joe shuster: bitter herbs

by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:

Action Comics
National Allied Publications (eventually DC Comics), June 1938 issue (#1)
Illustration: Joe Shuster (1914-1992)

Happy Birthday 1992 Will Eisner Comic Book Hall-of-Famer and 1993 Jack Kirby Hall-of-Famer Joe Shuster!

—JMR Design—

Where would it all be? To comic book fans, especially fans of “super” heroes, today should be something of a national holiday. Well, it would be if we truly honored those who contributed most significantly to our culture—and America’s culture is popular culture. And what could be more intrinsic to our popular culture than the birth of the co-creator (with writer Jerry Siegel) of the FIRST super hero—especially his appearance, which is as iconic as anything in that popular culture: The Big, Blue Boy Scout. The Man of Steel. Superman.

As popularly documented, the first issue of Action had a print run of 200,000 copies and quickly sold out. It took a while for the publishers to realize it was Superman that was responsible (each issue was an anthology of comic stories). Indeed, that Superman was the cover subject was purely accidental, owing to deadlines and publisher Jack Liebowitz wanting something “thrilling” on the cover of the first issue. Siegel and Shuster were paid $10 a page for a total of $130 for their work in Action #1. Of note, Superman had been “shopped” by Siegel and Shuster as a newspaper strip and they had no takers. The interior story in Action #1 were the strip art pasted together into a more traditional 13-page comic story. I imagine it being a bit choppy, but nonetheless it resonated with readers in a big way. The orphaned Last Son of Krypton had found a home and the Golden Age of Comics had begun.

Shuster met his partner in comics history, writer Jerry Siegel in high school. Together they began publishing a sci-fi fanzine called Science Fiction. It was in the pages of Science Fiction where they began the process of creating the Man of Steel. In a story titled “The Reign of the Superman” (in 1933), the duo created a bald, telepathic villain bent on world domination (don’t they all?). That story didn’t pan out so well and Siegel would modify the character and made him into the much more recognizable character we know him as today (well, less telepathy but still bald—hint: initials “L.L.”) and to oppose him, a “hero” modeled on Douglass Fairbanks, Sr. with his bespectacled “secret identity” loosely based on Harold Lloyd. The name “Clark Kent” itself was cribbed from Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. Hooray for Hollywood! The intrepid Lois Lane was based on Jerry Siegel’s girlfriend (and future wife), Joanne Carter. It would be six years before Siegel and Schuster could find anyone remotely interested in publishing their story. Shuster’s drawing style was influenced by Al Capp (Li’l Abner) and Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), and the genesis of the superhero “costume,” itself now as much an icon as it is a cliché, was inspired in no small part to the colorful outfits worn by circus strongmen. With the added flair and drama of an operatic cape and the symbolism of a logo on the chest (I mean, who wouldn’t want a logo?) with its association with heraldry, Shuster created a template for others to follow.

Much is made of all of the record labels (Decca, et. al.) who turned down The Beatles. Can you imagine all of the publishers, newspapers, and comic strip syndicates who turned their noses up at Superman?

A flood of superheroes would follow in Superman’s wake. Some, like Bob Kane’s Batman would achieve the same immortality as Superman, others—like The Black Hood—would remain obscure over time. But Superman’s success would spawn (notably) the likes of Bill Parker and C. C. Beck’s Captain Marvel, William Moulton Marsten’s (also one of the creators of the polygraph) Wonder Woman, Gardner Fox and Dennis Neville’s Hawkman, and Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger’s Aquaman—not to mention the Golden Age versions of the Green Lantern and the Flash, who would be the basis for “modernized” versions of those heroes, if not the same characters in the 1960s—at National and sister-publisher All-American. And at rival Timely (later Marvel) Comics, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon would introduce Captain America, Carl Burgos would spawn the (Golden Age) Human Torch, and Bill Everett would introduce Namor, The Sub-Mariner. Many of these heroes would sell comics in the millions of copies per month. The rest is, well, history—and the stuff of mega-million dollar movie franchises.

Shuster’s story is a complex and sad one—as tattered as the comic cover posted here. Issues of copyright ownership over Superman have been the stuff of the comics press for years (and the court’s for decades). His impact beyond Superman is negligible, unlike many of his contemporaries like Jack Kirby. His relationship with Jerry Siegel itself is a difficult one, and that his famous co-creation became a multi-billion dollar publishing, radio, television, and motion picture franchise without him is a bitter tale, one that I may discuss further in another post.

As for Action #1 itself, of the original 200,000 copies, only 50 to 100 copies a

elieved to exist today. In 2010, a fairly good condition copy (an 8.5, on a scale of 1-10, or Fine-Very Fine in the collector parlance, not like the grubbier version pictured here) sold for $1.5M. Only one copy is known to exist with a near-mint grade of 9.0. I won’t hazard a guess as to its value (you do the math). Not bad for a ten-cent bit of ephemera that countless mothers made sure to throw away.

And no, unlike most everything else I post here, I don’t have one…!

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