America first met Superman in the pages of ACTION COMICS #1 cover-dated June, 1938, after several years of development and failed attempts to sell it as a newspaper strip by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The character revolutionized the young comic book publishing market, and by 1941 was selling extremely well in ACTION, SUPERMAN and WORLD’S FINEST COMICS. I’m not sure how long it took journalists to start writing about the character, but an early, historic article appeared in this issue of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, one of the most popular and important magazines of the time. Among other things, the article gave lots of attention to creators Siegel and Shuster, and included a photo taken in the office of publisher Harry Donenfeld that features the only known image of a famous Superman painting by H.J. Ward before it was revised by another artist. I wanted to read the article and see that original photo for myself for my own blog article about the painting, so I found a copy of the POST on eBay and bought it. Here’s the article in full with comments.
Pages 14-15 of the POST are a spread with photos and text, beginning the article, written by John Kobler, a reporter and journalist in New York City best known for a biography of Al Capone. Below are closer looks at each part of page 14 except the posed shot of Siegel and Shuster at a drawing board looking at some Superman comic strip art. The strip began in 1939, and the photo is probably a publicity shot taken to promote it.
The article begins in Cleveland, at the home of Jerry Siegel, in a story meant to show the popularity of the character with kids. Did Siegel really tell kids that Superman lived at his house and go through this charade? It sounds more like a made-up story, but perhaps I’m wrong.
This photo of the Shuster family at dinner is perhaps meant to show that they are living well on the success of Superman. The caption reads, “None of the Shusters can quite grasp what has happened to them.” Joe (center left) is a bountiful provider for Brother Frank, Mamma, Papa, Sister Jeanetta. So Joe is in the back, his brother Frank on the left.
Showing off even more luxury is Jerry Siegel in his bedroom. The rest of the caption reads, Right — Siegel invented Superman in a less luxurious bed, likes to read biographies of factual supermen. The POST reader is meant to quickly understand that Siegel and Shuster have reaped benefits from their character’s popularity.
Author Kobler explains the appeal of Superman to kids for his adult audience, and the idealistic attitudes of his creators.
Kobler is outlining a tale of the American dream realized by Siegel and Shuster. I’m pretty sure the “Up, up and awa-a-a-y!” line comes from either the Fleischer Superman cartoons or the Superman radio show rather than the comics, though. Note that Kobler has noticed only two titles publishing Superman, he must not have been aware of WORLD’S FINEST.
Page 15 of the magazine, the second half the the spread, is dominated by a color still from one of those Fleischer cartoons. The caption, below, says its the first one, and soon to be released. It hit theaters on Sept. 26, 1941. It’s interesting to note that there are no actual Superman comics shown in the article.
Kobler continues his success story with a list of facts and numbers relating to Superman sales and merchandising, as well as a list of prominent members of his fan club.
In the next topic, Kobler wants us to know Superman’s popularity extends to other countries of the world. He mentions an article in THE NEW REPUBLIC analyzing the philosophy of the character. At the bottom of the first column is the first of several unkind remarks about the creative pair by Kobler. He continues with comments from a psychiatrist at an address to a medical group that shows support for Superman, and suggests some parents are against the character. Continuing with international exposure, the comment from the official newspaper of Hitler’s Elite Guard is another slam at Siegel and his Jewish ancestry, if a rather odd and funny one.
Here’s that photo from Harry Donenfeld’s office with the Ward painting in the background (featuring the original triangular chest symbol and facial features). Left to right are Superman radio show producer Robert Maxwell, head of the company’s distribution arm Paul Sampliner, publisher Harry Donenfeld, his partner Jack Liebowitz, head of the sister company “All-American Comics” M.C. Gaines, and editor Whitney Ellsworth. I haven’t been able to identify what they’re looking at. Note the caption says, “the businessmen who have made an even better thing of Superman than have his authors.”
From here the article moves to the back of the magazine and the rest is all text, no photos.
Kobler continues to belittle and condescend to Siegel and Shuster on the beginning of this page. I have to wonder what they thought when they read it.
Under the next heading, Kobler tells of the original meeting of Siegel and Shuster leading to their partnership “unmarred by a single dispute.” He goes on with more about their families that is meant to make them seem poor and struggling, but also done in a condescending way. Of great interest to me is the description of Frank Shuster as a letterer on the Siegel-Shuster staff. This is the only mention of it I’ve seen, Frank is not in the Grand Comics Database or the Jerry Bails reference material. As a letterer myself, I’m happy to know who lettered at least some of the early Superman comics, perhaps all of them in 1941.
The article continues with hard times for the pair, early comic book sales to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s MORE FUN COMICS (the beginning of what’s now DC Comics), and trying to sell Superman. This continues into the Superman origin, where it’s interesting to see the Kryptonian name of the character’s father misspelled Jorl-l rather than the intended Jor-L, later to become Jor-El.
Under the heading “Selling a Brain Child,” Kobler gives us perhaps the earliest printed account of the transfer of ownership of Superman to the company that became DC Comics, a move instigated by Jack Liebowitz, according to this account. Kobler suggests the pair were desperate after seeing the character rejected repeatedly elsewhere, and that makes sense to me. The success it was soon having, with sales in the millions of copies, depicts Donenfeld and Liebowitz as the tough businessmen they were negotiating a later contract that was not much better, and the creative partners setting up their own shop in Cleveland with not much of the huge profits the character was making. Kobler’s attitude toward the publisher is becoming obvious.
Kobler describes the Shuster studio with five employees, which included Shuster himself and his brother Frank lettering. Artist Wayne Boring was probably another employee. Kobler then makes fun of Siegel’s prose style on the strip, while seeming to admire it in some ways. The moral policy is discussed: what Superman can and can’t do in his stories. Next he writes about the radio show. He states there are 250 people employed in Superman enterprises. I don’t know how he arrived at that, but it seems to include people working on the radio show, which was licensed by the publishers but not produced by them.
If Kobler didn’t have high opinions of Siegel and Shuster, the beginning of this page shows he probably thought even less of Donenfeld and the way he was treating the Superman creators. A lot of numbers are thrown around here that would be hard to verify, but the picture is clear he thinks the boys are being taken advantage of in a major way. On the other hand, Siegel and Shuster tell us how they’ve risen in the world with what they do get, able to provide for their families and buy lots of nice things. Kobler has some more fun with Siegel as a body-builder and big spender, Shuster as nervous and eccentric.
The final short section of the article seems to paint Siegel as unsatisfied with his finances, and talks about a new creation they’re working on, Superboy. The final line is an odd one. There’s no real wrap-up to this human interest piece, but there are lots of interesting things in it, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. As a snapshot of the lives of Superman’s creators in 1940 it’s invaluable.
Other articles that may interest you can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.