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Who Discovered Superman

We know who invented the Man of Steel. Jerry Siegel. But the invention in early 1933 was followed by frustration: for the next four years plus a few months, Siegel and his drawing partner Joe Shuster tried in vain to sell their creation to newspaper feature syndicates and to  publishers who were just hatching the comic book business by reprinting newspaper comic strips in magazine format. Nobody wanted this super strong refugee from the disintegrated planet Krypton. And then, all of a sudden, Superman was “discovered” by a young editorial assistant tangentially connected to the McClure Syndicate. Sheldon Mayer, just out of his teens, was working with M.C. “Charlie” Gaines, who, in turn, was functioning as a sort of freelance salesman and packager, scouting for printing jobs for the two new color presses McClure had acquired when Bernarr MacFadden’s scurrilous Daily Graphic folded in 1932. Hanging around the McClure offices, Mayer saw the Superman comic strip Siegel and Shuster had submitted in the hope of getting their brain child syndicated. And Mayer’s brain exploded.

“I went nuts over the thing,” Mayer said years later when remembering the event. “It was the thing we were all looking for. It struck me as having the elements that were popular in the movies, all the elements that were popular in novels, and all the elements that I loved.”

But he couldn’t convince anyone to sign up the feature. Not Gaines. Not any of the McClure officials.

“They all asked me what I thought of it,” Mayer said. “I thought it was great. And they kept sending it back.”

Apparently, Siegel and Shuster submitted their Superman idea more than once.

Ron Goulart, in his Great American Comic Books, takes up the story: “Mayer’s persistence got Gaines interested enough to look the material over again.”

This time—supposedly late fall 1937 or early 1938—something clicked.

Said Mayer: “He took it and looked at it and read it, and he said, ‘You think this is good?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’

Gaines, despite having just a few years earlier participated in the publication of a pioneering comic book of newspaper strip reprints, 1934′s Famous Funnies, did not yet think of himself as a comic book publisher. Moreover, his association with McClure was not in the editorial department. His job was rounding up printing jobs to keep McClure’s color presses running as many hours a day as possible. To this purpose, he had hired young Mayer to paste up newspaper comic strips in magazine format pages for Dell Publishing Company to produce as Popular Comics, The Funnies, and The Comics. Gaines knew Harry Donenfeld, a somewhat shady character who operated a printing company, Donny Press, that published “spicey” (coy sex) magazines, and Donenfeld, Gaines heard, was taking over a comic book publishing company, National Allied Publishing, a shoe-string enterprise run by a picturesque and imaginative ex-cavalry officer, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who was just then on the cusp of launching a new title, Action Comics.

“Legend has it,” writes Goulart, “that Gaines showed the Superman strips to Donenfeld and persuaded him to add the feature to the forthcoming magazine. Vincent Sullivan, who was editor of Action, recalled things somewhat differently: ‘Donenfeld had little or nothing to do with the selection of features and things of that nature.’ The samples were shown directly to editor Sullivan. ‘When they showed this thing to me that they’d been trying to sell, it looked good to me, and I started it. That’s how Superman got going.’”

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He told Siegel and Shuster to re-do their newspaper strip for magazine publication, but Shuster, to meet Sullivan’s demand for a rush job, simply performed emergency surgery on the strips: he cut them into individual panels that he then pasted up in page-size grids and sent the final product back. By then it had been decided that Superman would be the lead feature in the first issue of Action, and Shuster drew the cover, a reprise of an interior panel that showed Superman lifting an automobile over his head. Action Comics No.1, cover-dated June 1938, hit the newsstands April 18, 75 years ago last spring (hence, this essay in commemoration of the anniversary).

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“When Harry Donenfeld first saw that cover of Superman holding that car in the air,” Mayer remembered, “he really got worried. He felt that nobody would believe it, that it was ridiculous—crazy.”

“Probably because of Donenfeld’s alarm,” Goulart speculates, “the next few covers didn’t show Superman or even mention him.” Instead, “drawn by Leo O’Mealia, they showed plausible adventure” scenes.  But “the public,” Goulart goes on, “was far quicker to grasp the new character’s appeal.

According to John Kobler’s profile of Siegel and Shuster in The Saturday Evening Post (June 21, 1941), sales on the first three issues of Action were not particularly impressive. “But with the fourth, Action Comics spurted mysteriously ahead of its fellow publications.” Said Goulart: “Donenfeld heard the rumble of distant drums’” and ordered a newsstand survey, which discovered the reason for the surge:

“Children were clamoring not for Action Comics but for ‘that magazine with Superman on it.’”

(Donenfeld reportedly also ran a questionnaire in Action Comics No.4, asking readers to list in order of preference their five favorite stories of the eight in the issue. Of the 542 responses, 404 listed Superman first; another 59, second. If Donenfeld ran a questionnaire in the fourth issue, there must’ve been earlier indications of Action’s popularity, contradicting Kobler. Or else Donenfeld was simply, unaccountably, indulging an impulse of insecurity with his in-magazine query.)

Doubts dispelled, “quivering with excitement,” Goulart said, “Donenfeld ordered Superman splashed all over the cover of succeeding issues.”

Not quite. Superman returns to the cover for No.7, cover-dated December 1938. But Action goes without him on the cover again until the May 1939 issue, No.12, and even then, Superman does not appear in the scene depicted: instead, he is in a circular inset vignette, shown breaking free of chains across his chest. SuperDiscov3 The same device is repeated on every Action Comics cover through No. 127, December 1948—even those with Superman in the cover illustration; and only three covers in the rest of 1939 (July, September and November), appear without Superman in the principal scene. In short, beginning a year after his debut, Superman is, as Goulart says, always on Action’s cover. But the first year’s occasional hiatus implies that Superman’s newsstand popularity was not quite as suddenly recognized by his publisher as the legend would have it. Or does it?

The syndicated newspaper Superman debuted January 16, 1939, distributed by McClure. Rollout for national distribution must have begun a few months before, in the fall of 1938; so we may safely assume that someone at McClure—and probably various personages around Donenfeld—realized something was going on with Superman among young readers by the time of the fourth issue. And that was, indeed, the case, as we’ll see anon.

The success of Superman, usually viewed as the spark that ignited the comic book industry, was not an unalloyed serendipitous event. With Superman’s triumph at the newsstands, comic books soon ceased being produced for general readership—for pulp magazine readers, adults as well as young people who read the pulps, the audience the first comic book publishers had aimed for. After Superman, publishers shifted their focus to a youth audience. They realized that’s where the dimes were. Thus, Superman’s success condemned comic books to an adolescent readership for generations, stunting the growth of the medium until the end of the 20th century.

Even Sullivan was surprised at Superman’s sudden popularity, Goulart said: “When asked if he’d anticipated the new hero’s success, he replied, ‘No, I don’t think anybody did.’ He said he’d simply bought the feature because ‘it looked good. It was different and there was a lot of action. This is what kids wanted.’”

There it is. That’s the legend of the advent of Superman. Superman was discovered by 20-year-old Sheldon Mayer with a mildly enthusiastic assist from 26-year-old Vincent Sullivan.

And then, just a few years ago, we heard from Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson, the Major’s son, who told a different story.

Interviewed by Jim Amash in Alter Ego No. 88 (August 2009), Wheeler-Nicholson fils said unequivocally that his father “discovered” Superman two years before Mayer and Sullivan had any inkling of the character. The Mayer-Sullivan claim, said Doug (as we’ll call him to distinguish him from his father, the Major), is “crap”—“just nonsense.”

He continued: “I know Action Comics was developed by the Old Man [as he called his father] as a vehicle for Superman.”

Doug and others of the Major’s descendants have “written proof” that the Major had seen Superman in the summer of 1935 and had told Siegel and Shuster that he wanted to publish the feature.

“Sullivan had editorial say in things,” Doug said, “but he certainly didn’t discover Superman. That was already a done deal. It had been lying on the Old Man’s desk with the Old Man saying, ‘I want it.’”

