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A Short Interview With Craig Yoe
posted May 17, 2009
 

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imageI didn't know much about Craig Yoe at all before sitting down to prepare for this interview. For many hardcore comics fans, Yoe popped into recent comics' consciousness as the editor of the Arf! series from Fantagraphics. These were walks through some of the less-traveled neighborhoods in the sprawling city of comics-dom, hosted by Yoe himself as a kind of very present tour guide. Yoe has a long and noteworthy creative career that extends far past his more recent interest in high-end comics book making. He's a creative services studio-owner, has several art books and related arts projects to his credit, and enjoyed a high-profile gig as Creative Director and Vice-President/General Manager of Jim Henson's Muppets.

Yoe has two major comics-related books out right now: Boody, a collection of work from the great Boody Rogers that he's published through Fantagraphics, and the primary subject of this interview, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster, a release of the new Abrams ComicArts. The latter is exactly what it sounds like: Yoe discovered and then with the confirmation of various comics historians identified a number of drawings for a notorious fetish magazine as Shuster's work. He then found more examples from the same publisher, wrote about how they came to be and how they operated as a key element in the anti-comics campaign of Dr. Frederic Wertham. It's a good story; so is Yoe's -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Am I to understand that you started cartooning after corresponding with Crumb? If you don't mind repeating that story, I'd love to hear it. What was your work like when you were a young man?

CRAIG YOE: I got interested in having a career somehow related to comics in the mid-1960s, when I discovered the friendly neighborhood of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. But while I continued to Face Front for a good while, my interests also immediately broadened to George Herriman, Art Young, Dan DeCarlo, Milt Gross, Johnny Hart, Syd Hoff, Topffer, R.O. Blechman, Bernie Krigstein, A.B. Frost, etc., while all my collecting pals remained exclusively members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

I was at a collector's house last weekend and he showed me my first fanzine from, I think, 1965 or 1966. Every other fanzine editor in my crowd was talking about superheroes, but I was off in my own world. In my fanzine, Yoesarrian, I think I was the first to talk about R. Crumb in a 'zine. When my activities turned more to publishing underground newspapers (with the great underground cartoonist Paul Mavrides and the creative Dave Scroggy, now at Dark Horse) I got Crumb's phone number in 1969 from Bill Blackbeard. I nervously called him with the excuse of asking for permission to reprint some of his work in our hippy newspaper. I remember being amazed to hear a baby crying in the background -- my hero, a mere mortal!

imageCrumb gave me his consent to reprint his work, but asked if I drew cartoons. When I said yes, Crumb urged me to draw my own comics instead of just using his. He was very evangelical about getting more people to do undergrounds. My early work was psychedelic comics that I continue to love to do. When I showed Mr. Crumb my work later, in France, he said he liked it a lot but I needed to put more sex into it! I've been trying to follow his advice ever since. In working with him on a few of my books, I've tried to stop being an slobbering fan boy, but, at the same time, I continue to admire him tremendously.

I have to mention another Zap Comix artist that was a major influence on my life, art and passion for history, Rick Griffin. He was a good friend and even, generously, let me stay at his home when I was making the transition from being a minister to being an artist. I did my artwork alongside him, getting his insightful and invaluable advice. And Rick turned me on to amazing old illustrators like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Donald P. Crane. He gave me a stack of Basil Wolverton comics I was missing, though he didn't let go of any of his complete EC collection!

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SPURGEON: While you've certainly been a successful content provider in a variety of forms, I wasn't aware of you until a few years back when you came out with the Arf books. What led you into that project and this recent sustained spate of high-end art books generally?

YOE:While I was working as a Creative Director at the Muppets, after a hard day of designing with ping-pong balls, fur and feathers, I turned to my first love, comics, their history and how they relate to Fine Art. I used the Muppets' copy machine to put together a mock-up of Arf in the 80s. (Fun factoid: It was a great day in my life when I gave Steve Ditko a tour of the Creature Shop and introduced Him and Jim Henson -- Spidey and Kermie meet!) Anywho, I took the Arf mock-up San Diego Comic-Con and showed it to Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Eclipse and even DC and Marvel -- and they all wanted to publish it! I couldn't believe it! I promptly took the mock-up home and hid it away in a drawer, never to get it out again until nearly 20 years later. I have been often painfully crippled in my life by artists' and writers' block.

