Given the breadth and diversity of Craig Yoe’s career, from My Little Pony employee to creative director of the Muppets to self-made comics historian, it might be easier to define him by those seemingly few things he hasn’t done in the entertainment industry. Or better yet, we’ll simply focus on those aspects of Yoe’s career that are particularly important to us, at the moment, beginning with the 2005 publication of Modern Arf.
The first in the Fantagraphic series—which now includes Art Museum and Arf Forum—the anthology helped established Yoe a first-class documenter of sequential art’s secret history, a position echoed in the near simultaneous publication of Boody, the Fantagraphics-published love letter largely forgotten master, Boody Rogers and Abrams’ Secret Identity.
We sat down with Yoe at the recent MoCCA Festival in midtown Manhattan for a conversation that largely revolved around the latter, a book devoted to the long lost SM drawings of Superman artist, Joe Shuster, which Yoe happened to stumble upon at a rare art sale.
Were the Shuster pictures fairly well-known in certain circles before the book was published?
No, they were totally unknown. I discovered one of the booklets at a rare antique book sale, and what made it so rare was that they probably only printed about a thousand copies of these. The mayor of New York assigned 80 detectives who descended on the Times Square bookstores who were selling these under the counter. They arrested the owners, and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in a sad day for freedom of the press, banned these and ordered the copies destroyed. As a result, these are very, very rare and unknown to students of comic history.
Was it difficult to secure the rights to them, in light of that history?
Well, there was a whole thing behind that that I had to work through…but as you can see, it all worked out.
Was Shuster’s family involved at all with the creation of the book?
No. I kind of wanted to keep things objective while I was writing it, though eventually Joe Shuster’s sister wrote me. I sent her a copy of the book, after it was published, and she wrote me a very nice letter saying that she thought the work showed how much Joe loved to draw figures and that they were beautiful, though she felt that while he was doing them he probably detested the content. But she thought I did a good job on the book and complimented me on it. I appreciated her honesty. She told me what was going on in Joe’s life at the time, that she was pretty desperate. So that was her perspective. I appreciated her sharing that.
So the feeling what that he hated the work while he was creating it?
That was her feeling. That wasn’t necessarily my feeling.
What was your take?
Well, I look at the work and I’m not of the mindset that the work offends me in any way, so I don’t have that barrier. I look at it and it seems like he actually enjoyed working on this sexual fantasy material. At the time it was illegal to do it, so he didn’t sign his name. But I don’t know, if he were alive today, that he would necessarily be ashamed of it. I think he would welcome the fact that the book shows him to have a lot of breadth and shows him to be a mature artist. Because, really, pretty much the only work we ever saw by him, he did as a teenager.
People tend to criticize his Superman-era work.
Yeah, and I love his earlier work. It had lot of slam-bang action and gusto. It had an immediacy to it, but it was still the work of a teenager—a young man. Even when Superman took off, he immediately had assistants drawing stuff and inking stuff. There’s no pure Joe Shuster stuff out there, except for this material. I think he would be glad that a major chapter of his life has been shown. It has strong, beautiful figure work, and it’s actually very progressive.
There’s still some people that would be against this portrayal being published, but I think, as a country, we’re a little more open. He was a groundbreaker in the world of superheroes—he really invented the first, and his writer pal Jerry Siegel really started the whole comic book industry. And then he was progressive enough to portray a frank sexual fantasy. The guy was an amazing innovator, and I think this shows that off. So I was proud to do the book, and I think that people who love Joe and Joe’s work should not disparage it. they should be proud of it, too.
What was the format for the original books?
Kind of small, primatively printed 8.5 x 5.5.
So a folded sheet of paper.
Well, they did have binding. These were printed by a printer in Brooklyn who had a secret identity, too. By day he was doing wedding invitations and business cards and stationary, and at night he was doing these S&M pornographic books in the basement.
It’s an interesting parallel—you’ve got the nice married couples on one end during the day, and then their activities after dark on the other.
Yeah, yeah. Joe Shuster, he created the most wholesome force for moral good—a red, yellow, and blue boy scout. A superhero. The printer was printing wedding invitations by day and pornographic materials at night. And the publisher is the real mafia kingpin behind this, Edward Mishkin. He lived out in the suburbs and went to temple every week and gave money to the temple. But by day, he was probably the biggest pornographer in the country.
And this sort of thing was the bulk of his material?
Well, Edward Mishkin had four or five bookstores. It wasn’t so set up like a publishing house. This was all covert activity and it was very illegal. He eventually got three years for publishing this kind of material. Now all of the sudden this is a coffee table book.
[Concluded in Part Two]