Chapter 2 –The Big Blue Guy
While some historians debate who was the very first “costumed super hero,” there is no disagreement about which character kicked off the super hero explosion that would define comic books to this day. That character is Superman.
Superman was the creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two young men who first met in high school in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920’s. They were avid readers of science fiction pulp magazines and produced one of the first ever science-fiction fanzines, called Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization. In 1933, an issue of this ‘zine contained a story called “Reign of the Super-Man” (written by Siegel under the pseudonym “Herbert s. Fine” and illustrated by Shuster). This story told of a down-and-out vagrant who gained great mental powers by drinking a mad scientist’s potion. The vagrant proceeded to use these powers for evil, only to discover that the effect of the potion was temporary. This character had very little to do with the famous cultural icon we know today, but it was the first published use of the name by these young men.
Siegel and Shuster had dreams of becoming professional newspaper comic strip creators, but were having little success in the early 1930’s. They re-worked the “Superman” concept to make the super-powered human a hero, rather than a villain. Siegel thought that a hero would be more commercial than a villain, noting “Tarzan and other action heroes of fiction…were very successful, mainly because people admired them and looked up to them.” (OF SUPERMAN and KIDS WITH DREAMS A rare interview with the creators of Superman:Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster by Tom Andrae http://superman.ws/superman-comics/) Inspired by the appearance of a Detective Dan comic book, the boys put together a comic book story for their new hero. This hero had no costume, but was super-powered. The story was picked up by the publisher of Detective Dan in 1933, but then rejected, and the company soon folded.
Nothing more happened with the character until the summer of 1934 when on a sleepless night, according to Siegel’s own words “…it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one. Only more so” (Over 50 Years of American Comic Books by Ron Goulart, pg. 74; Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art by Roger Sabin, pg. 61). By the morning he had a whole new character conceptualized and ran to Shuster’s house. By the end of the day, the blue-suited, alter-egoed, Son of Krypton had taken his familiar form.
Over the next four years they would shop their creation around. The Newspaper strip syndicates wouldn’t touch it, saying it was “too sensational” (OF SUPERMAN and KIDS WITH DREAMS: A rare interview with the creators of Superman: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Superman by Jamie Coville http://www.oocities.org/Athens/8580/super.html) or did not have “extraordinary appeal” (Goulart, pg. 75) or even that it was “too immature” (CBW Comic History by Derek Santos http://www.dereksantos.com/comicpage/gold.html). They did manage to land work with some of the earliest comic books, doing adventure stories, a mystical hero called “Doctor Occult,” and “slam-bang” action/spy/police/detective stories like “Radio Squad” and “Slam Bradley.” for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s new comic book company. All of their work was original material, and much of it had some science fiction or fantastical element in it. Occasionally they would work for another company, sometimes even doing stories of the same character, just changing the name (“Dr. Occult” would be re-named “Dr. Mystic,” for instance). But they remained persistent in their attempts to find a newspaper syndicate that would accept their revolutionary new character.
In time, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson proved himself less of a financial wizard than an adventurous publisher. The company’s debts, and the major’s desire to launch a new comic title, Detective Comics, allowed publisher, printer, and distributor Harry Donnenfeld the opening to come on board as a partner in 1937. By the end of a year, Donnenfeld and his friend and accountant, Jack S. Liebowitz, owned the entire company, which had taken the name of its flagship title. This name would eventually be shortened to its initials, and Detective Comics, Inc. would become known as DC Comics.
The new title that gave the company its name was actually the second all-new comic book with a single theme (the first being Detective Picture Stories from The Comics Magazine Company, which only lasted four issues), but it became the longest-running title in comic book history, continuing to this day (it would be 27 issues, however, before the first appearance of it’s leading character, Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman). In the meantime, Major Wheeler-Nicholson and editor Vincent “Vin” Sullivan began a project that was to be a companion to Detective Comics called Action Funnies.
No syndicate had yet picked up the Superman strip as it was presented, but writer, artist, and editor Sheldon Mayer, working at McClure Syndicate saw the character’s potential. His boss, Max C. Gaines, had initially rejected the strip, but Mayer held on to it, hoping to find it another home. Gaines had acquired some new printing presses and was looking for more publications to print on them. He made an agreement with Harry Donnenfeld that if he could find some material for his new title, now called Action Comics, the new comics would be printed on his presses.
By this time Wheeler-Nicholson had been finally bought out of all his comic book interests and had left the business. He went back to writing, faded to obscurity, and died in 1968. But the Action Funnies project, now called Action Comics, was still going, and needed material. Gaines gathered what he could, including the Superman proposal, which was suggested to him by Sheldon Mayer. Vin Sullivan decided to make Superman the lead feature because it “looked different” (The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century by Mitchell Brown http://www.oocities.org/mbrown123/greatest_comics/action1.html), and history was made. After a few issues it was discovered that kids were buying the book for the Superman stories, and he became the regular cover feature. By the following year he was the first super hero to have his own comic book.
Soon there was a Superman newspaper strip (at last!), then a radio show. In the years and decades that followed there would be cartoons, movies, TV shows, lunchboxes, breakfast cereals, underwear, amusement park rides, and more. Superman has become one of the most identifiable characters in the world, and certainly the most popular comic book character ever created. Superman and Action Comics have been in constant publication for 65 years, and the top seller for most of them. But there was one character that, for a while, proved to be even more popular.
NEXT: The Big Red Guy
Go to the outline of Captain Marvel history
Chapter 1: The Captain and the Major
Chapter 2: The Big Blue Guy
Chapter 3: The Big Red Guy
Chapter 4: Early Captain Marvel
Chapter 5: Powers and Personality
Chapter 6: Going Hollywood
Chapter 7: Friends and foes: The Lietenant Marvels
Chapter 8: Friends and Foes: Captain Marvel Junior
Chapter 9: Friends and Foes: Mary Marvel
Chapter 10: Friends and Foes: Mr. Tawny
Chapter 11: Friends and Foes: Dr. Sivana
Chapter 12: Mr Mind
Chapter 13: Friends and Foes: Other Foes
Chapter 14: Enter the Binder
Chapter 15: Superman V. Captan Marvel
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Amazing World of Superman, Metropolis Edition 1973 by National Periodical Publications, ed. Sol Harrison
The Comic Book in America by Mike Benton
Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art by Roger Sabin
DC Comcs: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels
The Golden Age of Comic Books by Richard O’Brien
Over 50 Years of American Comic Books by Ron Goulart
A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics ed. by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams
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Go to the home page of Captain Marvel Culture
Go to a list of Comic Book movies
Go to Watch This Space Enterprises
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