Finally, though, I wrote Gary Groth a letter saying I was ready to do it (I don't think he even remembered it or me) and he simply wrote back and said yes. I picked Fantagraphics as I think they are the coolest, hippest publisher around, and I wanted the Arf books to have that cache. It turned out Gary, Kim Thompson and Eric Reynolds were wonderful to work with. But Stan Lee, who kindly helped me at times with Arf, advised me to get out of the anthology game. And when The Man talks I listen. So you heard it here first: Arf is officially on "hiatus." I miss Arf terribly, though I have a few volumes "almost done," so we'll see what happens. But, for now, I have abandoned it in favor of the higher-impact single subject books Stan wisely counseled me to do.

I've been nursing some of the book ideas I'm producing now since I was collecting and publishing in the early '60s. Now, with the heightened interest in the good old schtuff and the Internet to promote things, I'm finally able to get them out!

SPURGEON: In terms of your discovery of that material, what was the genesis of this Shuster project? At what point did you begin to conceive of it in roughly the form of the book Abrams published? Was it a matter of learning about the material, acquiring it, making the Shuster connection...?

YOE: A few years ago I found one of the ultra-rare Nights Of Horror S&M porn books Shuster illustrated in the early 1950s and said to myself, "Oh, my God, Joe Shuster!" I spent a few years and a lot of money tracking down more of this contraband. Then I took the idea of doing a whole collection of this BDSM material titled Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster to Charlie Kochman at Abrams solely on the basis of showcasing the art itself. Shocking revelations awaited me ahead about the history of the work after signing the contract.

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SPURGEON: Why Abrams ComicArts? That's a new imprint. What was the nature of their editorial and/or design input into the project?

YOE: Hey, Abrams is the creme de la creme art publisher in the world! And when Charlie was starting this glorious new imprint, Abrams ComicsArt, I was ecstatic that my book would be their first out of the gate. Charlie gave me a lot of autonomy on writing and designing the book. Maybe as a complete packager I got more leeway, I dunno. Charlie did have some terrific suggestions on both copy and design along the way. He was a most wise and welcomed collaborator and incredibly supportive. We became good friends in the process of doing Secret Identity.

SPURGEON: How did the introduction from Stan Lee come about? Why did you pick Lee? He didn't know Joe or employ him as a freelancer.

YOE: Stan is an insightful writer and editor, knows a wee-bit about heroes, and was there during the Golden Age. He has great name recognition value and because I have compromising photos, and am obviously a guy not reticent to publish such things, Stan worked cheap.

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SPURGEON: Lee presents a pretty stark dichotomy for Shuster between what he terms the hopeful superhero work and the desperate nature of the erotic work -- not just the difference between the prestige of each gig but the substance of the work as well. Do you agree with Lee about the nature and value of those works? How common was that attitude considering so many cartoonists from back then worked "blue," as it were?

YOE: Tom, I don't think I would necessarily concur that "so many" comic book artists worked "blue" back then. Yes, I showed in Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings many old-skool cartoonist who did a dirty drawing or two, but most of the pre-sexual revolution cartoonists were pretty busy in mainstream pursuits and not heavily involved in this type of work. I suspected that Stan would be, true to his personality, upbeat and also conclude that Joe Shuster did this pornography out of pure desperation. I thought that angle might be a good counterbalance to the shocking revelation of the art and the events surrounding it. And contrast to my own feelings that there's the possibility that Joe might have not done this work only for the money.

SPURGEON: Your introduction carries within it what seems to me an argument that S&M comics and superhero comics share some common instances of psychological appeal. However, that's difficult terrain to traverse because of how that criticism was manipulated by the anti-comics crowd. So to be clear, do you think the two schools of work have any similarities? To rework Lee's dichotomy, are superhero comics psychologically healthy and these sex comics psychologically harmful? What for Shuster would have been different -- he's certainly drawing idealized figures in both?

YOE: Superhero comics are kinky comics. They're stories of guys in their underwear and capes inflicting pain to each other. And superheroes are Fascistic -- the early critics were right. These are megalomaniac vigilantes operating outside of the law. But, at the same damn time, the characters can be colorful to-be-admired heroes. At least the old guard -- I somewhat sadly question the heroic qualities of what very little I know about much of the current crop.

I don't think most porn is harmful. As an example, though I myself, of course, have never seen Internet porn, I've heard that many people with computers have and that subsequently civilization hasn't fallen. I don't think superhero comics, horror comics or S&M porn are harmful to healthy people. Where you have to worry is if fantasy material with violence gets in the hands of sickos like the Brooklyn Thrill Killers.

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SPURGEON: How did you assemble the historical section about the Brooklyn Thrill Killers and their reading Nights of Horror? At a few points you tell the story very citation-light, so it's hard for me to follow. Is it all from the Marya Mannes interview with Wertham? How did you build that section?

