A Tale of Two Shusters

Toronto, July 10, 1914. A boy named Joe is born.

Toronto, September 6, 1916. Joe’s cousin, Frank, is born.

All was well with their world. Then, when Joe was nine years old, his parents moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Being a responsible couple, they took Joe with them. In his new American neighbourhood, Joe met a fellow named Jerry. They became good friends, sharing the same interests in fantasy fiction. Jerry liked to write. Joe liked to draw. In 1933 the pair published a small fan magazine entitled, with a flash of foresight, "Science Fiction." Among their short stories was "The Reign of the Superman" a tale of a man from another planet who gains incredible powers on Earth.

Meanwhile, in 1931, Frank met up with a canuck boy named Johnny in his Grade 10 class at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto. They, also, shared the same interests. Johnny liked to laugh and tell jokes and Frank liked to laugh and tell jokes. They told jokes to their friends, their families, their teachers and total strangers on the street. They told jokes to each other, with each other, for each other and about each other. After a while they were inseparable.

Down south, Joe and Jerry were now living in New York City, working for a relatively small comic book company, DC-National Periodicals. Joe drew. Jerry wrote. They adapted the main villain character from their earlier story and rewrote him as a hero. After a great deal of effort, they managed to sell the concept to their editors. Over the next several years, working on the comic strip, Joe and Jerry had a combined annual income of about $75,000. DC-National, on the other hand, made millions of dollars on the Superman character that Joe and Jerry had created.

In Toronto, Frank and Johnny managed to joke their way onto CBC Radio by the early 1940’s. In 1942 they both joined the Canadian Army Show and spent three years spreading laughs around Canada and the safer, less bullet-ridden parts of Europe. In 1946 CBC Radio gave them their own show, The Wayne & Shuster Show.

By 1946 Joe and Jerry resented the publishing empire that DC-National had built on their creation and filed a lawsuit against the comic book giant. Two years later a less than satisfactory settlement was reached. DC-National paid the pair $120,000 and stopped crediting the creators on the first page of each issue. Ironically, if Joe and Jerry had continued working for DC instead of suing, they would have made more money that two years. For the next several decades Joe and Jerry did very little that drew any notice.

1952 brought Frank and Johnny to television audiences on the CBC. This lead to about forty years of Canadian television and numerous appearances south of the border, on the Ed Sullivan show, among others. The pair entertained multiple generations over the years and stayed based in Canada. Despite many opportunities to relocate to the United States, Frank and Johnny felt that Canada was their home and it would simply be wrong to leave.

Joe Shuster passed away in 1992. He was half-blind and had been living on a $35,000 annual royalty payment from DC, the result of a subsequent lawsuit in 1978, the same year that "Superman, The Movie" made $134.2 million, US. DC has resumed listing creator credits in their comics, but Joe and Jerry were never as well known as their famous character.

In 1990 Frank’s long-time friend, Johnny died, bringing and end to a brilliant and witty pairing of two major comedic talents. Frank continued to make occasional television appearances until his death from pneumonia in 2002. Beloved throughout Canada for their sophisticated, intelligent humour, Wayne & Shuster were cultural icons for our proud northern nation.

"What’s the moral of this story?" you ask…

Examining the lives of the Shuster cousins, the message is plain:

Stay in Canada. Americans will cheat you blind, steal your best ideas and give you no respect. In Canada, if you can tell a joke, we’ll love you forever.

 

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