FRANK SHUSTER, SUPERMAN LETTERER Part 2

This and all images © DC Comics. From ACTION COMICS #1, June 1938

In Part 1 of this article I showed a full page from the first published Superman story in ACTION COMICS #1, here’s a panel from it. I believe it was lettered by artist Joe Shuster, as it matches his lettering in other early comics work published previously. Joe was soon so busy with Superman that he needed to hire other artists to help, forming a studio in a small office in Cleveland, Ohio where he and writer Jerry Siegel lived. Some of the assistants did lettering, but in late 1939 Joe’s brother Frank began doing most of the Superman lettering on the daily and Sunday newspaper strips. By spring 1940 he was also lettering most of the Superman stories in ACTION COMICS. Here are some samples.

From ACTION COMICS #22, March 1940

This lettering predates Frank Shuster’s work, and is probably by one of Joe Shuster’s other assistants, or possibly by him. There’s little attention to style, the main thing was readability, and that’s the case here, using upper case block letters, the most common in comic strips and comic books then. Underlining was one method of indicating emphasis. The only style point is the first letter in the caption, which is a barely readable open E in a black circle.

From ACTION COMICS #26 pages 1 and 9, July 1940

I believe the first story in ACTION lettered by Frank is this one from issue #26. His letter R’s here are not quite in the style he would soon use, but some have loops that aren’t connected to the left leg, as was often his habit, and his lettering is wider and more regular and even than what came before. Also note his tendency to have balloon tails start a little inside the balloon.

From ACTION COMICS #35, April 1941

By 1941, Frank’s mature lettering style was in evidence, with his R’s that have a wide loop continuing into an upward curved right leg. The rest of the letters are slightly curved or very round while still being even and regular. This is the style most often used in the newspaper strips from 1940 to 1943, though it did evolve and change some over that time.

From ACTION COMICS #46, March 1942

Above is a page from 1942 with Frank’s lettering becoming more confident. I’d like to draw your attention to two style points: his question marks usually have a single loop above a period, and his THE END is upper case in box. Both are typical of Frank’s stories and their absence will become important below.

From ACTION COMICS #54, Nov 1942

Note that another way Frank fits things in is to overlap his second balloon in panel 1 on the caption above and the second panel. Frank usually added large page numbers in a circle, like the one at bottom left.

From ACTION COMICS #59, April 1943

Frank’s title CINDERELLA on this story is beautifully lettered in an Old English style. His caption also does that, though the smaller size makes it hard to read in places, but this is proof that Frank’s lettering went beyond just the standard comics alphabets.

From ACTION COMICS #60, May 1943

The final panels from the Superman story in the following issue have Frank’s lettering on the left, but the balloon on the right looks like someone else’s work, perhaps a DC staffer making a last-minute change. I think this was the final ACTION story lettered by Frank, and includes his question mark and THE END styles.

From ACTION COMICS #61, June 1943

A page from the next Superman story, and I see some changes in the style overall, though it’s pretty close. I think it’s Ira Schnapp imitating Frank Shuster. One telltale clue is the question marks in the third panel, above. They are much smaller than Frank’s and have the backwards S shape that Ira almost always used. As I said in the first part of this article, Schnapp was a good choice to replace Frank when he was no longer able to do Superman lettering (probably because of his military service). Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster knew his work from the Superman logo he revamped in 1940, and Ira was a long-time non-comics letterer, but just starting to get work at National (DC) Comics, so he was likely to be available.

From ACTION COMICS #63, Aug 1943

Another clue is the script THE in this story from two issues later, though I only have a poor copy of it. Ira often used upper and lower case script for these final words of stories he lettered. In this case, he just used it on the first word, but the style is very much like what he did on other stories for decades. For more about Ira’s work inside ACTION COMICS, see THIS post.

From SUPERMAN #5, Summer 1940

Frank Shuster’s work on SUPERMAN started more sporadically. On the first story in issue #5 he lettered only pages 9, 10 and 13, which suggests an all-hands-on-deck approach to make a deadline.

