Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Superman Phenomenon in the Late Thirties and Early Forties

It was eighty years ago yesterday, on April 18 1938,  that Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) hit newsstands. It was significant as it featured the first appearance of Superman. Today we somewhat take Superman for granted, but his first appearance would prove revolutionary. Superman would usher in a whole slough of other superheroes in comic books, some of who, like the Man of Steel, are still being published this day. What is more, Superman proved to be an outright phenomenon, comparable to Star Wars upon its first release in 1977.

Indeed, sales for Action Comics no. 1 were a sign of Superman's popularity to come.  Its initial print run was 200,000 copies, which sold out very quickly. Despite the fact that the Man of Tomorrow featured prominently on the cover, it would take some time for National Allied Publications (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) to realise that it was Superman that had spurred the issue's sales. Action Comics was an anthology title, so that it also included such features as Zatara (a magician character) and Tex Thompson (an adventurer) among others. In fact, Superman would not appear on the cover of Action Comics again until no. 7 (December 1938). During all that time the circulation of Action Comics rose until it approached 1,000,000 copies a month.

Eventually National Allied Publications realised that it was Superman that was spurring sales of Action Comics. Others did as well, and it was only nine months after his first appearance that Superman expanded into a medium beyond comic books. It was on January 16 1939 that a Superman daily newspaper comic strip was first published.  On November 5 1939 a Superman Sunday strip was added. At the height of its success the Superman daily strip appeared in 300 newspapers and had a readership of over 20 million. In all it would last 27 years, ending in May 1966. The "Superman" newspaper strip would have a lasting influence on the Superman mythos. In his initial appearances in the comic books, Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor had red hair. It was the newspaper comic strip that established him as being bald.  Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp who would plague Superman throughout the years, would also make his first appearance in the newspaper strip. The newspaper strip would also be the first medium to feature Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth. 

Given the popularity of Superman, it should come as no surprise that he soon received his own title, the first superhero to do so. Superman no. 1 was cover dated summer 1939.  He also began being featured on the cover of every issue of Action Comics starting with no. 19 (December 1939). It was in the pages of Superman no. 1 that Superman's official fan club, the Supermen of America, was launched. For ten cents young (and maybe not so young) Superman fans would receive a welcome letter from Superman himself, a membership certificate, Superman's Secret Code Manual, and a pinback button featuring the Man of Steel himself.  The Supermen of America proved to be very successful. By 1941 it had a quarter of a million members, including movie star Mickey Rooney, Spanky McFarland of Our Gang fame, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's two children, and even six Annapolis midshipmen (according to an article in the June 21 1941 issue of The Saturday Evening Post).

Superman did not stop at receiving his own title or a newspaper comic strip, but eventually conquered  the medium of radio as well. The Adventures of Superman was sponsored by Hecker's H-O Oats and made its debut on February 12 1940. The radio show would have a lasting impact on the character of Superman. It was on the radio show that Superman is first portrayed as flying (in the comic books originally Superman could only jump really far). Both Perry White and Jimmy Olson originated on the radio show and were late introduced into comic books. It also included the famous introduction later used in cartoons and on the 1950s TV show:  "Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets. 'Up in the sky - look!' 'It's a giant bird.' 'It's a plane.' 'It's Superman!'"  The Adventures of Superman also introduced Kryptonite and on the radio show that Superman first teamed up with Batman and Robin. The Adventures of Superman proved to be very popular. Beginning as a syndicated show, it moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System on August 31 1942  and then ABC on October 29 1949. The radio show would run until March 1 1951 for a total of  a little over eleven years.

By 1941 Superman had become a veritable phenomenon, so much so that various newspapers and magazines were covering him. What is more, a tonne of Superman merchandise was already on store shelves by that time. In 1940 Ideal Novelty and Toy Company manufactured a Superman doll made of wood with articulated joints, making Superman the first superhero to have an action figure based upon him (although the term "action figure" would not be coined until the Sixties). That same year Saalfield manufactured a Superman puzzle set. Daisy, best known for their BB guns, manufactured a Superman Krypto-Raygun in 1940. It was also in 1940 that Marx made a Superman rollover airplane tin toy, and Gum Inc. issued a set of Superman trading cards, the first such cards ever to feature a comic book superhero. There were even Superman Valentine's Day cards, made by Quality Art Novelty Company in 1940. In the early Forties there would be a wide variety of Superman merchandise, from Superman Bread made by Saylor's Bread in 1941 to Syroco Superman figures manufactured in 1942. An entire list of Superman goods made in the early Forties would take a complete book to detail completely.

