|Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent was based on silent comedy star Harold Lloyd in his bumbling, spectacle-wearing, screen persona|
News that someone had done just that sent me scurrying faster than a speeding bullet into my loft in the hope that a hitherto unnoticed early mint copy of Superman might have lodged itself in the modest stash of ‘ten-cents’ retained from my childhood. My grubby pile of American comics proved to be slimmer in volume and far more
dog-eared than I remembered, and all dated from the late 1950s – a good 20 years after Superman first fell to earth. No luck then!
Unlike the chap in Pittsburgh who bought a load of old movie magazines and, on sorting through them, discovered sandwiched inside one (furtive reading, perhaps?) a mint copy of Action Comics number one, the comic that in June 1938 introduced to the world the superhero from Krypton.
In one mighty bound the chap took off to a comic book convention in New York, where he was almost trampled in the rush when he offered it for sale. Some 17 years later, after passing through the hands of several collectors, the comic resurfaced after news broke that a copy in less fine condition had sold for million in an auction organised by Stephen Fishler and Vincent Zurzolo, who run ComicConnect.com, a speciality auction house. The partners bought the Pittsburgh find, the best of only 100 copies known to exist, and quickly organised another auction – where it fetched a staggering .5 million.
Superman is one of the 20th century’s great pop-culture icons, but is in turn an amalgam of some surprisingly unlikely popular figures who preceded his ‘birth’. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman originators, were steeped in the ‘pulp’ culture of the first half of the century, and were avid consumers of science fiction, movies and comic strips.
They acknowledged that they were great fans of swashbuckling film star Douglas Fairbanks, particularly playing Robin Hood (tights and a cape!), and that Superman’s ‘alter ego’ Clark Kent was based on silent comedy star Harold Lloyd in his bumbling, spectacle-wearing, screen persona.
Metropolis, where Kent works as a reporter and Superman works wonders, was named after the German silent movie directed by Fritz Lang. One source the duo was definitely aware of but would not acknowledge was the 1932 novel Gladiator. Nothing to do with Romans, the hero of the novel, Hugo Danner, is the son of a scientist who has imbued him with superhuman strength by administering a secret formula. Although mortal, Danner is, among other things, able to leap great heights, bend railroad tracks, rip open bank vaults with bare hands, and lift a car and its driver single-handedly. Sound familiar? It certainly did to author Philip Wylie, who threatened to sue for plagiarism.
Siegel and Shuster did not anticipate the phenomenal success of their hero, so as part of the publishing deal they sold Action Comics the rights for 0 and a lucrative work contract. Yet within a few years they were suing to void the original contract and regain the intellectual property rights to their character – a task in which they failed.
Ageing, and living in relative poverty, they sued again in ’73 – and failed. However, in ’75 Warner Communications, maker of the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, awarded lifetime pensions to the pair ‘on compassionate grounds’. Shuster died in 1992 and Siegel in 1996, but the litigation continues into the 21st century as their heirs fight on, battling over copyright and profit-sharing.
If only the two pals had thought of stashing away a few early issues of their comics, life could have been so much easier. Never can there have been a greater return on a ten-cent investment.