With the arrival of Doug on the historical landscape, Shelly Mayer disappears altogether from the discovery story, and Vincent Sullivan is present only to have scorn and ridicule heaped on him. .

How credible is Doug’s contention? Let’s find out.

Since the blockbuster Wheeler-Nicholson interview appeared in Alter Ego, two new biographies of Siegel and Shuster and Superman have been published: in 2012, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero; and in 2013, Brad Ricca’s Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—The Creators of Superman. In pursuing the story of the discovery of Superman, I read the pertinent parts of both of these. Each seemed, at first blush, to include new scraps of information about Siegel and Shuster’s quest. But then I re-read Les Daniels’ 1998 Superman: The Complete History and realized that it is a surprisingly comprehensive account, especially considering that it was virtually a “house” document (produced with the extensive cooperation of DC Comics) and therefore unlikely to be as painstaking about such minutiae as has been scraped up by the other authors. But in this expectation I was happily disappointed: in fact, most of what I had supposed was fresh minutiae in the other two books, Daniels includes or alludes to. I also read Gerard Jones’ 2004 Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, which is even more detailed in examining the timeline between Superman’s conception and his inaugural publication. I also read (again) the interview with Siegel and Shuster published in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library No.2 (August 1983).

From all of the above, I’ve cobbled together a single plausible narrative, hitting the main points with only a few detours along the way. It scarcely includes every detail and nuance; for those, you should read the sources.

About the conception of Superman, no dispute exists.

Joe Shuster, born July 10, 1914 in Toronto, Canada, moved with his family to Glenville, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in about 1924. A few years later when enrolled in Glenville High School, he met Jerry Siegel, who was the same age, born October 17, 1914; they were maybe 14 when they met. Both fans of what would someday be called science fiction, the two hit it off immediately. In about 1929, Siegel had “published” a typewritten and hectographed magazine entitled Cosmic Stories; it may have been the first sf fanzine in the U.S., maybe in the world. In the summer or fall of their junior year, they produced another sf magazine, Science Fiction, and in the third issue (January 1933), they offered a story entitled “The Reign of the Superman.” In this incarnation, Superman is a villain, using his powers for evil purposes.

Siegel may have been inspired by Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, whose hero, Hugo Danner, was the son of a scientist who has turned him into a super-child. Hugo tries to save the world, but the world, as always suspicious of anything unusual, mocks him and uses him, turning him sour on mankind; he goes mad. But Siegel’s evil Superman, a vagrant named Bill Dunn, seeks world domination. He kills the scientist who injected him with the serum that gave him power, and when the serum wears off, he realizes he should have used his powers for the good of mankind.

A few months later, Siegel took the lesson from Bill Dunn and reimagined Superman as a good guy. According to the conception legend, he had this inspiration during a sleepless night, getting out of bed every couple hours to make notes, and the next morning, he got up and raced a eleven blocks south from his home at 10622 Kimberley Avenue to the apartment building on Armor Avenue where Shuster lived, and the two sat down and gave Siegel’s idea a visual identity. But this Superman, Daniels says, had no superpowers and no costume: he wore ordinary pants and a plain t-shirt, no emblem. No Lois. No secret identity in the form of a mild-mannered newspaper reporter who wears eye glasses as a disguise.

The fictional world fairly teemed with kindred strong men. Tarzan, Doc Savage, not to mention Hercules and Samson. Even Popeye. At one time or another, Siegel acknowledged an interest in each of these. But novelist Brad Meltzer offered another explanation for Siegel’s inspiration.

Siegel had lost his father, Michel (sometimes called “Mitchell”), who died of a heart attack while a robbery was transpiring in his second-hand clothing store at 3560 Central Avenue on the night of June 2, 1932. “I believe the world got Superman because this kid lost his father,” Meltzer told Patrick O’Donnell and Michael Sangiacomo at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It can’t be just a coincidence,” Meltzer said, “that Michel died and within a short time, his son creates the world’s greatest superhero.”

Deprived of his father, young Jerry sought justice symbolically, O’Donnell and Sangiacomo say: “He invents the ultimate crime-fighting superhero ever, Superman, to be his instrument of vengeance” against the criminal element of society.

In his 2008 murder/espionage novel, Book of Lies, Meltzer has Michel die of gunshot wounds inflicted by the robbers, the incident becoming a plot element in the book. The surviving Siegel relatives remember hearing stories about Michel being shot during the robbery, but the death certificate reports that Siegel had chronic myocarditis and died of heart failure, no mention of bullet wounds.

Jerry Siegel never connected his father’s death to Superman—and his widow, Joanne, doesn’t think that tragedy inspired her husband—but this fact of Jerry’s early life had surfaced before Meltzer brought it up. In his 2004 history, Jones rehearses, as fact, the story that Michel was shot to death in his store. Like Meltzer, Jones believes the father’s death “had to have an effect” on Jerry. As Jones told David Colton at USA Today, “Superman’s invulnerability to bullets, loss of family, destruction of his homeland—all seem to overlap with Jerry’s personal experience. There’s a connection there: the loss of a dad as a source for Superman.”

Except that, as Jones himself reports, the good guy Superman that Siegel invented didn’t have superpowers, wasn’t invulnerable to bullets. He had merely “extraordinary strength.” Moreover, as anyone who has read Jones’ tome knows, he is as much novelist as historian, imagining conversations and semi-fictional incidents that he sprinkles throughout his ostensibly factual account of the birth of comic books. Jones’ technique (also employed by Brad Ricca) is an entirely acceptable practice in biographical works, but when encountered by the reader, it encourages a healthy skepticism.

Two novelists, then, have been seduced by the coincidence of Siegel’s father’s being shot to death and the subsequent creation of a fictional hero impervious to gunfire. But sequence alone is not a cause-and-effect relationship, no matter how it’s tarted up by the writers of fiction. What’s more, the hero’s invulnerability, while neatly explained if he has been invented to avenge a shooting death, cannot be so readily seen as protection against a heart attack. I’m afraid we’re left with the high school self-styled nerd and his passion for early science fiction as a much more convincing explanation for the creation of the superhero who sparked the comic book industry into being.

Over the next few weeks, Siegel and Shuster conjured up a Superman story (about which they remember only that maybe the character crouched on building ledges and had a bat-like cape—maybe, maybe not) and offered it to the publisher of a comic book they’d just seen, Detective Dan. Consolidated Book Publishers wrote back (August 23, 1933), saying if they ever published another comic book, they might be interested in using the story. But nothing came of this vague proposition. And Shuster, somehow convinced that his drawings had been so poor that they’d condemned the effort, tore up and burned everything but the inked cover.

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Jones augments this event by reporting that Seigel, convinced Shuster’s drawings weren’t up to the task of illustrating Superman, went looking for another drawing partner in 1934. Russell Keaton, then ghosting Buck Rogers, was one of the candidates; so was Mel Graff, who later created the comic strip Patsy. When Shuster found out what his life-long friend and presumed partner was up to, he destroyed their first completed story in a fit of frustration, rage, and bitter disappointment. But by 1935, Jones says, Siegel and Shuster were back together, brooding about Superman. Superman was still undiscovered, but he had not been lying idle.

Although their first Superman venture had been for Consolidate’s comic book, the boys had not rested after that fizzle. At some point, Siegel decided to re-invent his hero for syndication to newspapers as a comic strip. In the Nemo interview, he says that happened in late 1934. It was then, he says, that his fabled sleepless night took place; but as Jones demonstrates, Siegel wasn’t good at remembering dates: in one of his re-tellings of his nocturnal inspiration, he said it was in 1931. Or 1932. And for a while, the night was “hot,” a summer night, not in late in the year at all. For our present purposes, however, it doesn’t matter when he tossed and turned and concocted the heroic Superman: whenever it happened, it lead to a long gestation during which Superman took more than one form.

