Superman Action Comics 1938 Premieres The World's First Iconic Superhero

By Jacob Shelton

Cover of Action Comics #1, 1938. (Detective Comics)

The last son of Krypton made his first comic book appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, but he was gestating long before he appeared on the cover of one of the most coveted comic books in history. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster worked on the character for years before he ever appeared in a comic strip, and as exciting as the double life of Clark Kent and Superman is, the real drama happened off the page.

The Reign Of The Superman

Siegel and Shuster met at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio in 1931 and instantly bonded over their passion for science-fiction and pulp novels. Siegel loved to write and Shuster dreamed of being an illustrator, so they tinkered around with some of Siegel's short stories and eventually published "The Reign of the Superman" in Siegel's own magazine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard Of Future Civilization, in 1933. This version of Superman was a bald villain with psychic powers derived from a mysterious medication.

After high school, Siegel and Shuster shopped around a few ideas for comic strips, but publishers told them their material wasn't "sensational" enough, so they returned to Superman. He evolved into a powerful hero who actually looked a lot like Batman eventually would, a caped crusader with a habit of crouching on the edges of buildings. They still didn't get anywhere with publishers, so Siegel decided to take Superman to other artists. After breaking the news to Shuster, the artist allegedly burned their rejected Superman comics, although the two continued to work together.

Jerry Siegel, author of Superman, during his service in the US Army in Hawaii, circa 1944. (U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons)

The Evolution Of Superman

Siegel reached out to Leo O'Mealia of Fu Manchu fame as well as Russell Keaton, who drew Buck Rogers, but not even those established talents got the attention of publishers, so he continued refining his superhero. He gave him an origin story in Earth's distant future, having been sent back in time by his father so he could right the wrongs of the past and gained extraordinary powers along the way. After crawling back to Shuster, however, he finally settled on a winning formula: an extraterrestrial from the planet Krypton who wore tights, a cape, and a big "S" on his chest.

Joanne Siegel, the writer's wife and inspiration for Lois Lane, believes this version of Superman was based on Siegel's father, who died of a heart attack in 1932 during a clothing store robbery. Many of Shuster's early illustrations do indeed look like Siegel's father, though over time, Superman began to look more like Siegel himself. In fact, the writer gave Superman a public identity as a meek, nearsighted journalist because that's what Siegel believed he himself would have been if his life had gone a different direction.

Superman co-creator, Joe Shuster, in a press photo by D.C. Comics, November 27, 1975. (D.C. Comics/Wikimedia Commons)

The Ownership Of Superman

In December 1937, Detective Comics ordered a 13-page Superman story for their Action Comics anthology. Siegel and Shuster were paid a whopping $130 each for the story, and a month later, they transferred their copyright for Superman to D.C. This was par for the course at the time, but by the 1950s, Siegel and Shuster were done being hired hands on their own project. Shuster sued D.C. to get his share back, but the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the publisher had purchased the copyright fair and square.

When Siegel and Shuster heard that Warner Bros. was producing the first Superman film, they started to put together another lawsuit, but the distribution company agreed to pay the two men a lifetime stipend of $20,000 a year, later increased to $30,000, as long as they stopped suing over the rights to the character. After Siegel passed away in 1996, however, all bets were back off, and his family won 50% ownership of the Superman character.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.