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Doubling Up on a Pair of Losers

By (May 1, 2009) One Comment

Men of Tomorrow

By Gerard Jones
Basic Books

Plutarch was on to a good thing when he decided to write his biographical thumbnails in pairs, matching illustrious Greeks and Romans to highlight the virtues, shortcomings or indications of divine favor he supposed they had in common. It was a great read-me gimmick, but even Plutarch must have known it wasn’t much more than that, because his final four subjects are all singletons, and the only common denominator he could establish for one of his profiled pairs was that both had been filthy rich.

That the notion should have occurred to him at all was because Plutarch was himself a walking duality, a Roman citizen of Greek ancestry and upbringing strongly attached, emotionally and intellectually, to both his parent civilizations. The commodious comparison has held up well as a template for twin-track reflective riffs ever since, ranging from Montaigne’s “soldered linkage” of virtuous Roman wives to the “compare and contrast” essays taught in American high schools.

I, too, often find myself examining odd points of resemblance between the American culture I grew up in, and the Spanish one in which I live as an adult, and it’s not just me who sees the fun in shuffling cultural categories and periods, popular and high art, in the hope of drawing two of a kind. Clive James can be counted on for a winning hand at the high-low table, though I’m not sure Adam Gopnik has made his case for Darwin and Lincoln being joint architects of our “moral modernity” just because they share a February 12, 1809 birth date. But what’s the point in making a point, if not to see how far it can be stretched?

Here’s a narrative of worldly ineptitude and self-victimization that flares into fame at the very end, the loser who hits it big after trying and repeatedly failing to make it as a creative hack in a new and promising mass entertainment medium. The hapless shlub scribbles away and after enormous effort, flatlines into absolute creative insignificance. Every dreary thing he churns out is third-rate, derivative, just plain horrendously, incurably bad. Then all of a sudden, payoff. One of his creations suddenly becomes wildly popular with the public. But poor judgment leads him to sign away his rights and look on helplessly as imitators and plagiarists take all manner of liberties with the one good idea he ever had in his life, and watch others get rich from it, while he stays poor and grows even poorer.

Jerry Siegel in 1976

That would be Jerry Siegel, co-creator (with his childhood friend Joe Shuster) of Superman. It is generally known that the two of them were royally diddled by Supes’ original publishers, and left to stew and sue when profits started rolling in from the radio program and merchandising roll-outs. However, those not entirely au courant with the history of the American comic book may not have thought about how Jerry stayed alive for the 40 years he spent being leeched by lawyers in futile attempts to recover the rights he signed away to the sharpsters. Gerard Jones’s eminently readable account in Men of Tomorrow gives ghastly particulars of a career that resulted in some of the most awful comic strips ever rendered into panels, as Siegel parlayed his reputation (and the pity other industry professionals felt for him) into dead-end writing assignments.

I met him once, at a reception at the Argentinean consulate in New York, of all the unlikely places. Tongue-tied and teenaged, I stupidly decided against uttering the rhomboid S-word at a time when the guy was literally having trouble making the rent. Instead, I feigned polite enthusiasm for one of his C-list creations then being published in Britain – The Spider! The World’s Greatest Criminal! — and I’ll never forget the shudder of self-loathing that flashed across his face. ”You’re familiar with that? I’m glad you enjoy it,” he said, or something, before they marched him off to be introduced to diplomats.

That reception was arranged by Jerry Robinson, then-president of the National Cartoonists Society, who, a decade later, helped broker a settlement between Siegel and Shuster and Warner Communications, which had just acquired the Superman property, lock, stock and publishing house, and was about to bring out the first Christopher Reeve movie. Jerry and Joe finally got a credit line and a payoff that allowed them to live out their days in modest comfort and forget about such ill-fated ventures as Funnyman, who fought crime with whoopee cushions, laughing gas and squirting lapel flowers (no, I’m not making this up) or Reggie van Twerp among other low points of the vernacular art form that Jerry Siegel revolutionized.

Leaping tall windmills in a single bound also brought a paltry payoff to the creator of Don Quixote, Siegel’s career counterpart. Fact is, Miguel de Cervantes was no better at writing literature than Jerry Siegel was at creating superheroes. Except for maybe a couple– a couple, mind you — of the Exemplary Novels, and the two parts of Don Quixote, the Cervantes corpus is pretty much a washout. Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was dishing not dirt but the plain truth when he observed that “the story of Don Quixote was dictated to Cervantes by another man whom Cervantes harbored within himself, a spirit who dwelt in the depths of his soul and with whom he never had any other dealings, either before or after writing it.”

Probably more people have read Jerry Siegel’s Henri Duval of France, Famed Soldier of Fortune than ever slogged through to the end of The Labors of Persiles and Sigismunda, an excruciating pastoral novel packed with charmless characters and yawn-inducing dialogues about love. Hard to believe it was composed at the same time and on the same kitchen table as the first part of Don Quixote (1599-1605), though not readied for the press until a few days before Cervantes’s death in 1616, and that its creator seriously thought it was “certain to attain the summit of all possible excellence.” Persiles is utterly lacking in originality, humor and irony; everything that makes Don Quixote so engagingly ingenioso.

Don Quixote is in the business of righting wrongs, vanquishing evil and dispensing truth, justice and the Hapsburg way of life.

Like the Man of Steel, the Man of La Mancha has a secret identity (mild-mannered country squire Alonso Quexana) and a costume that proclaims his public persona. Unlike his imitators and spinoffs, however, Superman never acquired a full-time sidekick, whereas Don Quixote’s relationship with Sancho Panza varies from Abbot and Costello to Socrates and Crito, and even in this there’s a sidekick-precursor: Amadis of Gaul and his squire, Ganaldín.

