|Superman's origin was explained on the first page of the his cover story in Action Comics #1|
Superman seems to be everywhere these days. Earlier this week the news wires hummed with the story of David Gonzalez, a small time contractor and house flipper, who found a somewhat worn but intact copy of Action Comics #1 in the wall of a house he was rehabbing in Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He picked up the ramshackle house in a tax sale from just over 10 grand. Experts priced his copy of the ultimate prize comic book collectors at about $110,000—a tidy windfall.
But it could have been more. In his excitement he showed the book to his in-laws who grabbed it and something of a tussle ensued tearing the back cover, dramatically reducing the books value. In laws can be so annoying.
Rare mint condition copies of the book have sold at auction for $2 million. The most famous of those rare copies once belonged to Superman obsessed actor Nicholas Cage. How obsessed? Well, he named his son Kal-El, his hero’s birth name on his planet of origin. Cage paid $110,000 for the book in 1997 before collector comic books began to explode in value. The book and other parts of Cage’s extensive collection were stolen a few years later, and then recovered. But Cage, a notorious spend thrift got into big trouble with the IRS over back taxes and sold the treasured relic for $2.16 million a couple of years ago to help settle that debt and stay out of prison.
Meanwhile over the last decade or so DC Comics, publisher of Action Comics, Superman, and related books, has repeatedly tweaked and made over their signature hero who was losing popularity to the grittier, angst ridden characters in the rival Marvel Comics universe. His look was updated, story lines made grimmer, and if I remember right he was twice “killed.” And in what has become a stand-by comic book trick, he was re-launched in an “alternative time line.” Superman traditionalists like say, Jerry Seinfeld, were predictably aghast. But all of the changed kept the character in the news and sagging sales evidently blipped up.
The biggest news of all, however, is the re-launch of the Superman movie franchise. With trailers inescapable in every movie house, TV ads, gallons of ink spilled in newspaper and magazine layouts, and electrons going wild with orchestrated on-line buzz, Superman: Man of Steel is slated open nationwide in exactly two weeks on June 14. With a more subdued color palate than the celebrated Christopher Reeves films and a brooding, alienated hero in search of himself producers hope to score the box office coup of the summer. Time will tell if handsome Henry Cavill will re-kindle the national passion for the perfect hero.
But, as in all such tales, let us turn our attention to the origin of the hero and franchise.
On June 1, 1938 Action Comics #1 was released by National Allied Publications, which would later become known as D.C. Comics. The book is considered the Holy Grail of comic book collectors because its cover story features the first appearance of Superman.
The character originated in a villain named The Superman in a short story by nerdy teen-age science fiction fans Jerry Siegle and Joe Schuster which appeared in an early science fiction fanzine published by Siegel in 1933.
Efforts to turn it into a daily comic strip were unsuccessful and the duo set the character aside to work on other projects. Later, Siegle re-imagined the character as a hero, rather than a villain and the two began a six year quest to find a publisher.
When National Allied decided to launch a new adventure anthology comic, editor Vin Sullivan was instructed to find material among unpublished submissions. He picked several stories, including Zatra the Magician, Tex Thompson, and even The Adventures of Marco Polo. He found art by Schuster with text by Siegle intended as a daily newspaper script. Thinking one panel with the caped Superman lifting a car would make a good cover, Sullivan told the pair he would buy the story if they re-pasted if for a comic book.
With a few panels re-drawn and other minor changes, the two did just that and were paid $130 for both of them. The publisher never intended Superman to become a running character, but overwhelming public response made it a fixture.
The first story had most of the features of the Superman legend—being sent by his family as an infant from a doomed planet to earth, whose “yellow sun” gives the baby amazing powers. Turned over to an orphanage, the baby surprises everyone with feats of strength (the Ma and Pa Kent story line was added later.) The baby grows up to be mild mannered Clark Kent, who discovers his vast powers and vows to use them for good by assuming the secret identity of Superman. Kent becomes a newspaper reporter alongside beautiful Lois Lane, who will soon be in need of rescue.
Soon Action Comics was selling 1 million copies a month and Siegle and Schuster had launched their long sought after daily strip as well. In 1939 demand was high enough to launch Superman as a single character monthly book—unheard of at the time—while continuing to feature him as the lead story in Action Comics.
By the mid ‘40’s there were animated cartoons then live action serials at the movie houses. The Adventures of Superman became a long running TV hit in the ‘50’s. And a series of high budget special effects laden films became blockbusters beginning in the ‘70’s, unleashing costumed comic book heroes as a main staple of American film.