In re-conceiving for newspaper comic strip format the strong-man hero of the Consolidated offering, Siegel added a telling element: Superman would have a secret “civilian” identity. Other fictional heroes had secret identities—Zorro, the Shadow. The Scarlet Pimpernel particularly. The movie starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon had opened in 1934, and Jones speculates that “Howard’s sniveling submission to Oberon’s disdain (all in the interest of preserving the secret of Sir Percy Blakeney’s identity as the Pimpernel) proved to be the perfect model for Clark Kent’s twisted relationship with Lois Lane.” But Siegel claimed he didn’t care much for the movie; “The Mark of Zorro,” however, he loved.

But there was more to the Clark Kent persona than imitation.

Said Siegel (in Nemo): “Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe’s. As a high school student, I thought some day I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. … It occurred to me: what if I was [secretly] real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me. That night when all the thoughts were coming to me, the concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do. The heroine, who I figured would be a girl reporter, would think he was some sort of worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character who could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow whom she loathed. By coincidence, Joe was a carbon copy of me.”

It is often maintained that this celebrated triangle of two is the perfect autobiographical embodiment of Siegel and Shuster’s being what we could call today “nerds.” Unathletic, unattractive, uninteresting and socially inept—but mostly bookish.. But that goes too far. Some years ago, I gave a talk about how much of the comic book industry had been, in effect, invented by Jews, and I mentioned Superman as enacting the daydream secret identity of two nerds in Glenville High School—just as Siegel described it. A member of the audience, which was part of the Adult Education program at a local synagogue, pointed out that Glenville was a largely Jewish community (in 1924, the population was 70% Jewish), and in Siegel and Shuster’s day, “all the students at Glenville High School would have been ‘nerds,’” reflecting a traditional emphasis on education and intellectual and artistic aspiration in Jewish culture. No one would have been ridiculed or made to feel inferior for being a nerd.

So the really terrific secret identity Siegel said he aspired to did not reflect the longing of an ignored and ostracized nerd: it reflected the lack of success with girls that Siegel and Shuster no doubt experienced. And that is essentially an adolescent proclivity, not nerdish. Nor Jewish.

Siegel and Shuster prepared comic strips for the new Superman and began circulating them to feature syndicates, hoping for a sale. Like most young cartoonists in those days, they knew there was good money in syndicated comic strips; getting syndicated to newspapers had always, in effect, been their first objective. The Consolidated effort had resulted from a momentary distraction. Still, they also occasionally approached comic book publishers, thinking such magazine publication could serve as a launching pad into newspapers. And they even went to men’s pulps, including one of Donenfeld’s slightly risque productions. “Joe liked to draw sexy girls and Jerry’s work could have a rough edge,” Jones says. “They might have felt that Superman could be adjusted to fit the naughtiness of Pep or the luridness of Spicy Detective.”

Apparently, Siegel and Shuster produced several versions of Superman over the next months, tailoring their presentations for whatever outlet they approached. Jones says the version of Superman that Mayer saw was the one aimed at Donenfeld’s magazines. In it, Superman captures a murderess (“a bottle-blonde chanteuse in her dressing room”) thereby securing the release of a wrongfully imprisoned woman.

Then in early 1935, they saw the first issue of New Fun, a tabloid-size publication with a color cover but black-and-white interior pages. Cover-dated February 1935, it included stories that had been originated expressly for the magazine. Unbeknownst to the Cleveland duo, New Fun’s publisher, Major Wheeler-Nicholson, intended the magazine to serve as a sales vehicle for new comic strips (a “catalogue,” he called it) as well as a publication for newsstand sales. The Major had been syndicating his own serial fiction to newspapers since about 1925. He also adapted classical literature (such as Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers) to comic strip form with abridged text running beneath the panels (or integrated into the pictorial layout). With New Fun, he planned to enter the syndicated comic strip business. To that purpose, he had rounded up a few artists and writers to create new strips for his “brochure.”

Siegel and Shuster knew none of this when they first saw New Fun; what they saw was simply a market for new material, and they immediately devised several features and wrote the Major with their ideas. He liked two—Henri Duval of France, Famed Soldier of Fortune, and Doctor Occult the Ghost Detective—and ordered a page of each. Soon after they delivered the pages, Siegel and Shuster received a check for $12, $6 a page, for their first published effort—in New Fun No.6 (cover-dated October 1935).

Not too long thereafter, the Major wrote them on June 6, 1935:

“I am enclosing herewith a pencil sketch which seems to have been lost in the shuffle here, as it appeared to be simply a piece of wrapping paper. I believe that there are possibilities in this sketch and in the idea. We would be willing to give it a tryout in the magazine if your completed job stands up with what the pencil sketch would seem to show.”

Jones speculates that the sketches and notes were jotted on the wrapping paper by Shuster as he and Siegel anticipated selling Superman into national syndication as a newspaper comic strip. Most of the phrases (“The Smash Hit Strip of 1936—SUPERMAN!” and “The Greatest Super-Hero of All Time!” and “The Strip Destined to Sweep the Nation!”) aspire to promote the comic strip Superman. Clearly, the Major hasn’t actually seen any Superman sample strips: he wants to see if a “completed job stands up with what the pencil sketches would seem to show.” But how did he get the wrapping paper?

As a youngster, Shuster often sketched on wrapping paper and the blank backs of wall paper, and when doodling ideas in later years, he probably continued the practice rather than using expensive artboard for the purpose. He doubtless had sheets of such doodled-on wrapping paper lying around his room, and he may have grabbed this sheet to wrap around the Henri and Occult strips when he shipped them off to the Major.

Prompted by the Major’s expressed interest in the Superman sketches, Siegel and Shuster eventually sent him a Superman story, which they prepared even while producing more Henri and Occult pages for New Fun. By the time they sent him Superman, they probably realized that the Major’s magazine doubled as a catalogue for selling features into newspaper syndication, and they were eager to take advantage of the opportunity. On October 4, 1935, the Major responded:

“The Superman strip is being held for an order now pending from a national syndicate,” he began, but then he tacked in another direction: “It is my own idea, based on a lot of experience in selling in the syndicate game, that you would be much better off doing Superman in full page in four colors for one of our publications. I consider our magazines primarily catalogues of features and the selling resistance is considerably less for color stuff than it is on daily back-and-white. We also have pending an order for a sixteen-page tabloid in four colors in which we could include Superman around the first of the year if we have it in colors and running. Use your own judgment on this. I think myself that Superman stands a very good chance.”

This letter, more than June’s epistle, was the “written proof” that Doug had of his father’s early commitment to Superman. But Siegel and Shuster were disappointed. While the Major seemed to promise to market the strip, he also threw cold water on their hopes for doing a daily comic strip. The best the Major held out was the prospect of a color comic, perhaps a Sunday strip although that’s not entirely clear. In the last analysis, the partners turned down the Major’s offer because they were leery of his shaky finances. Like all of the Major’s artists and writers, they’d been getting paid, if at all, weeks or months after publication. And the Major’s plans for Superman were all couched in iffy language: the deals in the offing were all just “pending”; nothing definite. They decided to continue to try to sell Superman elsewhere and asked the Major to return the strips they’d sent him.

Unbeknownst to them, the Major was on the brink of bankruptcy. Without sufficient capital, he was unable to bring out the next issue of New Fun until January 1936. By that time, he’d secured additional backing from Donenfeld, who had been joined by Jack Liebowitz, a much more astute financial manager than the back-slapping deal-making Donenfeld. With Donenfeld’s support, the Major launched his second comic book, New Comics (which eventually morphed into Adventure Comics), and for it and another new title he intended to publish, Tye says he sent Siegel and Shuster a list of several new features that he wanted them to produce— Federal Men, Calling All Cars: Sandy Kean and the Radio Squad, Spy, and Slam Bradley. As conceived by the Major and executed by Siegel and Shuster, the two-fisted Slam Bradley was a knock-off of Roy Crane’s successful comic strip adventurer, Captain Easy. Slam’s debut was delayed a year until the Major could scrape together the resources to get Detective Comics out of the chute.

