On This Day

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On This Day: Superman Makes Comic Book Debut

June 14, 2009 06:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On June 14, 1938, Action Comics issue No. 1 presents Superman to a nation of readers in need of a hero.

A Superhero Is Born

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The Man of Steel was conceived in 1932 by Cleveland youths Jerry Siegel, writer, and Joe Shuster, illustrator, USA Today reported.

Six years later, after receiving criticism for being “immature” and “ridiculous,” Superman premiered in the June 14 issue of Action Comics and went on to captivate readers across the country.

In 1939, Time magazine reported on the phenomenon, saying that some U.S. cities “have Superman clubs; in others youngsters have taken to wearing Superman capes and carrying shields. In Milwaukee one enthusiastic young Superman fan jumped off the roof of his house and survived.” Time also noted the comic’s influence over the American mind, at the time preoccupied with conflict in Europe: “How to end the war quickly seemed ridiculously simple to readers of the comic strips last week: send Superman to clean up Hitler.”

A Time article from the following year continued to track the booming popularity of Seigel and Shuster’s creation. At the time, the hero could be found in 77 U.S. dailies and 36 Sunday papers. Action Comics’ net paid circulation ballooned from 130,000 to 800,000. There were 100,000 members in the Superman Club, and Superman Quarterly was "gobbled up at the rate of 1,300,000 copies an edition."

Comic books had already been in print for about 40 years prior to the debut of Superman. But the caped superhero was the first character to offer hope to Americans, who were rebounding from a decade of economic hardship and a costly war overseas.

Fans formed clubs and tried to recreate the caped hero’s stunts from their rooftops. The series inspired several movies and triggered a wave of superhero comics such as Wonder Woman and Captain America, which replaced science, mystery, and other genres on the shelves, January Magazine noted.

For decades Siegel and Shuster earned hardly anything for their creation. It was not until 1975 that DC Comics agreed to pay them a lifetime annuity, according to USA Today. Shuster passed away in 1992 and Siegel died in 1996.

Today Superman continues to be a household name, although preferences have changed, with comic book readers favoring darker idols like the Punisher and Hellboy, Time noted in 2004.

Fans can now tap into online comic book networks to add to their collections without leaving home. They can also learn how to draw strips, read digital comics on the Web or head to the box office to see blockbusters based on superheroes like Ironman and the Hulk.

Background: Early American comic books

Comic books existed long before Superman flew in. January Magazine provides a chronological account of the history of American Comic Books, and names “Funnies on Parade” as the earliest American comic book. The site called the comics “a giveaway anthology reprinting comic strips from the newspapers.” Apparently, someone who wanted to get rid of unsold copies “slapped a 10 cent tag on them and dropped them off at a few newsstands.” The speed with with the funnies sold gave way to the comics industry.

Unlike January Magazine, ComicBookWebsite credits Richard Felton Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid” as the first American comic, published Feb. 16, 1896, in Hearst New York American. However, it points out that “Funnies on Parade” was first “modern” comic book.

Opinion & Analysis: Low expectations for a big hero; Superman’s religion

The red-caped superhero faced harsh criticism from publishers when Siegel and Shuster first pitched it, Time magazine reports: “‘A rather immature piece of work,’ said United Feature. ‘Crude and hurried,’ said Esquire Features. Even at Detective Comics, which finally bought the feature after much argument and delay to help launch Action Comics four years later, Publisher Harry Donenfeld looked at the first cover, of Superman lifting a car over his head (a treasure that now can fetch $35,000 from collectors), and delivered his verdict: ‘Ridiculous.’”

Columnist Jeffrey T. Iverson explores the religious identity of the superhero in light of a 2007 exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris, concluding that “Superman is definitely … a non-Aryan Protestant.” He discusses how Superman inspired other artists to use their medium for civic protest, including Harvey Kurtzman, who tackled “racial segregation, the Cold War and McCarthyism in his satirical MAD magazine.”

Later Developments: Superman flies into theaters and living rooms; not ‘cool’ enough?

The most successful of several attempts to capture Superman on the big screen was Richard Donner’s 1978 film “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. The film was nominated for three Oscars, according to The Internet Movie Database.

Superman has also inspired a number of live-action and animated TV series. The CW show “Smallville,” which stars Tom Welling as a 20-something incarnation of Superman/Clark Kent, has completed seven seasons and is scheduled for an eighth.

In 2004, Time magazine explored how American culture has changed what readers look for in a superhero: Superman “debuted in the 1930s, when Americans liked their heroes like they liked their steaks: tough, thick and all-American. Nowadays we prefer our heroes dark and flawed and tragic.”  The magazine cited the Punisher, whose wife and kids died, Spider-Man, who is “secretly a nerd," and even Batman whose parents were killed.

Reference: Official DC site; DIY comics

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