YOE: I had tracked down most of the Nights of Horror booklets with their Shuster porn illos. I was working away on the art book that Charlie and I had agreed to, where I would simply show Shuster's art. Then, a friend and fellow comics historian, who also had found one of the books, said to me, "It's a good thing Wertham never knew about these!" That stuck in my little pea-brain for a few days and, all of a sudden, I decided to google "Dr. Frederic Wertham+Nights of Horror." Holy shit! A whole world opened up to me, bursting the floodgate open! As I shared in Secret Identity, The Brooklyn Thrill Killers were written about in Time, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post and Readers Digest. All the New York newspapers covered the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, their murder trial, the Nights of Horror books and their influence on juvenile delinquents, mixing in with updates on the anti-comic book witch hunts. My friend Warren Bernard was most helpful in turning up those front page newspaper headlines that are reproduced in the book.

I learned about Jack Koslow, a Jewish teenager who sported a Hitler mustache, yelled "Heil Hitler" during the Pledge of Allegiance and was a fan of the pre-Marvel Atlas horror comic books. Koslow was the leader of The Brooklyn Thrill Killers, four juvenile delinquents who flogged girls in the park with whips they ordered from comics, and set afire and murdered bums. During some of these heinous crimes, Koslow dressed up like a vampire superhero-type from comic books. From his jail cell, Koslow told Wertham that he had religiously collected and read all the Nights of Horror. Besides the Mannes' interview, we have Wertham testifying at the NY Joint State Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics about Nights of Horror and the Brooklyn Thrill Killers being influenced by them. The Corporation Counsel of the City of New York and many police and government officials and judges cited Nights of Horror as being a contributing cause of juvenile delinquency.

SPURGEON: I think one thing that needs to be cleared up right now is the nature of the National Cartoonists Society ball you write about. You mention that Joanne Siegel (before she was Joanne Siegel) went as Dixie Dugan and you show another woman there as Ann Howe from the Joe Palooka comic. Am I to believe that there were NCS functions with men in tuxedos escorting women dressed as the more va-va-voomish comic strip characters? I think the world needs to know more about this, Craig.

YOE: Another astounding discovery I made of the kinkiness of cartoonists, huh, Tom? Imagine grown men and women being involved in this type of sordid activity!

I was always fascinated to hear of this ball that Joanne Carter, the original Lois Lane model, went to with Joe Shuster and left with Jerry Siegel. She soon married Siegel after he got a quick divorce. And I was thrilled when I unearthed an actual photo to put into the book of Jerry and Joe at this ribald gathering!

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SPURGEON: While the fact that Joe Shuster did this kind of work is interesting history, and might make for a fun anecdote at a party, why do you think people should read a book full of this material? What do we get by looking at this work that we don't get from simply hearing about it?

YOE: The artwork is incredibly fascinating, sometimes beautiful, often brutal, strong pornographic noir. This work is essential in our understanding of the history of Joe Shuster, the seminal co-creator of the superhero and the comic book industry. Besides the Night of Horror illustrations, Secret Identity unearths the only comic book-style story Joe did post-Superman. This is an S&M tale titled Annette Secret Agent Z-4.

And importantly, the events surrounding the work help us in our understanding of the Comic Code and censorship in America. The eighty detectives, assigned to find out who was behind Nights of Horror (they never connect Joe Shuster), raided bookstores in Times Square seizing boxes of the books and the printing plates and arresting the printer, who I interviewed for Secret Identity. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ordered the destruction of the booklets and enjoined their further printing. As far as I know, this was the only time that material related to our field was banned by the Supreme Court. The mobster publisher Ed/Eddie/Edward Mishkin was eventually sent to jail for three years for producing such material. No matter what they think of Nights of Horror and the crimes it inspired, I hope every one of your readers would agree that it was a sad day for our precious freedom of the press when the Supreme Court ordered the destruction of Nights of Horror.

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SPURGEON: What's your appraisal of the quality of Joe Shuster's work as an artist? It seems you're very fond of this stage of his career.

YOE: Tom, I wasn't a fan of Shuster's work at all before tackling this book. In fact, there was a period when I blamed him and Jerry Siegel for inventing the superhero genre because I felt it mercilessly dominated the whole comics field in an imbalanced way (and still much of the public only thinks of superheroes when you say "comics"). Superman has his place, I thought, right after Happy Hooligan, Pigpen, Little Lulu and The Old Witch -- or something like that. But absolutely I fell in love with Joe's work doing this project: his pre-Superman work, Slam Bradley, Radio Squad and all; the brief spell where you can see him in Superman before assistants dominated; and his work in Nights of Horror. What a deft, innovative, breathtaking, well... SUPER artist Joe was! His greatness as an artist hasn't always been recognized and I hope the printing of this material will bring well-deserved attention to his brilliance.

