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Book looks at at Jewish roots of ‘Funnyman,’ by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

by Matthew Price Modified: April 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm •  Published: May 28, 2010

The first superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, you’ve heard of. The pair created Superman, who is often considered one of the five most famous fictional characters in the world.

They split with DC Comics over the rights to Superman in 1946, and in 1947 took their next creation, “Funnyman,” to competing publisher Magazine Enterprises. Funnyman is a slapstick superhero that resembled Danny Kaye. He failed to find much of an audience, with only six issues and a yearlong comic strip to his name before fading into oblivion. Siegel and Shuster never worked together again.

Authors Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon look at the creation and antecedents of this character in “Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, from the Creators of Superman.” The book, set for release in July, explores the inspirations for Funnyman, by looking at the history of Jewish humor. They also provide a particular Jewish tie-in for Superman: 1920s strongman Siegmund Breitbart, who was billed as a “Superman of Strength” at a 1923 event in Cleveland, where Siegel then lived.

In addition to the essays, the book collects 35 pages of the “Funnyman” comic book stories, 11 Sunday strips and 57 daily comic strips. Synopses are included for the non-collected comic books and some of the strips.

The assertion of the title – that Funnyman was the first Jewish superhero — isn’t specifically supported, though the use of Yiddish terms by Funnyman is a good way to make that argument.

In the comic, Funnyman was TV comedian Larry Davis, who dresses as a superhero for a publicity stunt. But when he encounters a real criminal instead, he uses practical joke techniques to bring him down. Davis enjoys fighting crime, he decides, and goes on fighting crime in a clown suit, cracking jokes all the while, as “Funnyman.”

If there’s a failure to the included comics, it’s that they aren’t laugh-out-loud funny. They seem to work OK as light adventure of the time. But returns were high on the first issue of “Funnyman,” according to the book, and after six issues, it was determined to try “Funnyman” instead as a comic strip.

Shuster’s artistic skill is improved from the first “Superman” strips, and his women are defiant and sexy. In fact, it was the sexiness of his art that kept Shuster employed at all after the demise of “Funnyman,” secretly drawing racy booklets, as seen in Craig Yoe’s book, “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster.”

By early 1949, perhaps acceding to syndicate demands, secondary character Reggie Van Twerp came to the forefront of the “Funnyman” strip. Van Twerp was a wealthy young man put-upon by scores of female schemers. The authors see parallels between the Van Twerp storyline, and Siegel’s own costly 1948 divorce.

The authors maintain that the Funnyman strips “revealed the writer’s limitations.” While this may be true, it would be nice to have a complete collection of the “Funnyman” comic books and strips with which to make one’s own determination. Perhaps if “Funnyman” is a success, a full reprint project may follow it up. As it is, “Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, from the Creators of Superman” is a fascinating look into Siegel and Shuster’s nearly forgotten other creation.

- By Matthew Price
From Friday’s The Oklahoman

by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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