From SUPERMAN #8, Jan-Feb 1941

Frank next lettered the second story in issue #8. You can see his style becoming more evident in the R’s and some of the other letters now have more curves too, like the N.

From SUPERMAN #16, May/June 1942

Frank’s became the regular letterer on SUPERMAN with issue #16, where he lettered three of the four stories. SUPERMAN was bimonthly at this point, coming out every other month, but each issue at the time had four all-new Superman stories of either 12 or 13 pages. Frank lettered all four in issues 17 to 27, lots of work.

From SUPERMAN #21, March-April 1943

A page from early 1943. Frank should have been serving in the Army by now, but probably had a desk job and perhaps was stationed close enough to Cleveland to be able to continue working on Superman lettering. Note again his style points of a question mark with a single curve and THE END all caps in a box.

From SUPERMAN #25, Nov-Dec 1943

I believe this third story from issue #25 is the last one lettered by Frank. Note again his characteristic question marks and THE END, and this story includes a parody of Ira Schnapp’s Superman logo on the title page. There’s no telling when this story was actually produced, it could have been held in inventory for a while.

From SUPERMAN #24, Sept-Oct 1943

I have only poor images of issue #24, but this story has a typical Ira Schnapp question mark.

From SUPERMAN #25, Nov-Dec 1943

The first story in issue #25 also has this very typical Ira Schnapp THE END in script. I think Ira’s lettering begins appearing in this series in issues #24 and 25 at the same time as the last work from Frank Shuster, and most stories were lettered by him from that point on. For more on Schnapp’s SUPERMAN lettering see THIS post.

From WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #6, Summer 1942

One Superman story appeared in each issue of the large anthology WORLD’S FINEST COMICS, and Frank Shuster lettered the ones in issues 6-10. These were again 12 or 13 pages long, and the book came out four times a year. The sample above has quite a lot of lettering for Superman, whose stories by Jerry Siegel were often less wordy than this.

From WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #10, Summer 1943

Frank’s R’s are very curvy in this example from the last story I think was lettered by him in this series.

From WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #10, Summer 1943

And on the last panel we see both Frank’s question marks and his THE END.

From WORLD’S FINEST #11, Fall 1943

On the next Superman story we see typical Ira Schnapp question marks and THE END. I think Ira was the letterer of these from this point on. His ability to imitate Frank is pretty convincing, and it took me a while to figure it out, but I think by the summer or early fall of 1943, Schnapp was the main letterer for all the Superman stories. For more on Schnapp’s lettering in WORLD’S FINEST, see THIS post.

Below is a summary of Frank Shuster’s lettering in comics, all on Superman stories.

ACTION COMICS

#26 July 1940 13pp, #35 April 1941 13pp, #36 May 1941 13pp, #46 March 1942 13pp, #47 April 1942 13pp, #48 May 1942 13pp, #49 June 1942 13pp, #51 Aug 1942 13pp, #52 Sept 1942 13pp, #53 Oct 1942 13pp, #54 Nov 1942 13pp, #55 Dec 1942 13pp, #56 Jan 1943 13pp, #57 Feb 1943 13pp, #58 March 1943 13pp, #59 April 1943 13pp, #60 May 1943 12pp

SUPERMAN (story numbers in parentheses)

#5 Summer 1940 (1) pp 9-10, 13, #8 Jan/Feb 1941 (2) 13pp, #16 May/June 1942 (2) 12pp (3) 13pp (4) 13pp, #17 July/Aug 1942 (1) 13pp (2) 12pp (3) 13pp, (4) 13pp, #18 Sept/Oct 1942 (1) 13pp (2) 13pp (3) 13pp (4) 13pp, #19 Nov/Dec 1942 (1) 13pp (2) 13pp (3) 13pp (4) 13pp, #20 Jan/Feb 1943 (1) 13pp (2) 13pp (3) 13pp (4) 13pp, #21 March/April 1943 (1) 13pp (2) 13pp (3) 13pp (4) 13pp, #22 May/June 1943 (1) 12pp (2) 12pp (3) 12pp (4) 13pp, #23 July/Aug 1943 12pp (2) 12pp (3) 12pp (4) 12pp, #24 Sept/Oct 1943 (2) 12pp, #25 Nov/Dec 1943 (3) 12pp