The Nights of Horror books are pure Shuster work -- if you want to call S&M work pure! We really saw so little of Joe's work at the beginning of newsstand comic books. It was done when he was a teenage or in his very early twenties. Now, all of a sudden, here is a whole large body of work with Joe as a mature artist of consummate skill. The art is not watered down by assistants. Joe's doing brilliant figure after figure, flawless composition after flawless composition. His art in Nights of Horror has drama, a few heroes, a lot of evil villains and many damsels in distress, beautifully, elegantly, confidently put down on paper by a master. Even if you don't especially appreciate the content or disdain the circumstances surrounding the work, you have to be in awe of the technique and power of one of our great cartoonists artistically at the top of his game.

SPURGEON: Was there any blowback or expressed concern on the part of DC about this book? Who's been reading it and responding to you so far? Comics fans? Pulp fans? Sex literature fans?

YOE: I off-hand heard there was a little grumbling from maybe a couple of folks at DC and I heard there are people there that like the book. Fans and the press have made quite a bit more than I did that characters in Nights of Horror look quite similar to Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor, but no official reaction from DC.

There's a divergent crowd that's been buying Secret Identity. Comics fans certainly, but, from signings I'm seeing, there's art aficionados, history buffs and anti-censorship advocates, people heavy into the S&M scene to people that just enjoy fantasy erotica, including, I was happily surprised, many beautiful young women! I thought there might be more cries of the material being "politically incorrect," but there have been as many women purchasers at signings as men!

The few naysayers have been some fans that think that, when I found this material, I should have buried it in my backyard as they think it besmirches Joe's name. I think this art by Joe an important historical piece of comics, cultural and political history, and shows Joe to be a great artist with much more breadth than only being a children's comic book artist (though there's nothing wrong with that!)

imageSPURGEON: Your Boody Rogers book was criticized earlier this year by Dan Nadel of PictureBox as a haphazard effort that left a bunch of questions unanswered and, further, that the style employed in the introduction inappropriately served the material. Do you have any response to those criticisms? You have a very idiosyncratic presentation style generally. How did you settle on your authorial and editorial "voice"?

YOE: When doing my books, I try to convey the important historical points while having fun because comics are fun. I don't think comics should be taken too seriously. Didn't some wise sage once say, "It's only lines on paper, folks!"? But I have a lot of enthusiasm for comics and cartoonists, and I hope that comes across in my books. When I did "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster," though, much of the material was pretty serious and I had to put my best serious "journalist" hat on. I still tried to put some lighter-in-tone copy here and there to provide some relief from the heaviness of the subject matter. I also tried to make the design a pleasant and somewhat calming experience to balance out some of the harshness.

In the Boody book, I was originally going to have a lengthy career-spanning interview that I did with Boody Rogers that was printed many years ago in the Comics Buyer's Guide. But Fantagraphics suggested I focus primarily on presenting the comic book stories with just a few pieces of ephemera and a short introduction. The thought was that if this book whets people's appetites, we can do a big coffee table book later. If people want to know more about Boody now, though I cover his basics in the book, they can track down my interview, read the many times Ron Goulart has written about him, and get Boody's autobiography, which is not hard to score. Meanwhile, enjoy the great, surreal, wacky and wonderful, brilliant comics as many people are doing according to the press reviews and emails to me that "Boody" is getting.

Having just a few pages for the introductory material, I decided that since Boody called me his best friend in his later years, I corresponded with him 3 or 4 times a week, and stayed at his home a number of times, I was in the unique position to convey what he was like as a person. With that goal in mind, I was happy to get, a few days ago, an email from Corey Creekmur, a comics historian that teaches at the University of Iowa, who wrote, "Each of your books is a real treat, and often a real eye-opener as well! Thanks, thanks, thanks for the Boody Rogers book! It's an amazing thing when it and Fletcher Hanks collections are available! The introduction really conveys a personality of someone I never met -- in fact, had never heard of until a few years ago!"

SPURGEON: Speaking of Nadel, it's my recollection you've commented on-line in a thread here and there as if you feel you haven't received the credit you've deserved in the rediscovery of cartoonists of the kind that's been attributed to Nadel for his book Art Out Of Time. However, I believe that when pressed to make an actual complaint or substantive point regarding your objections, you've declined to do so. Is that a fair characterization, and if not, how do I have it wrong? More importantly, do you feel you're given enough credit in the rediscovery of this work? Do you feel you've received your just due as an archivist, curator?