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Siegel and Shuster had plenty on their plate, but they continued to send Superman around to syndicates and other prospective publishers. Tye speculates that “by the end of 1937, copies of Jerry and Joe’s Superman comic strip could be found in the backs of filing cabinets and the bottoms of wastebaskets across the world of publishing.” Among those they tried in 1936 was Popular Comics, being run for Dell by Gaines; Siegel imagined that the reprint title, like the Major’s New Fun, might serve as a platform for Superman, leading to syndication. Gaines, Jones says, tried to get Superman into the title but failed.

They sent Superman to Ledger Syndicate, which rejected it, saying: “We feel that editors and the public have had their fill for the time being of interplanetary and superhuman subjects.” Space traveling Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon probably, but a plethora of “superhuman subjects”? Other rejections were reputedly similar. In 1937, they approached Tip Top Comics, the reprint vehicle for United Feature Syndicate. United held the strip for a while but on February 18, dropped the axe:

“I am afraid we are not ready to use your pages for some time. The trouble with Superman, for example, is that it is still a rather immature piece of work. It is attractive because of its freshness and naivete, but this is likely to wear off after the feature runs for a while.”

“Immature” translates, Daniels says, “as not suited to adult newspaper readers.” The same criticism was inherent in some other rejections. Newspaper editors had long recognized that their comics section, while attractive to children, is aimed at adults. And comic book publishers—most of whom at the time were publishing reprint collections of newspaper strips—also envisioned an adult readership. That would change with comic books, though, once Superman established a young audience for the four-color fantasies.

In late 1937, the Major began work on another comic book title. When he started Detective in January 1937, he had intended to bring out simultaneously a companion title, Thrilling, but couldn’t summon the financing. By the fall, he figured he could swing it. What’s more—he desperately needed a new, successful title. Jones says the Major was deep in debt to Donenfeld, who had financed the printing of National’s comic books for some time; and the revenues from sales were not, it seemed, enough to pay off the debt. The Major and his editor, Vincent Sullivan, began collecting material for the new title, which they’d now changed to Action Comics.

At this point in our nail-biting narrative, the plot falls into confusion with different players accorded the same mutually exclusive roles. I’ll start with Jones’ version.

Looking over what he had, Sullivan felt he needed something else—“a catchy central character that he could splash on the cover.”

So Sullivan went to his former cohort, Shelly Mayer, who’d been an editor for the Major about the time of the Detective launch (he’d quit, Jones says, when the Major couldn’t pay him, and he’d gone to work full-time for Gaines). Sullivan asked Mayer if Gaines had anything promising laying unspoken for around the McClure shop. And Mayer told him about Superman. And Sullivan liked what he saw.

So far, this elongated narrative fits into the legend more-or-less. But questions lurk. Why did Sullivan go to Mayer? Sullivan had been the Major’s editor long enough to know that the Major went directly to Siegel and Shuster for ideas for New Comics in late 1935; so if Sullivan needed “a catchy central character” for Action, why didn’t he go to Siegel and Shuster? Siegel and Shuster had a track record of cranking out concepts for the Major.

And there are other unexplained anomalies. First among them is the letter Siegel wrote to Liebowitz on December 6, 1937. In this epistle, Siegel describes several new characters that, Ricca says, he is proposing for Action Comics: “Bob Hazard, a ‘world-wide adventurer,’ and The Crimson Horseman, a ‘masked, cloaked rider of mystery who metes out grim justice in a lawless cattle country where the law is openly flouted’ … The Wraith, an unusual detective with ‘abnormal glands’ [that make his senses ‘acute to a hypersensitive degree’] … ‘He tracks down criminals like a prowling beast … frightens criminals half out of their wits because they believe him to be not of this world,’ Chesty Crane [an athlete ‘full of sport action,’ and] Streak Marvel, a ‘scientific genius.’

“Jerry suggests such variety because he envisions that ‘Action Comics would contain a well-balanced list of features: adventure, western sport, and science fiction.’”

Why is Siegel writing Liebowitz? Ricca doesn’t indicate whether Siegel’s letter is in response to a request from Liebowitz, but why else would he write someone he’d probably never heard of? Larry Tye says Siegel was not writing to Liebowitz but to Gaines, in response to Gaines’ request for material for an 8-page weekly tabloid (which we’ll get to in a trice). But if Siegel is writing Liebowitz, how did Liebowitz get involved?

By late 1937, Donenfeld and his partners Liebowitz and Paul Sampliner (who operated Independent News Company, a distributor of magazines and the Major’s comic books) owned National Allied Publications. They had financed the Major’s comics and then connived to push him to the edge of bankruptcy. Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson maintains that Donenfeld et al juggled numbers to give the Major the impression that his comics were losing money. One of their scams, Doug says, was to print more comics than they knew they could sell, and when, in the normal practice of the day, the unsold copies were returned—and in greater number than prudent printing would yield—they said the returns proved the comic books weren’t selling. “They claimed the firm wasn’t making any money because of all the returns.”

In effect, the Major was told that he was piling up more debt, and in late 1937, Donenfeld sued for the $5,878 he was owed, pushing National Allied into bankruptcy court. “Since the Major obviously couldn’t pay it,” Ricca writes, “Harry Donenfeld, after a simple but cold court maneuver, bought out his debt and became the primary partner” in the Major’s business.

Said Jones: “In early 1938, Donenfeld sent [the Major] and his wife on a cruise to Cuba to ‘work up new ideas.’ When they came home, the Major found the lock to his office door changed.” He was out.

Brad Ricca makes Donenfeld a much more active agent in all of this, but I doubt it. Donenfelt was a glad-hander, a back-slapper, not a doer. He made a career out of acquiring other people’s companies. He forced the Major out of his, but I don’t think he had the acumen to run a publishing company, and he probably would not have realized that Superman was a promising creation. In several accounts of the arrival of Superman, Donenfeld is described as being alarmed by the picture of Superman lifting an automobile over his head on the cover of Action Comics No.1, thinking no one would believe it and therefore no one would buy the comic book. Not the reaction of a discerning, innovative publisher or of risk-taker.

The Major may have been gone as early as December 1937. Tye says Action Comics was assembled by Sullivan and Liebowitz, who ran the company after the Major had been kicked out the door. That might explain Siegel’s December 6 letter to Liebowitz, assuming Liebowitz had written him, asking for ideas for Action Comics.

Or maybe Siegel wrote Liebowitz unsolicited—in response to a recommendation from Gaines. Ricca says Gaines once wrote Siegel, strongly urging him to submit Superman to Detective, but the date of this letter is not given in Ricca’s text; and it’s not clear from Ricca’s language whether Gaines meant Detective Comics or the Major’s company, also called Detective Comics, which was formed to embrace the partnership with Donenfeld-Liebowitz. Ricca cites Gaines’ letter (without quoting any of it) when his narrative is dealing with the events of the fall of 1937. He footnotes the reference, saying it comes from Siegel’s “Story Behind Superman No.1,” but the footnote doesn’t date the article (although Ricca says it’s in court papers—Exhibit X—in the Superman ownership case before U.S. District Court, Central District of California, July 28, 2008); and the article itself isn’t listed in the book’s bibliography.

Daniels says Gaines wrote to Siegel on November 30. Gaines had “kept an eye on Siegel and Shuster” ever since their first submission to him in 1936. Now, he may have something for them: “We are working on an idea entirely apart and separate from such comic books, and we are looking for several good features, each weekly story to consist of eight complete tabloid pages.”

“Siegel sent Superman,” Daniels goes on, “and in December he visited National’s offices.” Either then or soon thereafter, “Gaines, whose plans for the new tabloid were stalled, asked Siegel for permission to offer Superman to Action Comics.” Gaines may have made his request in the letter Ricca refers to above, adding to the request a strenuous recommendation to seek publication of Superman with Detective Comics (both the company and the publication). Or Gaines may have talked to Siegel about it when Siegel visited New York. If, as Daniels says, Siegel visited National’s offices, then he probably met Liebowitz, who may have encouraged him to make other suggestions for Action Comics while promising to look over his Superman submission.

