Superman: He's Not Who You Think He Is

Posted by Mark Wilson on 7/9/2013

His name, original powers, costume and overall appearance began somewhere else, years earlier. Even the name "Superman" was in use (and actually copyrighted) several years before the duo of Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster combined their talents to lay down the primitive concepts of The Superman in late 1933. But no one seemed to make the connection — until now.

Superman first began in October 1930 as a magazine devoted to the mental and physical culture of the male of our species. It was a 52-page monthly magazine titled Superman. Actually, it was titled The Superman, but the word "The" was in very tiny print and directly below, "Superman" was plastered in a huge font across the entire magazine. By 1933, the word "The" was dropped entirely and Superman became the proper title for the remainder of the magazine's existence, which continued into the 1940s.

Below are two issues from January 1931 and May 1933

This seemed to escape everyone's notice, that the name "Superman" was already in print a full eight years prior to Action #1 arriving on the newsstands.

For your enjoyment, I have added the front cover of the June 1938 issue of Superman. Notice it is the exact same month as Action Comics #1. How on earth could history miss this?

To be fair, we live in a different world today. A much smaller world thanks to the personal computer, advanced telecommunications systems and — most importantly — the Internet. The world of the early 1930s was a far different place than we can imagine today. News spread very slowly and, often, not at all. This was especially true on a global scale.

Superman was published in the United Kingdom (London) but was sold wherever mail order or direct distribution could take it in those early days. Many copies did reach the United States, as I discovered a handful of examples in three different US collections. To these collectors, it was a curiosity but none of them realized what they had in their hands.

As I read through these magazines ( I am also a body builder for 15 years), I noticed body building competitions sponsored by this publication, with top finishers from the United States mentioned — which definitely means this magazine was distributed in the United States.

Today, these publications are considered an extremely rare gay men's magazine and exist within a subculture apart from comics entirely. The reason being is that the covers and interiors glorified the male body and mind as a work of magnificence, showcasing semi-nude photos of males in dynamic poses. It was a men's magazine for young boys and men who wanted to improve both their mind and body, who aspired to become supermen in their own world, but in no way was it even remotely what could be called gay.

It was released during the formative years of body building, many years prior to the sole glorification and exaggerated muscle development of the steroid era, and viewed the total package of the human male. Yet as always, it was the pictures that generated interest. And it is the risque pictures that has sadly placed this rare piece of important history into a present genre where they now languish in obscurity.

As a thought-provoking consideration, it is a very strong possibility that Adolf Hitler read these magazines — or at least read through one of the issues. When he came to power in 1933 Germany, one of his goals was to prove to the world that the Aryan race was indeed a race of true supermen — mentally and physically, with superior inner strength and conviction.

Articles within the pages of Superman discuss the possibilities of creating (through human manipulation) the perfect human race that can live forever. Hitler was certain that the funding of a eugenics program (evolutionary direction) was imperative in the realization of his master race and 1,000-year reign (of terror!).

Superman magazine was on the stands three full years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Coincidence? I doubt it.

It was at the Berlin 1936 Olympic games that Hitler, so sure of his athletes superiority, stormed out of the stadium after witnessing the United States' Jesse Owens (a black man) destroy Germany's best sprinters. An interesting side note: I met Jesse "Superman" Owens in person after a track meet in 1974 and, oddly, he knew who I was before I recognized him! It was a startling moment and we had a great talk. Imagine meeting the super hero who defeated Hitler back in 1936. It was fantastic!

That copies found their way into the United States in the early 1930s is now obvious, not only because of what I mention above. We see it in the creation of the Superman we all relate to today. You know, the man from Krypton, the Man of Steel.

It is now quite obvious that Jerry Siegel came across copies of this magazine and used the theme as a template for creating his hero. Jerry read everything he could get his hands on for ideas to write his own stories as a young teenager. And (not coincidentally) almost everything about the the very early DC comic book hero is taken directly from this European men's magazine — superior strength, intellect, stamina, a sense of fair play, honesty, justice and yes, even the tight shorts.

The only original concepts by Siegel and Shuster was to amp up their character by making him an alien arriving on earth from a larger planet called Krypton, giving him far greater strength due to the difference in gravity between the two planets. This was unique.

Adding blue tights to the tiny shorts (notice that in his earlier Dr. Occult, there were no tights but only shorts) and a cape were the only other alterations they made. Oops, and yes, the "S" emblem. The other powers we now associate with Superman, such as flight, an array of super senses, X-ray vision, etc., all were developed over the years as Superman gained popularity and needed to expand as a character in order to survive.

Historians have pointed to Doc Savage, and other early characters as inspiration for Superman, which could be true in part, as the early writers and artists liberally "borrowed" from successful adventures currently in print. Alex Raymond was perhaps the most-copied artist of that early era, inspiring both the finished look of the Golden Age Green Lantern and the later Silver Age Flash. The cover of All-American Comics #16 was a rip-off from a panel drawn by Raymond in January 1939. Right down to the exact pose, mask and near-identical costume with emblem. Shelly Moldoff told me this, so and I found the exact Raymond panel and we both started laughing. I had no idea it was so exact. Shelly told me they all did it in those early days (copied art and concepts) and that Raymond's Flash Gordon was their best source. Thankfully, Raymond didn't care, because without his many contributions and inspiration to nearly all of the early Golden Age artists and writers, the Golden Age of comics would not have been so golden.

Obviously, DC Comics had no idea of the European Superman magazine in the beginning, and Siegel wouldn't tell anyone of his source. For if he did, the Superman we all know today never would have gotten off the ground. A copyright lawsuit threat (of at the very least, the use of the name "Superman") would have discouraged DC from picking up the character or continuing with him after the first issue of Action Comics.

But Action Comics #1 was a whirlwind publication. Literally put together in a week (or less) from rejected daily newspaper strips from the McClure News Syndicate. * For a more thorough understanding of how Action Comics #1 evolved, take a look at my article titled, "Superman, The Man of Tomorrow."

DC's Superman was born too fast for anyone to really think about legal issues. Today we would just do a Google search and see if the name "Superman" was in use. We would find an answer in moments — or maybe in minutes — depending on how creative we are at using a search engine. In the 1930s, research like this could take weeks to many months. Making phone calls, writing letters and waiting for responses, to haunting book stores and libraries. And that was just within our own country. The truth is that Vincent Sullivan just went ahead and used the strips without any research at all. They were available, looked great and they already had Jerry and Joe under contract. It worked, period.

What saved DC's behind was that the publisher of Superman magazine didn't do anything about the use of the Superman name by a comic character in the United States. They either ignored it or didn't know about it until it was too late. Maybe they even felt a little pride to see a successful comic book character use their name, but there is no indication of any lawsuit attempt that I have been able to find. DC dodged a huge bullet — the only bullet that could have penetrated Superman's tough skin and destroyed him.

But I wonder, did anyone within the DC leadership ever know about this other publication? Or were there some real worries during those first few years, especially as DC aggressively sued any other competitor that created a character even remotely similar to their Superman. DC protected their golden son with a vengeance seen only in our animal kingdom. Yet, they were the ones who were prone to the biggest lawsuit of all and no one saw it.

Regardless of any speculations, Superman somehow made it through those first years and endures today as one of the world's most recognized icons. But before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster put pen to paper, Superman had existed for years.

Now you know where the shorts come from….

And finally, here is the full front cover of the June 1938 issue of Superman. Notice the pose with chain… A concept that Joe Shuster would later use.

Mark Wilson offers a wide selection of CGC-graded comic books with an emphasis on the highest-possible grade. Visit the PGC Mint website to learn more.

This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in this piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.

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