Right, novels of chivalry. The downmarket pulp products that drove Don Quixote batty were concatenations of bad writing about beautiful maidens requiring rescue from giants and wicked sorcerers; as far removed from the feudal realities of the vanished Middle Ages as they were, quality-wise, from the courtly Arthurian romances of Marie de France or Chrètien de Troyes. Wasn’t Cervantes making fun of a pop culture genre, whereas Siegel epitomized one? Actually, Cervantes did both, parodying and at the same time making sure the incidents out of which the parody is constructed are ha-ha funny enough to appeal to a low-end readership. Although Don Quixote started off a best-seller and remained so for ever afterwards, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that people began realizing they had a classic on their hands. Until then, it was more common to find Cervantes taken to task for having written a comic (i.e., funny) book.

Don Quixote was the original fanboy, and not just because he took junk literature with total seriousness and could display encyclopedic knowledge of its trivia that would blow any Star Wars worshipper out of the water. Jerry Siegel started off as a devotee of the newly ascendant genre of science-fiction, just when it was beginning to migrate from the pulp magazines to the newspaper comic pages. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Brick Bradford were already planet- hopping in search of plot lines by the time Superman showed up.

Cervantes, too, failed to make it big in an exciting new medium. He had been stage-struck ever since, as a child, he was taken to see the baggy-pants slapstick of Lope de Rueda on plank-and-barrel street corner stages that ushered in Spain’s Golden Age of Drama, when play-going became as popular as it was in Elizabethan England. Desperate to get his dramas and comedies performed, Cervantes churned out his give ‘em what they want interludes (three parts bedroom farce to one part Three Stooges) including “The Divorce Court Judge” and “The Jealous Old Timer,” all to no avail.

“Aware of what was needed for success, Cervantes was unable to provide it,” writes one critic. Professional flops piled on the personal setbacks, money troubles and scrapes with the law that dogged Cervantes in his return from Algiers, where he had spent five years as a slave and undergone all kinds of hardships. But even the two plays that drew on his experience as a captive of the Moors were duds, fatally burdened with stock characters, cheapjack jingoism and a flatlined dramatic arc. Talk about having something to write about and not knowing how! (The experience was put to much better use in the “captive’s tale” section of Don Quixote.)

If Cervantes’ arch-rival Lope de Vega can be thought of as the Spanish Shakespeare, Cervantes would perhaps occupy the place of Michael Drayton, a not totally untalented hack for hire who died a stranger to success. The prolific and multi-untalented Anthony Munday would probably make a better fit with Jerry Siegel. But he opened the way for successive iterations of the superhero shtick that generated millions of dollars in profits for everybody except himself — a linkage confirmed by the Federal Appellate Court that upheld the decision allowing Superman’s owners to put newsstand rival Captain Marvel out of business.

Like Siegel, Cervantes sold his rights for ready cash — to bookseller Francisco de Robles — but wisely held out for a ten-year lease. Not that it did him much good, though. Pirated editions of the first part of Don Quixote appeared in a few weeks and Robles scurried to license the rights to provincial booksellers. Within four months of publication, seven editions had come out, most of them pirated, and except for the modest advance, Cervantes got nothing. Instead, he had to cross his arms when his characters and the context he invented for them were usurped in an unauthorized sequel.

Miguel de Cervantes

The spurious second part of Don Quixote was by an unidentified follower of Lope de Vega’s. In a prologue to the genuine Part II, which came out the following year, Cervantes avowed that what really made him mad was not so much having his characters press-ganged and degraded, but having his honor as a wounded war veteran impugned. “You would like me to call him ass, fool and bully; but I have not even thought of doing so,” he told his readers. “Let his sin be his punishment — with his bread let him eat it, and there let it rest.”

Jerry Siegel was not so self-possessed when he took his grievances before the public in a 1975 press release regretting that he could not:

“flex super-human muscles and rip apart the massive buildings in which these greedy people count the immense profits from the misery they have inflicted on Joe and me and our families. I wish I could. But I can write this letter and ask my fellow Americans to please help us by refusing to buy comic books, refusing to patronize this new movie or watch Superman on TV until this great injustice against Joe and me is remedied by the callous men who pocket the profits from OUR creation.”

He was lucky: he got the cash settlement. Cervantes ended up with the reputation. A cleric named Márquez was at a posh dinner party in 1615 when a group of visiting Frenchmen “began effusively praising his name, extolling the very high regard his works enjoy in France and its neighboring kingdoms and I was obliged to inform them that he was just a former soldier, poor, and a gentleman.”

“I should have thought Spain would shower riches on such a man, give him all he wants from the public treasury,“ was the reply. Another of the Frenchmen added, “Sir, if necessity forces him to write for a living, may God grant that he never enjoy greater prosperity, if by being poor he is able to make the whole world the richer.”

Necessity also forced Jerry Siegel to write for a living and while he and Cervantes are probably not doing too much hanging out together in the hereafter, you still might find Don Quixote and Superman clinking glasses under the sign of the Archetype’s Arms, where Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Tarzan and other familiar figures from our collective cultural mindset stand them an occasional round.

But are Miguel and Jerry a true Plutarchian pair, genuinely two of a kind? Never mind that now — one hears that Flannery O’Connor and Oliver Hardy (Laurel and Hardy) were, at one (but not the same) time, residents of Milliedgeville, Georgia. It’s something only Guy Davenport would have picked up on, but once we are aware of it, it is only natural to wonder if something might be going on down there in Milledgeville that we really ought to know about.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist who writes about Spanish current affairs, photography and books in English.

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