Tye gives Liebowitz an even more prominent role. In an echo of Sullivan’s writing Mayer in search of leftovers from syndicate submissions, Tye says it was Liebowitz who initiated the contact with Gaines, asking if he had “any material around … stuff that had been submitted to them which had been turned down,” quoting from Liebowitz’s unpublished autobiography. “He sent me over a pile of stuff. Among that pile of stuff was Superman which had been submitted by Siegel and Shuster to the syndicate which had turned it down like all other syndicates turned it down. It was six strips, daily strips, made for newspapers. Anyway, we liked it.” “We” is presumably Liebowitz and Sullivan.

Tye doesn’t list Liebowitz’s unpublished masterpiece in the book’s bibliography (then again, why list in a bibliography an unpublished book that is therefore not available to curious readers or insatiable scholars?). Maybe that doesn’t matter: the quotations from Liebowitz can be seen as showing that he is probably more interested in insinuating himself into an unparalleled publishing history than he is in factual reportage. Liebowitz wants a pivotal role in the history. The same may be said for Sullivan and Mayer and Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson.

In his autobiography, quoted by Tye, Liebowitz claims “we” cut up the Superman strips and “made a 13-page story out of it.” He also remembers picking the first cover and harmonizing distribution and marketing. “That was the beginning of the comic industry as far as I was concerned,” Liebowitz says, putting himself conspicuously right smack in the middle of all the innovations. History belongs to those who survive to write it, and Liebowitz’s unpublished tome is a case in point.

But to entertain for a moment the possibility that Liebowitz’s memoir is scrupulously honest, if he and Sullivan were assembling Action Comics, as Tye maintains, Liebowitz doubtless knew that Sullivan had written to Mayer—if, in fact, he did—and he could have appropriated that piece of the history with himself as the principal actor instead of Sullivan. Daniels agrees that Liebowitz asked Gaines for leftover syndicate submissions. But Liebowitz was still alive when Daniels’ book was published, and he may have been asked to review Daniels’ typescript, whereupon, he “reminded” Daniels that he, Liebowitz, was an active agent in securing Superman.

The possibility exists, of course, that Liebowitz and Sullivan discussed the wisdom of tapping Gaines’ slush pile for material for Action Comics—without Liebowitz actually contacting Gaines. Liebowitz may not have known Gaines at that point, but Sullivan had a way to get to Gaines through his old pal and former fellow editor, Mayer. But the pesky question remains: why would Sullivan write Mayer when he was on familiar terms with Siegel who was well-established as an idea man for the Major’s books?

Jones says Action Comics was assembled by Sullivan and the Major—presumably before the Major was outed. Both the Tye and Jones scenarios permit Mayer to enter into the narrative as the person who knew about those Superman strips just lying around the McClure office. But nothing in either scenario explains why Sullivan would write to Mayer when he already knew about Superman—and, if he had ever been working closely with the Major, he most assuredly did.

According to the Major’s son: “Superman was a major subject of discussion all the way from early fall of 1937 right through the ashcan proposal, right through all the troubles. It was a major source of discussion in the house. The Old Man thought it was extremely timely, and he was very specific about a Nietzschean kind of hero at this point of the Depression, and that this would be a perfect thing to put forth to the public at this time. He talked about it extensively. We talked about it at the dinner table.” Doug says his father intended Action Comics as a “vehicle” for Superman, as a “showcase” for the character.

Doug was about nine years old at the time, but discussions at the dinner table were a vibrant family tradition, he says, so it isn’t surprising that he’d remember something as exciting as the Superman concept. During his interview with Amash, Doug often denies knowing things that might support his argument—saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember”—a sign of inherent integrity. But he’s not always right, either.

He maintains that the first issue of Action was assembled by the Major and Sullivan—that the Major was “actively involved” in the company through May of 1938, that Donenfeld “didn’t actually have ownership until July or August.” But documentary evidence seems to contradict him in a few instances—the most blatant of which is the letter by which Siegel and Shuster give up all rights to Superman. It is dated March 1, 1938, and is signed by Jack Liebowitz for Detective Comics, Inc. (Interestingly, the Major was not apparently as grasping as Leibowitz and Donenfeld: in at least one documented instance, he returned to one contributor the rights for the piece contributed.)

The Major could still have been actively involved at that point, simply ignoring, as was his wont, such mundane matters as the business side of his enterprise, leaving them to the one of his partners who was more adept at such things—Liebowitz.

The Major was certainly still functioning in his own company in December, when the ashcan edition of Action Comics was produced. The ashcan had a cover drawn by Creig Flessel (a superior artist who did a lot of excellent artwork for the Major), but the interior pages, stapled together with the cover to secure a copyright, consist of previously published material and no Superman pages. And Flessel’s cover evidently didn’t depict Superman.

Doug was unequivocal in denying any discoverer role to Sullivan, Mayer or Gaines. Such ideas were patently false, he maintained. But to deny them the role of discovering Superman is not to deny them a role in obtaining Superman material for the first issue of Action Comics.

In any event, Sullivan surely knew about Superman. And if, as he later said, he liked it, why would he be writing Shelly Mayer in search of a central character? Why wouldn’t he write Siegel, who had been so consistently supplying good ideas to the Major’s comics? Sullivan was certainly on good terms with Siegel (as we can tell from the letter Sullivan would write Siegel in January 1938); if he wrote Siegel, he wouldn’t be writing a stranger. Maybe Sullivan wrote to Mayer in search of backup features for Action Comics. If he already knew Superman would be the lead feature, he might have needed other features. But even that explanation doesn’t dovetail with documentary evidence, none of which mentions a need for secondary features for Action.

Sullivan has been made editor by Donenfeld and Liebowitz, and on January 10, 1938, he wrote to Siegel (notice that he begins with a familiar, not formal, greeting; he knew Siegel and probably had written to him before):

“Dear Jerry—No doubt you’re quite surprised to be hearing from me from the above address [the office of National/Detective had moved uptown to Lexington Avenue] … Nicholson Pub. is now in the hands of receivers, … due to the taking over of the publication by Detective Comics by the firm to which Mr. Liebowitz is business manager, etc.

“I have on hand now several features you sent to Mr. Liebowitz. … the one feature I liked best, and the one that seems to fit into the proposed schedule is that ‘Superman.’ With all the work Joe [familiar reference] is doing now [for Fun and New Adventure] could it be possible for him to still turn out 13 pages of this new feature … for the new magazine? Adding another 13 [pages] to his already filled schedule is loading him up to the neck. Please let me know immediately whether or not he can do this extra feature.”

Apart from the core message—Sullivan wanted Superman for the first issue of Action—the letter tantalizes with random bits of news and some questions. First, Siegel had sent Superman to Liebowitz—perhaps in response to Gaines’ recommendation? But according to Liebowitz’s unpublished memoir, he got the Superman strips from Gaines. Or maybe Sullivan is simply short-circuiting the actual sequence—Superman to Gaines, Gaines to Liebowitz, hence Siegel sent it to Liebowitz but by a circuitous route. “Several features”? Would those be the concepts Siegel outlined in his letter of December 6?

Second, if National/Detective was “in the hands of receivers,” did that mean the Major could not remain “actively involved” with the company as his son believes he was?

Siegel and Shuster doubtless had mixed emotions when they read Sullivan’s letter. All along, they had hoped to get Superman into newspapers not into comic books. But the Major’s initial thinking that his comic books were catalogues offering strips for newspaper syndication no doubt hovered in the backs of their minds. Says Daniels: “They still believed that comic book publication might be the route to newspaper syndication, and they knew that the new owners of Detective Comics, Inc., were far more solvent than Wheeler-Nicholson. The new offer seemed like the way to go, and they agreed to turn out thirteen pages of Superman.”