WORLD’S FINEST COMICS

#6 Summer 1942 13pp, #7 Fall 1942 13pp, #8 Winter 1942 13pp, #9 Spring 1943 13pp, #10 Summer 1943 13pp

That’s a total of 706 comics pages. If we add the estimated 943 pages of similar work for the strips, Frank Shuster’s grand total is roughly 1,649 pages, a substantial amount of lettering.

The Siegel and Shuster studio had become fragmented by the mid 1940s. Writer Jerry Siegel was drafted and served mostly in Hawaii from 1943 to 1946. He had stockpiled scripts before he left, but when those ran out, DC Comics assigned other writers to the strips and comics. Editor-in-chief Whitney Ellsworth wrote some, as did editor Jack Schiff. Also tapped for Superman scripts were DC writers Alvin Schwartz, Bill Finger and others.

DC had begun hiring artists directly to produce Superman stories as early as the summer of 1940, when a run of stories in ACTION COMICS #28 to #34 were pencilled by Jack Burnley, inked by Jack and his brother Ray, and lettered by his sister Betty Burnley Bentley. In 1942, DC hired Joe Shuster assistant Wayne Boring to produce Superman work directly for them, and he was one of the most prolific artists on Superman strips and comics from then until 1967. Frank Shuster lettered many of those stories up to about mid 1943, so it’s possible DC was paying him directly too. When Jerry Siegel was released from the service in 1946, he found much of his Superman work taken over by others, and Joe Shuster’s increasingly poor eyesight meant that he wasn’t drawing much Superman either. The two had long felt the injustice of their financial deal, and in 1947, they began suing DC to regain the rights to Superman. That and subsequent lawsuits dragged on for years and were mostly unsuccessful. When the suits started, DC cut Siegel and Shuster off from all new work. It’s likely that even if Frank had wanted to continue lettering Superman stories and strips, he would have been forced to stop then. Siegel and Shuster launched a new series, FUNNYMAN, at Magazine Enterprises in 1948, but it didn’t last long. It was the last time their dual byline would appear on new material. I don’t see any of Frank’s lettering there.

In 1947 Jerry Siegel moved to the New York area. He probably wanted to look for new writing work while keeping an eye on his court case, and he was getting divorced from his first wife. Jerry did find some writing work in and out of comics, but struggled and had to take non-comics jobs. Eventually he was allowed to write again for DC, but that was never credited or acknowledged publicly. Joe Shuster and his family also moved to Queens, New York. His mother Ida and sister Jean lived together in one apartment, and Frank and Joe lived in another nearby. Frank found steady employment with the Nielson TV ratings company working on their ratings charts, where his lettering experience probably came in handy. Joe found comics work here and there, some of it very much not for children, but Frank essentially supported Joe for a number of years. After many legal struggles and appeals to DC by Jerry and Joe and their fans and professional colleagues like Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams, Jerry and Joe were awarded lifetime pensions by Time/Warner, now the owner of DC Comics, a move that headed off what could have been very bad publicity right before the release of the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve in 1978. After that, both Jerry and Joe moved to California near each other. Frank stayed in Queens for the rest of his life. As far as I know he never married. After the death of their mother Ida in 1974, sister Jean eventually married and moved to Texas. Frank and Jean became the heirs to Joe’s estate when he passed in 1992. Frank Shuster died in Flushing, Queens on November 7, 1996.

As was often the case, letterers did not receive credit in Superman comics and newspaper strips in the 1940s, where it was usually considered something done by the artist. I’m glad I was able to finally give Frank Shuster credit for his lettering on Superman, and put a name to the artful style I have long admired.

Jerry Siegel on Wikipedia.

Joe Shuster on Wikipedia.

I highly recommend Brad Ricca’s biography of them, “Super Boys,” link below.

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