Superman isn't really the first of the 20th century superheroes --he was proceeded by Philip Wylie's Gladiator in 1930 ("the story of an ordinary human mind transplanted into a superhuman body"). And the "Man of Steel" certainly owes a debt to Lester Dent's Doc Savage, that powerful genius, the "Man of Bronze." He is, however, the first of the comic book super heroes, a super star that has inspired the entire industry. Today Superman can stand as a modern myth, as much a part of America as Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed.
Superman began life in the minds of two teenage boys, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. As the story goes, Siegel was unable to sleep one summer night in 1933, and as he stared at the ceiling in that half-state between wakefulness and slumber, the idea of America's most famous super hero began to coalesce bit by bit, and, as Siegel later recalled, "This goes on all night at two-hour intervals, until in the morning I have a complete script."
The next day the young Jerry could hardly wait to tell his artist friend Joe about the new concept, and soon the two began building on the character in comic strip form. Siegel's concept of his character rested on three now-familiar science fiction concepts: a being from another planet, a being with abnormal abilities, and a being who must protect his secret by assuming another identity (themes not unlike the TV series Roswell!).
All three elements contributed to the strength of the strip, and Siegel, as a dyed-in-the-wool s.f. fan, had reviewed the Wylie novel in his mimeographed fanzine, Science Fiction. In the book, the protagonist Hugo Danner performs super-feats as a baby, as did the young Clark Kent. His father, a scientist, had injected his pregnant wife with a hypodermic needle full of "alkaline radicals," with the result that their son grew up as an invulnerable being possessing super strength. Eventually Danner comes to feel that his powers are more a curse than a blessing and invites God to strike him dead. God obliges.
Superman's origin must be almost universally known: "Just before the doomed planet Krypton exploded to fragments, a scientist placed his infant son within an experimental rocket-ship, launching it toward Earth!". The infant is found and adopted by a rural farm couple, Ma and Pa Kent, and raised as their own. While still in his infancy, it soon becomes apparent that little Clark is more than your average outer-space infant survivor of a rocket crash. The lad "learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers,leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!".
Considering the thousands of comics books Superman has appeared in, and the thousands more that mimicked him, during his six-decade career in comics, films, cartoons, and television series, it now seems amazing that Siegel and Shuster had trouble placing their character.
As a newspaper strip, as it was originally packaged, it was rejected by every major syndicate in the country. They created Superman in 1933 and for five years their character lay dormant, only appearing in print in the pages of their fanzine (and as a villain). Siegel's first published work had appeared in an advertising supplement, the Cleveland Shopping News. By the mid-thirties, Siegel and Shuster broke into comics at New Fun Comics (later to become Detective Comics and then National Periodicals) and began selling some of their other ideas, rather lackluster strips like Federal Men, Slam Bradley, and Radio Squad.
Dr. Occult, another of their strips, created under the pseudonyms of Leger and Reuths, was a bit more significant. Debuting in More Fun Comics #9, it can be argued that Dr. Occult, a ghost detective who possessed the powers of invisibility, levitation, and teleportation (and dressed in an all-blue costume) was comics first true super hero. The Doctor's "lifespan" ran for 27 issues of More Fun, and the character was resurrected by Roy Thomas 49 years later in the pages of DC's All-Star Squadron #49.
Neither of the two were getting rich from their early efforts, and Shuster recalled having to submit roughs for Dr. Occult on brown butcher's paper because he couldn't afford bristol board.
Superman's big break came in 1938 when Max Gaines (father of Entertaining Comics founder William Gaines) got a phonecall from Harry Donefeld at National. Donefeld was looking for a lead feature for his new comic book, Action Comics. Gaines sent him Siegel and Shuster's strip and the rest is history. (How Gaines must've mentally writhed as the character went on to generate millions!)
Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, June 1938. Today, collector's item copies of the rare comic are valued at $30,000 for a good quality copy to $185,000 for near mint. Superman #1 (Summer 1939), which contains the reprint of the 13-page story, is valued at $12,500 to $130,000. And all that just a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the income the character would generate from its many ventures through the years.
As for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, they signed a standard release form and got paid $130.00. It's easy to sneer or gasp now, but the comics field was new then: few knew if the field would last that long, or which comic book characters (if any) would reap millions for the publishers. Certainly Max Gaines didn't. (As for me, I thought The Fantastic Four would flop!) Some creators may have been talented, but many came from working-class backgrounds: times were hard --eager to be published, artists and writers were easily exploited.
At any rate, Siegel and Shuster went on
to make decent earnings at DC, but became discontented over the fact that
they were essentially employees at a company they had helped to enrich.
A further bone of contention was Siegel's character Superboy, which the
writer claimed to have created before he joined the army, and which was
then published, while he was still in the service (in More Fun Comics
#101, January-February 1945). According to Siegel, he had never signed
a release form. A lawsuit resulted, the first of a series of legal battles
and the start of a long term estrangement between the Superman creators
and the Superman owners. That story will be told in a future feature, but
meanwhile we'll return to the son of Krypton in Superman:
The Early Years.