In response, on February 1, Sullivan shipped off to them the Superman strips; on February 4, he fired off another epistle, urging speed: “Shoot the works, PRONTO! Those thirteen pages will have to be in the office here within three weeks’ time. … Regards to Joe and make this first release (and the others, too) the very best … the initial issue of any magazine should be without imperfections.”

Three weeks to produce thirteen pages may not seem like so herculean a task (less than a page a day, and they had the first adventure “storyboarded” in the comic strip version), but Shuster was also doing other features for National. To save time—and to respond to Sullivan’s sense of urgency—Shuster and Siegel decided to use the art in the comic strips: they cut the panels apart and pasted them up in comic book page format, sometimes cropping panels or extending the art to make them fit into the perfectly rectangular grid.

(Shelly Mayer, incidently, often claimed that he did the cutting and pasting, another sign of his eagerness to be a part of what would become a watershed event in the history of comic books. On the GCD Chat List in 2001, Mike Catron speculated that Mayer was remembering work he did on Superman No.1; early issues of that title “contained reprints of the Superman comic strip.” A couple days later, however, Catron went through the first issue of Superman, page by page, identifying the sources of each, and concluded that none of the newspaper Superman strip found its way into Superman No.1. But, quoting Jim Steranko, who noted that the second issue of Superman contained newspaper strip reprints, Catron decided that Mayer was remembering those paste-ups—which, Catron allows, Mayer probably thought were for Superman No.1 (and in later years confused with Action No.1) but which ended up in Superman No.2. A nice save for Mayer’s reputation as an industry giant.)

Ricca treats the reconfiguring operation as a monumental undertaking, but he has displayed throughout the book a penchant from dramatizing incidents—including a generous helping of child and adolescent psychology in fleshing out the story of Siegel’s youth and Shuster’s. The early chapters in the book are novelistic rather than documentary.

The story that wound up the lead feature in Action Comics No.1 is a headlong dash of action, beginning with Superman leaping through the night air carrying a bound and gagged woman to the governor’s mansion in order to win the release of another woman, who is innocent of the crimes the woman under Superman’s arm has committed. Superman barges into the governor’s quarters, ripping doors off their hinges, and persuades the governor that the wrong woman is about to be executed. This episode, Jones opines, is a fragment from the more lurid version of Superman that Siegel and Shuster tailored for men’s magazines.

In the rest of the inaugural tale, Superman beats up a wife-beater, takes fellow reporter Lois Lane out for dinner and dancing as Clark Kent, rescues her from a gang of kidnaping hoodlums as Superman, and tackles corruption in the nation’s capital. The relationship between Clark and Lois, her ignoring him as a wimp and his doing better reporting on important stories, is broached, promising more lively times ahead.

With that, Superman was on his way to iconic status in American culture. In response to the character’s startling newsstand popularity, the Superman title was assembled to hit newsstands in mid-May 1939—the first comic book devoted to the exploits of a single character. At this point, Gaines emerges as the mover and shaker for Superman.

The production of at least the first issue of Superman was supervised by Gaines, who dictated content, virtually page by page. Daniels quotes from Gaines’ March 27, 1939 letter to Siegel: “We have decided that for the first six pages of the Superman book, we would like you to take the first page of ‘Superman’ which appears in Action Comics No.1 and, by elaborating on this one page, using different ideas than those contained on this page, work up two introductory pages.”

Gaines also specified a page that would offer “Scientific Explanations of Superman’s Amazing Strength” and “four pages of a thrilling episode which results in Superman becoming a reporter.”

With a desk at McClure Syndicate, Gaines was also chiefly responsible for the syndication of the comic strip incarnation that debuted just a few months before, on January 16. Once the newsstand success of the character had been determined, Gaines easily persuaded McClure to take on the feature. But it wasn’t exactly that mythical newsstand survey after the fourth issue of Action Comics that swung the deal.

Gaines and Donenfeld knew well before then that they had a hit on their hands. Tye explains that magazine distributors and newsstand dealers kept an eye on sales from the start, particularly with a new title. Twice a month—fifteen days after the magazines were delivered and again at the end of that month—dealers counted the books on display and reported the numbers sold to the distributor, using penny postcards that the distributor had left behind for the purpose. It was a crude method, fraught with hit-or-miss pitfalls, but it was supported by the more exact tally that was made when delivery trucks picked up unsold magazines as they delivered the new issue.

Even after the first issue of Action Comics, Donenfelt and Liebowitz knew the title was a success: the first issue sold 64 percent of its print run, and anything over 50 percent guaranteed a profit.

According to Tye, they ran that in-magazine questionnaire in No.4 simply to refine their interpretation of the meaning of the sales figures. And by even less scientific means—sending “agents around Manhattan to check demand at kiosks and drugstores”—they’d determined that Superman was the likely reason for the title’s success. Maybe this haphazard “survey” produced the legendary anecdote about hoards of youngsters asking for “the magazine with Superman in it.”

In any event, the results of the fourth issue’s questionnaire confirmed the publisher’s suppositions. Cover-dated September, Action Comics No.4 probably hit newsstands in late July or early August. By September, Gaines had raised the question of syndication with the officials at McClure.

Donenfeld, as the man whose company owned the rights to Superman, was deeply engaged in negotiating the syndicate deal. He held out for 40% of the proceeds, an astronomical amount. Syndicates usually split the profits (net income) 50/50 with cartoonists; Donenfeld’s deal presumably left only 60% of the profits to be shared by McClure and Siegel/Shuster. But Donenfeld held the rights and had the leverage: Tye cites figures that show sales of Action Comics had climbed steadily with each issue.

Before the deal was signed, according to Kobler in his Saturday Evening Post article, Siegel and Shuster “begged Donenfeld to give back the syndication rights” that they’d signed away the previous spring. But Donenfeld said only that if they came to New York, he was sure “we can work something out.”

What they worked out in September 1938 was a 10-year contract: if they agreed to an exclusive arrangement with Donenfeld, Siegel and Shuster would get $500 for every 13-page story in the comic books, 50% of the net (after Donenfeld’s 40%) from the comic strip, and 5% of the take from Superman movies, shirts, sweaters, toys and other such ancillary products. Donenfeld, meanwhile, would get an agent’s fee of 10% of McClure’s gross (the revenue before any sharing was done, before even Donenfeld’s 40% was siphoned off).

Clearly, Siegel and Shuster were being taken to the cleaners. Kobler speculates that for the first year of the contract, the creators enjoyed “an increase of less than $100 a month.” By 1942, the strip was in 285 newspapers nationwide according to Tye. Siegel and Shuster made good money over the next ten years, but Donenfeld reaped the bonanza. His cut in 1940 was $100,000. Kobler said Siegel and Shuster were splitting $75,000 in 1940. Tye quotes Siegel as saying the two were sharing only $38,000, but “even at the lower figure, he was earning $307,000 a year in today’s dollars.” (And it’s likely, since $38,000 is about half of $75,000, that Siegel meant his share was $38,000 not that he and Shuster were sharing $38,000.)

Ancillary income began almost at once. The Superman radio program started February 12, 1940. (Ominously, a couple of months later, in May 1940, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, Sterling North, wrote a column about the “national disgrace” he saw in comic books—that depicted in crude colors all sorts of violence, bringing on the “cultural slaughter of the innocent” (young readers)—accusing Superman of launching a cult of “bully worship.”) Animated Superman cartoons started in September 1941.

And that brings us to the close of the inaugural days of Superman: he’s a success as a comic book hero and he’s starring, at last, in his own syndicated newspaper comic strip; and Siegel and Shuster have reasonably secure jobs in their chosen field. More entanglements and grievances ensued, but I won’t explore them here. You can find them in Daniels, Jones, Tye and Ricca. Here, I’m concerned chiefly with finding someone to crown with the laurels of discovering Superman. Having surveyed the half-dozen years of Superman’s gestation, let’s return to the question we started with: who is his discoverer? Who among the several candidates saw the Siegel-Shuster creation and thought it worthy of publication?

