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

By | April 16, 2021

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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.

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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.