Undone by Superman

Posted by on March 24th, 2010 at 1:38 PM

March 24

Jerry Siegel and his artist partner Joe Shuster had tried, at first, to sell Superman as a comic strip to newspaper syndicates. Among the objections we’ve heard in the traditional accounts of this futile effort is that the concept was simply too outlandish. Readers wouldn’t believe that Superman was possible.

Newspaper comics were for adult readers, remember. Families. Children, too, of course; but adults were seen as the chief audience. So the objection to the Superman notion was that adults wouldn’t believe it. It wasn’t realistic.

The passion for realism in the funnies was evident in the emergence during the mid-thirties of the realistically illustrated comic strip: Alex Raymond’s creations (Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9), Hal Foster’s (Tarzan then Prince Valiant), and Milton Caniff’s (Terry and the Pirates)—all drawn as realistically as possible in order to support the illusion of reality that the otherwise exotic adventure stories must convey. Superman simply wasn’t in step with this trend. Not because of the artwork so much as because of the very concept of a super-powered flying man.

And comic book publishers apparently felt the same way. If we are to judge from the reasons many gave for rejecting Superman: they rejected him because they didn’t think readers would accept the concept. Too unrealistic.

For whom? For children?

Not likely. Children were expert at believing in outlandish concepts. They believed in talking animals (Uncle Wiggily, Peter Rabbit), sentient dolls (Raggedy Ann and Andy), and the like. Children believed that Dorothy could transport herself back to Kansas by clicking her heels together, so why wouldn’t they believe Superman could fly unaided?

No, it was adults who were imagined as unlikely to believe in Superman. And since adults were the presumed buyers of comic books at that early stage, no comic book publisher was about to take a chance on Superman. Until Siegel and Shuster took their creation to McClure Syndicate.

There, according to legend, their creation fell under the gaze of a teenager named Sheldon Mayer, who, not being entirely an adult, believed in the concept at once.

Mayer couldn’t persuade McClure officials to take the feature on, however. But he persuaded his boss, Max Gaines, to offer it to Harry Donenfeld, who had inherited Wheeler-Nicholson’s comic book empire. And Donenfeld’s editor, Vincent Sullivan—another teenager—was then assembling content for the first issue of Action Comics, and he believed in Superman, too.

All of that, however, is “such crap!” said Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson, son of the famed Major, who, although only about ten years old at the time, learned more about his father’s role in bringing Superman onto pulp reality as he grew older and examined his father’s papers.

The first issue of Action Comics in which Superman debuted was published in the spring of 1938 with a cover date of June. But, said Wheeler-Nicholson fils (I’ll call him Douglas hereafter to distinguish him from his father), that issue had been on his father’s desk for months. His father had been sold on Siegel and Shuster’s Superman since the previous fall and had developed the Action Comics with Superman in mind.

Interviewed for Alter Ego (No. 88, August 2009), Douglas told Jim Amash: “The Action Comics ashcan was developed late in December of ’37 as a vehicle for Superman. It was developed by the old man (i.e., Douglas’ father).”

He continued: “Superman was a major subject of discussion in the house all the way from early fall of ’37. The old man thought it was extremely timely, and he was very specific about a Nietzschean kind of hero at this point of the Depression, and that this would be a perfect thing to put forth to the public at this time. He talked about it extensively. We talked about it at the dinner table.”

And Wheeler-Nicholson clearly saw Superman as a character adult readers would go. He designed Action Comics for the same adult audience to which he’d directed his earlier enterprises.

Contrary to legend, Shelly Mayer and Vin Sullivan had little or nothing to do with the publishing fate of Superman, Douglas said. If they were keen on the concept, they saw it as no different from any of the other content of the Major’s comic magazines, all aiming at adult purchasers and readers.

Mayer, as Max Gaines’ assistant, could have brought Superman to Wheeler-Nicholson’s attention; that would integrate the legend with Douglas’ facts. But I doubt it: Siegel and Shuster were already deeply engaged in the Major’s magazines, producing several features for them (including Slam Bradley, developed in collaboration with the Major, who named the character and saw him as a precursor to Superman, said Douglas); it would be more natural for them to approach the Major themselves with the Superman concept rather than have it relayed through Mayer. (Still, if Mayer saw it as a submission to McClure syndicate—well, that might have been the point of entry.)

While Wheeler-Nicholson was waiting for Donenfeld to front the cost of publishing the comic book that languished on his desk, Donenfeld forced the Major out of his own business.

The rest, as they say, is history. But the history usually overlooks another seldom explored fact: at some point, comic book publishers began manufacturing comic books more for children than for adults.

Probably, it started with Superman.

The success of Superman, as we all know, resulted in a host of imitators flooding the newsstands. And it was with this development that I suppose comic book publishers began to tailor their product for a juvenile buyer. The superheroes in long underwear were like circus performers—strong men and trapeze artists. And circuses were for kids. Comic book publishers became ring masters in the newest show in town, a show for kids.

And once the show was seen as unabashedly aimed at youngsters, the usual carping began, the traditional chorus of objection to comics—the same Concerned Citizens with the same Concerns that had pestered newspaper publishers about newspaper comics.

The Ever-vigilant Concerned Citizens who maintained that comic books (like the Sunday funnies) were garishly colored. They would corrupt incipient artistic appreciation in the youth of America. And the action adventure stories in comic books (which partook, remember, of the sleazy pulp adventure tradition) were vulgar and constituted a bad influence on the children who were members of families whose parental figures purchased comic books for family consumption.

Once again, publishers undertook to make their product “suitable” for children. But this time, they would almost entirely forsake adult readers.

The idea that comic books were for children was first voiced by the critics of comic books; but it was quickly embraced by the publishers. Once Donenfeld realized that Action Comics was selling chiefly because of Superman, he also realized that juvenile readers, who could believe in such outlandish beings, promised a better audience for exploitation than adults. And his fellow publishers—all stampeding to cash in on the popularity of Superman with their own longjohn legions—snatched at the same idea.

At the same time, the Depression was slackening up, and dimes soon became more widely available for kids to spend.

Adults still read comic books. And the soaring sales figures during World War II when comics provided reading material for American servicemen around the globe attest to this phenomenon. But editorial direction at publishing houses urged writers to write for juveniles.

When comic strip and comic book characters made it into radio, their programs were usually sponsored by products kids would be interested in. (Although at first, as the late Jerry Bails remembered on an Internet list discussion I started on this topic, one program was sponsored by motor oil. It is to Bails, by the way, that I am indebted for several of the nuances in this speculative argument.)

And with the advent of such comic book titles as Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, Funny Animals, Our Gang, and the like, the transformation was complete. Even if all comics were not geared to young readers (and certainly the Lev Gleason comics— Boy, Crime Does Not Pay, Daredevil —were too packed with verbiage to appeal much to youth), the rhetorical posture of the industry tilted to the young. And public perception inclined in the same direction.

And it has ever since.

But these four-color pamphlets, some featuring altogether serious adventuring, were still called by the misleading term comics. Next time, a way out.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.