In his account, Les Daniels credits Liebowitz with an assist from Gaines. Larry Tye says Liebowitz found Superman in Gaines’ slush pile, but he acknowledges that Major Wheeler-Nicholson yearned to publish the Man of Steel earlier. Gerard Jones gives the palm to Mayer and Sullivan but with the Major hovering in the background (and he says it was Donenfeld who was working with Sullivan to assemble material for the first issue of Action Comics). Brad Ricca promotes Gaines and Donenfeld. Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson claims, without equivocation, that his father, and only his father, was Superman’s discoverer.

Based upon the number of credits accumulated, Gaines and Liebowitz seem good candidates. But the Major beats them both by one more credit. Votes, however, are not a reliable basis for making a final determination. For a more dependable resolution, we should turn to documents. Few documents exist; and none that support either Shelly Mayor or Vin Sullivan as Superman’s discoverer. The documents we have—all letters from and to various parties—unhorse the legend completely. And the earliest document recognizing by name the potential of Superman is the Major’s October 1935 letter. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is clearly the discoverer of Superman.

Some of the other claimants, however, have legitimate and significant places in the story. Relying chiefly upon the documents we have, we can fill in a few blanks with reasonable supposition and construct thereby a narrative of discovery that knits together several otherwise contentious strands. Neither Mayer or Sullivan figure significantly in the narrative, but Gaines does.

By the time he wrote Siegel in November 1937 about the tabloid possibility for Superman, Gaines had seen Superman several times and probably entertained the notion that the strong man from space could make a good comics feature. (Otherwise, why write Siegel about the tabloid possibility?) When the tabloid scheme fell through, Gaines could very well have urged Siegel to take Superman to the Major. Although Ricca says Gaines wrote Siegel to this effect, he doesn’t quote a letter, and a letter may not exist.

If, as Daniels reports, Siegel went to New York and visited National Allied’s offices in December 1937, that may have been when Gaines made his suggestion; it may have been made in person rather than in writing.

Visiting National may not have been the reason for Siegel’s trip: he may have gone to New York to meet with Gaines about the tabloid plan. When he got to Gaines’ office, Gaines had the unhappy chore of telling the young man that the tabloid option had evaporated. Seeking, perhaps, to assuage Siegel’s disappointment, Gaines may, at that time, have suggested that Siegel take Superman to the Major, to National. And Siegel may have done exactly that—visiting National’s offices, as Daniels claims.

Siegel knew that the Major wanted Superman, but he’d been reluctant to give the character to the Major because of the Major’s wobbly financial history. Gaines may have told Siegel that Liebowitz was now running things at National and that consequently there would be no financial worries.

After visiting with Liebowitz at National, Siegel may have decided to offer Superman, asking Gaines to send over the Superman strips he had, plus whatever he had in his slush pile from Siegel and Shuster. Then when he got back to Cleveland, Siegel wrote to Liebowitz on December 6 with other ideas for features for Action Comics. Subsequently, Sullivan, acting as Liebowitz’s editor, wrote to Siegel, announcing Liebowitz’s decision to accept Superman. Sullivan doesn’t mention the Major in this letter (or, at least, in as much of it as has been quoted) nor does he allude to any previous discussions about Superman. But he surely knew of the Major’s interest in Superman: if Superman had been a topic of discussion around the Wheeler-Nicholson family dinner table in the fall of 1937, the Major would undoubtedly have mentioned the feature to Sullivan that fall. Or so it would seem. Sullivan, after all, was the Major’s editor.

Based upon his early championing of the character, the Major is clearly the discoverer of Superman. But Gaines undoubtedly played a major role in getting the character into print.

We can conjure into this narrative a place for Mayer that echoes his own statements—but without any documentation. He may well have liked Siegel’s earliest Superman submission to Gaines and therefore promoted it to his boss, raising Gaines’ consciousness about the feature. And when Siegel told Gaines in December 1937 to send Superman over to National, it’s reasonable to suppose that Gaines directed his assistant, young Mayer, to scoop up the Siegel-Shuster stuff and send it over. As a former employee at National, Mayer knew Sullivan and would doubtless have sent the Siegel-Shuster material to him. This scenario, entirely speculative, supports the main outlines of the legend. No document that I’m aware of supports this contention, but it is reasonable to suppose that events transpired as I’ve just outlined them—making a place in comics history for Mayer.

Sullivan also enjoys a place in that history as editor of Action Comics—but only as editor; not exactly the role he remembers for himself. He claims to have written Mayer asking for any discards in the McClure slush pile. But no such letter surfaced in any of the accounts I consulted. Moreover, if the Gaines thread about urging Siegel to send Superman to National is accurate, Sullivan’s letter would be superfluous. Ditto Liebowitz’s claim to have written Gaines the same kind of letter. (In another niche of the narrative, however, Gaines’ recommendation to Siegel to send Superman to National may have been prompted by a phone call from Liebowitz at National.)

Attempting to wedge into Superman’s advent story as many of the errant fragments as possible makes room for nearly everyone involved, however subsidiary their roles may have been in actuality. But reality is often more messy than we’d like it to be. It seems beyond dispute, however, that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is the first to have seen Superman as a creation worthy of publication and to have been in a position professionally to have acted on his opinion. The Major is the discoverer of Superman. If anyone who has waded through this swamp of contradictory contentions has another version of the events I’ve tried to knit together into a single narrative, I’d love to hear it.

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17 Responses to Who Discovered Superman

  1. R. Maheras says:

    Geez, R.C. — This is the most thorough and impartial piece I’ve ever seen about the topic of Superman’s early years. Nice work! With all of the intrigue and suspense, and the irony of publisher after publisher turning down what would one day become an iconic, billion-dollar franchise, this would make a great movie!

  2. Brad Ricca says:

    I love your last line because that’s where it will always end up and start again — we have some facts, but not enough, so different people will always have to (until we build a time machine) construct their own narratives. Good to see Les Daniels get some respect here — his account has always been very helpful, as is this one. This part of the story in particular has always been a mess because the prime players all say something different. We know why: it’s Superman — everyone wants a piece.

    I spent a great deal of time trying to unravel this myself and the key for me (as you note) is Jerry’s claim (made a few times) that he was urged by Gaines to submit to Detective. That, along with Donenfeld’s recent loss of The Lone Ranger license, made me see wonder if Gaines was masterminding a process whereby the character would tryout with Detective, then Harry could make the newspaper sale that would leave him and Gaines with lots of profit — and Jerry and Joe out of the syndicate jackpot. Jerry and Joe were LIVID about this for their entire lives — they weren’t mad because Superman was a big hit, they were mad because they knew they got swindled. Read my book for more on this theory (<–key word). It also involves Mickey Mouse.

    The Major, their mentor, was definitely interested in Superman. But discovery makes me think of the Vikings and Columbus, you know? Someone did it first, but which discovery had the biggest impact? The Major saw the spark of the character, but the cover of Action #1 is what led to a multimedia franchise within two years. But can't disagree with your point: The Major did want this version first. I guess I would adapt it a bit and say that The Major, unequivocally, discovered Jerry and Joe. Their work for him was their education that refined their skills enough to get to (and sell) Superman.

    That being said, I should have made my footnote more discoverable, it seems. Sorry! It is from, among other places, the original NY court case, presented as part of evidence in file 2:04-cv-08400-SGL-RZ Document 347-10 Filed 07/28/2008. I've put this letter up on my website below so everyone can see it:

    http://brad-ricca.com/?p=3969

    And just for the record, I disagree that the importance of Jerry's father's death — by a heart attack during an unsolved crime — is just speculation. Beyond symbolic, emotional, and economic reasons (of which there are many), the real clincher for me was the sheer amount of evidence in the comics themselves: those early Actions are loaded with heart attacks, lost fathers, and more. Like all good writers, Jerry wrote what he knew.