YOE: Dan has fantastic taste in old funny book cartoonists. I love his book "Art Out of Time; Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969" and have bought many copies to give away to folks. But I have a small quibble: I myself would not have chosen the title or the subtitle of the book. To me the wording takes away from the work of historians and critics like Ron Goulart, Rick Marschall, Bill Blackbeard, Mort Todd, Scott Shaw, Harlan Ellison, Glenn Bray, Ron Frantz, Alberto Becattini, Chance Fiveash, Pappy, Michael Barrier, Martin Williams, Tom Heintjes, Al Dellinges, Steve Banes, Mark Johnson, Bill Spicer, George Hagenauer, and numerous others, who have been keeping these cartoonists' work alive in their books, periodicals and websites. Dan does nicely credit a number of these sources (including me) in the back of the book.

Another slight bugaboo: one fellow said that Dan's book inspired other books about some of the cartoonists it collected. Speaking for myself at least, that's not factual.

My own "just due" as an archivist or curator? That sounds way too pretentious! While I've certainly got, shall we say, a healthy ego about things and am proud of my accomplishments, I don't take this stuff too seriously at the end of the day. And I feel that while comic historians do their part to preserve and propagate, we're ultimately just barnacles on the Great Comics Ship that's steered by the brilliant cartoonists of the past.

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SPURGEON: Now that you've had several days to gather information and reflect, what do you feel that the coding errors at Amazon.com cost you?

YOE: "Coding errors," is that what they are calling it now? I certainly don't know all the details, but Amazon recent admitted "ham-fisted" attempts to somehow regulate "adult titles." And the day I was on the front page of USA Today, their 3.2 million readers, each and every one of them I'm sure, went to Amazon, typed in "Secret-Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster," and got no cover image, only the message "book not available." Yeah, I'm guessing that cost me a few sales! Fascinating to me that Joe's erotica was banned in the '50s and still, in this supposedly more enlightened time, over a half of century later, is still experiencing menacing lack of freedom of the press on-line and in some bookstores.

SPURGEON: Are you still planning a prose book on Boody Rogers? What else is in the pipeline?

YOE: It will probably be a while till I get back to my favorite cartoonist Boody. I'm trying to finish the Limited Edition of Secret Identity. It will have a facsimile of a letter from Jean Shuster, Joe's sister, to me explaining her thoughts about the art and her knowledge of why Joe did it, and an illustrated bookmark signed by Stan Lee, some art not in the book -- and an illustrated wooden paddle! Ordering details will be on the Secret Identity blog.

I'm just starting another book for Abrams ComicsArts about one of the great comic strippers. And I'm finishing a book for Fantagraphics, The Great Anti-War Cartoons. It's a collection of brilliant, peace-pushing cartoons drawn by great cartoonists from around the world through the centuries. It will have an introduction by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Muhammad Yunus. I think people will be amazed by the powerful and moving artwork of these cartoons.

And YOE! Studio is thrilled to be sculpting statues of the Peanuts gang, Walt Disney/Carl Barks' ducks (and a Beagle Boy, a terrible, terrible Beagle Boy), and The Simpsons for Mike Richardson's Dark Horse -- with my Jr. High School pal, Dave Scroggy!.

Finally, I have the beginning of a big, exciting and divergent line of books on comics, cartoons and cartoonists in the works. It will be the basis of a new imprint for a major comics publisher. This publisher and myself will soon announce the exciting details. Stay tooned!

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* cover to Secret Identity
* photo of Yoe in an unguarded moment at Comic-Con International
* a much-later than what we're talking about in this section sample of Yoe's work (provided by Yoe)
* Yoe with Jim Henson and friends (provided by Yoe)
* publicity photo of Yoe (provided by Yoe)
* a Shuster image from the book
* Brooklyn Thrill Killers photo (provided by Yoe)
* publisher Ed Mishkin (provided by Yoe)
* Nights Of Horror cover (provided by Yoe)
* cover to Boody
* one more Shuster image from book
* more work from Yoe (below; provided by Yoe)

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* Secret Identity, Craig Yoe and Stan Lee, Abrams ComicArts, hardcover, 160 pages, 0810996340 (ISBN10), April 2009, $24.95.
* Boody: The Bizarre Comics Of Boody Rogers, Boody Rogers and Craig Yoe, softcover, 144 pages, 9781560979616 (ISBN13), 2009, $19.99

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