home, which could be a viably scary notion to kids growing up in a post-9/11 world.

There have always been two stories about the creation of Superman. The happy-go-lucky, chance-of-a-lifetime dream come true for two young boys from Cleveland. And the lifetime of poverty and litigation that plagued the boys into manhood. "Boys of Steel" tells both stories effectively using the storybook format and the "Afterward". In its totality, "Boys of Steel" is a book about the power of dreams and fantasies but it's also a book about the evolution of a dream into an unending nightmare for Siegel and Shuster.


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