    -Brad

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      Your suggestion that the Major discovered Jerry and Joe is undoubtedly accurate—and has the nice ring of poetry about it, too. But by “discoverer” of Superman, I was trying to learn who it was that tipped the balance in favor of publishing the character. My supposition is that Siegel and Shuster were already well within the toils of the Major’s shoe-string operation with Superman (slated to appear in Action No.1) before Gaines or anyone else moved decisively in that direction, so I give the nod to the Major. Gaines was, as I say, a significant actor here, too.
      The letter you link to above is Jerry’s, not Gaines’ (which seems not to exist); and Jerry says Gaines wrote to him in early 1938, urging him to submit Superman to Detective Comics (i.e., the Major). My guess is that Siegel’s memory is a little shaky here; early January 1938 is when Sullivan wrote Siegel, telling him that Liebowitz had decided to publisher Superman (which is what the now defrocked Major had already decided before Liebowtiz took over his company). In other words, by “early 1938,” Siegel would have needed no urging from Gaines to do something that Sullivan was already acting on. I still think the Gaines advice/letter came earlier than that, probably in December about the time Siegel went to NY.
      As for heart attacks and absent fathers figuring in Siegel’s storytelling, I think you’re right: Jerry wrote what he knew. But writing stories in which fathers had heart attacks is not the same as inventing Superman. It’s the contention that the death of his father inspired Siegel to created Superman that I find not credible. Superman came right out of adolescent daydreams, hence his appeal to young readers. Thanks for the plug at your website, by the way (although not at all incidentally).

      • Brad Ricca says:

        That’s why we can still debate about a caped superhero 75 years later — Superman draws us into interpretation. It’s his ongoing secret identity. Point taken on the Major — “tipped the balance” is an interesting way to think about it.

        About the letter dates, Jerry quotes a lot of letters — he was smart enough to keep the correspondence between him and pretty much everyone they dealt with. They actually might not have had much of a case if he didn’t keep this stuff. But no, I haven’t seen the Gaines letter, only Jerry’s reference to it. That being said, the original letters we do have match up with Jerry’s dates and content (on multiple occasions), so I trust that he’s right on it. When he starts quoting letters (as in his letter to Detective Comics and the infamous press release), he is (perhaps uncharacteristically) stuck to the facts, at least as much as we can confirm. If the letter still exists, it is with the Siegels. Maybe we’ll see it someday.

  3. patrick ford says:

    Jack Liebowitz wrote an autobiography and it is unpublished. That says a lot.

    • Odkin says:

      This would be valuable first-person account, probably no more self-serving than anyone elses’. The family needs to make it available. It’s probably unpublishable commercially, but whatever nuggets it contains could be very valuable historically.

  4. Thank you so much Mr. Harvey for presenting this information. If anyone is interested in more information they can check out “the Major’s” website and look for the upcoming biography in progress that is being written by Gerard Jones and me. http://www.majormalcolmwheelernicholson.com
    Best to you,
    Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, daughter of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Jr.

  5. marie wheeler-nicholson says:

    Great story and for the next generation of Wheeler-Nicholsons to read about their Great-Grandfather.

  6. Odkin says:

    The silver-age Superman/Batman panel is not Plastino. Weirdly, the Batman and RObin faces look like Curt Swan, while the Superman face looks like Dick Sprang.

    • Steve B says:

      I’d say all three faces look like Dick Sprang, but if we could see more of the drawing (or maybe the whole page), it would be much easier to tell. You’re right though; definitely not Plastino.

      • Mike Tiefenbacher says:

        The panel is unequivocally Curt Swan and Stan Kaye, from their tenure on WORLD’S FINEST in the ’50s. Kaye, and occasional inker of Dick Sprang’s stories, was directed to use Sprang’s work as a template for Batman and Robin, while Swan, an adept adaptor of others’ styles (one of his first DC assignments was drawing BOY COMMANDOS stories in Kirby’s style!) was certainly capable of drawing Batman in whatever style he was directed to do. Al Plastino, apparently, though certainly capable of drawing freehand, made extensive use of swipes throughout his career, which is probably at the root of R.C.’s confusion: once Swan became the primary Superman artist in the mid ’50s, Plastino began to emulate Swan more than he had been emulating Boring’s version of the character (and Shuster before him). His ability to “adapt” obviously served Plastino in good stead as he was able to take over strips like NANCY and FERD’NAND when the Ledger Syndicate dumped BATMAN (at least as produced by DC) in 1972, drawing the latter through 1989.

  7. Paul Dushkind says:

    So as early as 1936, Joe Shuster jotted down the phrase, “The Greatest Super-Hero of All Time!” This raises the question: when, how, and by whom, was the word “super-hero” coined? By today’s definition, Superman was the *only* super-hero at that point. I have always assumed that the term came from the name Superman, but maybe I was wrong. It is said that George Bernard Shaw coined the English word “superman” from a German word which translates literally as “overman.” His play, “Man and Superman,” debuted in 1903, but I wouldn’t expect it to have influenced science-fiction or heroic fiction like Gladiator, Doc Savage, or The Shadow.

    I have also wondered when Superman first flew, not just “leap 1/8 of a mile,” as it was put in Action Comics #1. I saw the first of the Fleischer Superman animated cartoons at a comic-book convention in the 1970s. When the announcer says, “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” Superman does just that, jumping over a high-rise and landing on the other side. The audience laughed. It is reported that audiences in 1941 did the same thing. Why would *they* laugh unless they already expected Superman to fly? In one of the early cartoons, Superman crosses the landscape in a series of leaps. They didn’t want Superman to be laughed at, so they changed the intro to “able to fly higher than any plane.”

    So conventional wisdom has it that it was in these cartoons that Superman first flew. This is consistent with what’s on the screen. BUT:

    The radio program debuted months earlier. So that kids could tell what was happening without pictures, Superman exclaimed “Up, up and away!” as he took off. When he descended, he talked to himself more awkwardly, saying, “Down, down, down.” It’s not unambiguous, but it sounds to me like he was levitating, not jumping.

    Look at the rooftop scene on the 1933 cover. It is not completely clear what is happening, but it looks like Superman is descending from a flight.

  8. D.D.Degg says:

    But then again, If it was not for Jerome Fine, we may never have had Superman.
    At least that’s how they start off Jerry Fine’s obituary from last month:
    http://www.cleveland.com/comic-books/index.ssf/2013/12/jerry_fine_dies_he_brought_sup.html

  9. Question for you R.C.

    You write:
    “Prompted by the Major’s expressed interest in the Superman sketches, Siegel and Shuster eventually sent him a Superman story, which they prepared even while producing more Henri and Occult pages for New Fun. By the time they sent him Superman, they probably realized that the Major’s magazine doubled as a catalogue for selling features into newspaper syndication, and they were eager to take advantage of the opportunity. On October 4, 1935, the Major responded:

    “The Superman strip is being held for an order now pending from a national syndicate,” he began, but then he tacked in another direction: “It is my own idea, based on a lot of experience in selling in the syndicate game, that you would be much better off doing Superman in full page in four colors for one of our publications. I consider our magazines primarily catalogues of features and the selling resistance is considerably less for color stuff than it is on daily back-and-white. We also have pending an order for a sixteen-page tabloid in four colors in which we could include Superman around the first of the year if we have it in colors and running. Use your own judgment on this. I think myself that Superman stands a very good chance.””

    Was Sheldon Mayer not the Major’s editor in October 1935? I might propose that Mayer and the Major discovered Superman at roughly the same time.

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      I’m not sure, Jamie, when Mayer might have been on the Major’s staff. He was there, as nearly as I can tell, about the time Detective Comics debuted–January 1937. And he wasn’t there long; he apparently quit over some dispute with the Major. If he worked on Detective Comics, he might’ve been there in the fall of 1936, but October 1935 is probably too early for his involvement, brief though it was, with the Major. Can’t prove it one way or the other, though.

  10. Pingback: Weekend link dump for January 12 – Off the Kuff

  11. Odkin says:

    I would love it if this article could be updated with a graphic placing the final conclusions about events into a timeline form.

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