Superman is an enduring cultural icon who has thrilled us over the past 76 years with stories of superhuman heroics and integrity. He has been referred to as the world’s biggest Boy Scout, striving to do the right thing in the face of adversity and always fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. However, the true story of Superman’s journey into popular imagination stands in stark contrast to his famous ideals.
In 1920, a fast-talking clothing salesman named Harry Donenfeld was watching his clothing store go broke in Newark, New Jersey. Try as he might, his well known, skillful flattery couldn’t help him talk his way out of losing the business he had procured with a loan from his wife’s family. He ended up joining his brothers’ printing company, Martin Press, as salesman and part owner. The child of Romanian immigrants, he had spent his childhood in and out of school, and gangs, in the Lower East Side of New York during the early 1900s, and it’s speculated that while working at Martin Press during prohibition, Harry was helping the mob move liquor across the Canadian border inside pulp paper shipments for the plant. It is also thought that it was perhaps these same mob contacts that help him procure a windfall printing deal with Hearst Publications for millions of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping leaflets. With the new surge in business, Harry took majority control of the business, forcing out two of his brothers from ownership and even changing the name of the company to Donny Press.
Around this same time, a man named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was pioneering the first American comic book. Wheeler-Nicholson grew up in an intellectual household whose dinner guests included Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling. His mother was a journalist, and so it was not unexpected that he too became an accomplished writer. In 1935 his new company, National Allied Publication, created the first comic book of all new, original material called New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine. Up until this point, comics had simply been a compilation of successful and popular strips from the newspapers. Sales were brisk and more issues were made, but reluctant newsstands along with an inconsistent cash flow meant financial troubles continually plagued Wheeler-Nicholson’s endeavors. He soon found himself in serious debt to a printing magnate by the name of Harry Donenfeld.
In order to keep publishing new titles, National Allied partnered with Donenfeld to form Detective Comics, Inc. and in March of 1937 they produced their first work together as Detective Comics #1. Less than a year later, Wheeler-Nicholson found himself forced out of the business all together. According to comic historian Gerard Jones:
In early 1938, Harry Donenfeld send [Wheeler-Nicholson] and his wife on a cruise to Cuba to 'work up new ideas'. When they came home, [Wheeler-Nicholson] found the lock to his office door changed. In his absence, Harry had sued him for nonpayment and pushed Detective Comics, Inc. into bankruptcy court. There a judge named Abe Mennen, one of Harry's old Tammany buddies, had been appointed interim president of the firm and arranged a quick sale of its assets to [Donenfeld].
When Superman debuted in June of 1938 on the now iconic cover of Action Comics #1 it marked a turning point in the careers of young comic creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. For almost 6 years, the duo had been trying to get a publishing house to accept their proposal about the Man of Steel from another planet, but no one was interested. One publisher who had criticized Siegel’s earlier scripts as “not fantastical enough” turned around a year later and criticized the Superman proposal as being “too fantastical.” Finally, National Allied Publication (now under ownership of Donenfeld) accepted their idea and hired Siegel and Shuster for $130 and a contract to supply more material.
This would be some of the only money they saw from their original creation over the next 40 years.
Siegel filed several lawsuits over the following years to regain the rights to the character, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he made any meaningful headway. That year, Siegel sued Warner Communications to protest DC Comics’ treatment of himself and co-creator Shuster. Eventually, Warner guaranteed that all comics, TV episodes, films, and later, video games starring Superman would be required to carry the credit that Superman was “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” and that each of them would be awarded $20,000 a year each for the rest of their lives. It would seem like a victory, until one considers that in 1977, the first Superman film grossed $300,000,000 in worldwide release and that there have been five blockbuster sequels of the franchise to date.
Siegel and Shuster created Superman as a hero for the everyman, keeping a constant vigil in the fight for social justice. Perhaps that early rejection letter was right; Superman might be a little too fantastical for our world.