Bradley Ricca, the creator of the Superman movie Last Son, took honors — the Silver Ace Award — recently at the Las Vegas Film Festival for his independent film about the creation of the superhero.
No one is more surprised at the acceptance Last Son has received at film festivals across the country than its creator, a Case Western Reserve University lecturer in the Department of English and a fellow in the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) program.
Academics primarily write, publish and report on papers, but Ricca has found this new venue to reach wider audiences about his Superman research.
What he likes about the movie is the teaching moment that comes when the theater lights dim and the audience sits back totally focused on the big screen. Unlike reading a book, few interruptions can intrude on the delivery of the story.
Much like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew and pasted together a comic book at their homes in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Ricca pieced together and edited the movie at his home computer without the high-tech equipment or funding of a major Hollywood studio. Friends supported his movie.
What sets audiences abuzz with questions about Last Son is Ricca’s discovery that Siegel’s father died of a heart attack. This finding overturns popular culture theories about what motivates Superman’s actions.
“Historians had said for years that Jerry’s father, who had run a clothing store on Central Avenue in Cleveland, was murdered by burglars,” Ricca said.
The alleged murder happened at the time Siegel was just a kid, and it was a horrible idea that the father was gunned down, Ricca explained.
The myth was not far from the Depression-era realities. In his research, Ricca found newspaper headlines in 1938, the year Superman came into being, were rife with murders and robberies.
“An anti-crime sentiment was sweeping the country,” Ricca said.
But something about the murder theory and the comic book action didn’t work for Ricca. A search of the Cleveland police records proved his hunch was right: the surviving death certificate noted the death by heart attack and not homicide.
Siegel and Shuster integrated the father’s death into the storyline, Ricca explained. Mobsters and criminals died of heart attacks in Superman’s presence in the early comics, well before the superhero took on alien creatures. Clark Kent, who might have been the father figure, too, also fainted and was timid before donning a combined costume of the circus strong man, wrestler or boxer — all men of great strength and ultra egos of two scrawny young men.
Ricca first announced this “heart attack” finding in a paper he presented to a Popular Culture Association conference in 2006.
Later, through Internet sources, he acquired some of the earliest home footage ever seen of Siegel and Shuster. The footage was captured at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York City, at a parade and Superman celebration where people dressed up as their comic book hero. The footage comes about 18 months after Superman was created, but his popularity was sweeping the country.
That footage got Ricca thinking about the treasure he owned.
“The teacher in me wanted to do something to share with a wider audiences,” he said.
Ricca sat at his computer three years ago to begin piecing together the documentary from primary sources he had gathered for academic papers and a new book he was writing about his favorite comic book character.
Ricca’s experience of making a film without the knowledge of how to do it mirrors the similar experience of Superman’s creators.
“The thought hit me…here is an experiment. If they can do it, I want to try to do it like they did it,” Ricca said.
He wanted to have a genuine experience to understand how Siegel and Shuster might have felt.
“The first Superman comics were rough,” Ricca said.
The creators, described by Ricca as nerdy and the kind of guys who had little future prospects for jobs or girls, were told they didn’t have the experience or knowledge to make a comic book.
“They created this larger than life character that can do everything they could not do,” Ricca said.
When the movie premiered at Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival in 2008, it was still in its rough stages, but the public’s reception fueled Ricca drive to finish it. The movie has also been shown at festivals in Akron, Louisville, San Francisco, Toronto and other places.
“They did it and so did I,” Ricca said.
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