While Superman conquered both radio and newspapers, it would be some time before he would conquer live action films. In 1939 Republic Pictures began pre-production on a serial to be titled The Adventures of Superman. It was even announced in trade publications. Unfortunately, negotiations with National Allied Publications fell through and as a result Republic did not make the Superman serial as announced. The script for the serial was instead rewritten to become the serial The Mysterious Dr. Satan. Republic attempted to get the rights to do a Superman serial again in 1941, but failed to do so as the film rights had already been acquired by Paramount (more on that in a bit). Ultimately Republic wound up making a serial based on Superman's archrival, with regards to sales: The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Of course, there would eventually be a Superman serial. Columbia released Superman, starring Kirk Alyn, on January 5 1948.

It was a mark of Superman's popularity that on July 3 1940 there was a Superman Day at the New York World's Fair. The event not only included many of those involved in the publication of Superman (co-creator Jerry Siegel, publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, and All-American Comics publisher Max C. Gaines), but the first ever live actor in a Superman suit. Some have identified the actor as Ray Middleton, who would later appear in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and the movies Hurricane Smith (1941) and 1776 (1972), but others disagree that it is. There seems to be no proof either way. Superman Day also included a live broadcast of The Adventures of Superman from the fairgrounds.

Such was the popularity of Superman that not only was he the first superhero to have his own comic book and the first superhero to have his own action figure, but he was also the first superhero to be included as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Superman balloon appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 21 1940. Sadly, the balloon would be redesigned as football player for the 1941 parade. There would be two more Superman balloons in the parade. The second would appear in the parade from 1966 to 1969. The third was the second largest balloon in the parade of all time and appeared from 1980 until 1987. During the Christmas season of 1940 Macy's also featured a Superman exhibit. Admissions cost 30 cents and made a total of $30,000.

While Superman would not appear in a live action film until 1948, that did not mean that he did not conquer the big screen in the early Forties. With the success of Superman in various media, it was natural that Paramount Pictures would take an interest in the Man of Steel. The studio approached animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose animated shorts they distributed,  with the offer of producing a series of Superman cartoons. The Fleischer brothers were not particularly keen on making cartoons starring the Man of Steel, and because of this they quoted a then astronomical budget of $100,000 for the series. To their shock and perhaps to their dismay as well, Paramount accepted the offer. It was because of the Superman cartoons that Republic could not get the film rights to their planned Superman serial.

The first Superman animated short, entitled "Superman," but also known as "The Mad Scientist," debuted on September 26 1941. Budgeted at $50,000 (a then unheard of amount for an animated short subject), "Superman" proved to be a hit at theatres. It also received its share of acclaim, even being nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 14th Academy Awards (Walt Disney's "Lend a Paw" won). "Superman (AKA "Mad Scientist")" would be followed by 16 more "Superman" animated shorts. Paramount ended the series in 1943. While very successful, the "Superman" cartoons were very expensive, costing on average $30,000.

It was in 1942 that Superman conquered the medium of books. That year the novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther was published. It included illustrations by Joe Schuster, co-creator of Superman. The novel was significant in including the first description of life on Superman's home planet Krypton in any detail. It also forever changed the names of Superman's birth parents. Originally named Jor-L and Lora, the novel renamed them Jor-El and Lara. The novel went from the destruction of Krypton through Clark Kent being raised by Eben and Sarah Kent (they wouldn't receive their current names of Jonathan and Martha until nearly the Fifties) to becoming Superman and fighting Nazi spies.

As might be expected given his popularity, references to Superman in pop culture occur relatively early in the character's history. On October 9 1940 Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was interviewed on the popular radio programme The Fred Allen Show.  The episode also featured an appearance by publisher Harry Donenfeld. In the 1942 movie The Man Who Came to Dinner, Sheridan Whiteside refers to Superman. Parodies of Superman appeared relatively early, with the 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Super-Rabbit" being an example. As mentioned earlier, Superman was covered heavily in newspapers and magazines of the era, from The Saturday Evening Post to Look to Time.

Given the meteoric rise of Superman's popularity in the early Forties, it should come as no surprise that he continued to be relatively popular into the late Forties, even after superheroes in general had declined in popularity. A plethora of Superman merchandise still filled store shelves. In 1948 Columbia released the serial Superman, marking his first live action appearance. Columbia followed it with the serial Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950.  In 1951 there would be Superman's feature film debut in Superman and the Mole Men with George Reeves in the lead role. Mr. Reeves would also play Superman in the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1951 to 1958. Since he was first introduced in 1939, there has not been a decade that has gone by without Superman appearing in some other medium besides comic books. Although not as popular as he once was, the lasting popularity of Superman began with what an almost immediate rise in popularity following his introduction. After all, it is not every character who has a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of theatrical cartoons within three years of his first appearance.

1 comment:

Steven Thompson said...

Thanks for questionmarking Ray Middleton. It doesn't look the least bit like Ray to my eyes (and there are other pics of him as himself that same day for comparison) and radio Superman Bud Collyer said it was an "ex-pugilist" hired by the Fair for his muscles. Other sources, however, are adamant that it WAS Ray Middleton, period. Talk about a never-ending battle for truth...!