The Retro-Hugo Awards

“And so begins the adventures…” Comics in 1938
by John Brown

A version of this article was first published in a booklet distributed by Loncon 3 at the Hugo ceremony at LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon.

Superman came from Cleveland and changed the world. This is not an imaginary story, it’s not a parallel earth – it’s America in 1938. At the time, pulp magazines were the kings of printed entertainment. Titles featuring The Shadow or The Phantom Detective were, at their peak, selling up to one million copies per issue whilst comics were relegated to a strip format in newspapers, usually in the Sports section. If they were compared to the pulps at all, comics were seen as the younger sibling: usually whimsical, often comedic, occasionally fantastic, but always more juvenile.

In 1933, however, a salesman called M C Gaines hit upon the idea that the broadsheet pages of Sunday newspaper comics could be folded and repackaged as a freebie giveaway, which he called Funnies On Parade. It proved such a success that by 1934 the title had graduated to Famous Funnies and the collection now cost 10 cents. Suddenly, comics were seen as a money-making opportunity.

Small comics publishers sprang up almost overnight. One was founded by an occasional pulp science fiction writer called Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. His National Allied Publications would probably have foundered, like so many others, if it had not been for one innovation: unable to afford reproductions of syndicated strips, the Major was forced to do something new and commission original stories and art, thus creating a market for writers and artists. Amongst the many creative people trying to get into this market were a duo from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and they finally broke into the industry with two strips: Henri Duval, Famed Soldier of Fortune and (pseudonymously) Dr Occult, The Ghost Detective.

By the end of 1937, the Major had been forced out of the business through a combination of debts and bad management and National Allied was now being run by pulp distributor Harry Donenfeld and his advisor, Jack Leibowitz. Under their management, a fourth title was added to their stable and the world of comics was forever changed.

Action Comics #1 (18 April 1938; cover date, June) marked the first appearance of Superman – and of Lois Lane. The notion of a Superman had been in the heads of his creators for a few years. Originally appearing as a bald villain in the fanzine Science Fiction #3 (June 1933), Siegel and Shuster reworked their concept into a heroic figure with the intention of selling it to the newspapers as an ongoing strip. But, despite their years of trying to sell the concept, no publisher was interested.

Meanwhile, Jack Leibowitz was looking for another hit to accompany their Detective Comics and didn’t have time to solicit new material. Editor Vin Sullivan was forced to cobble together a first issue from inventory and stockpile pages. Adventure stories were plentiful, but he couldn’t find that all-important lead feature. A colleague found the rejected Superman strips and, desperate for anything, Sullivan told Siegel and Shuster that if they could paste them into 13 comic book pages, he would buy them. They were paid $10 per page, a total of $130, for their work on the issue. The first issue had a print run of 200,000 copies, which promptly sold out. Despite the fact that publisher Donenfeld thought the story was ridiculous and ordered that it never be on the cover again, it soon became obvious that Superman was the reason for Action Comics’ success and from #19 onwards, he returned to the cover and never left.

Although considered the first true “superhero” comic, Action Comics #1 was an anthology title with 11 stories. Some, like Superman, stayed around for many years: Zatara, Master Magician, made his bow in #1, as did Tex Thompson who was to morph over the years into first Mister America and then The Americommando (in the All Star Squadron). Superman himself was not quite as we know him today: it took a further year for him to be able to fly (originally he could “leap 20-storey buildings”) and, although he had a dual identity, Lois Lane’s attitude towards Superman’s alter ego was less that he was mild mannered and more that he was a “spineless, unbearable coward”. The villains in that first issue were a little different too: Luthor didn’t appear until 1940, so Superman was seen to take on mobsters, crooked officials and an abusive husband. And yet, the idea stuck.

Superman was also one of the first aliens to appear in print who was not hell-bent on taking over the world or stealing our women. An immigrant in an adopted land, just as his creators had been, he struck a chord with the readership; and so the Golden Age of Comics began with him as the template. Not that the existing crime comics weren’t able to add to the mix as well – with Detective Comics #20 (October 1938), the Crimson Avenger made his debut. Now mostly forgotten, this gas-gun carrying hero wore a fedora and a domino mask to protect his identity as newspaperman Lee Travis, and thus became the first masked crimefighter in comics.

Across the Atlantic, British comics were having a little revolution of their own too. UK publishing had largely concentrated on Story Papers, literary magazines featuring illustrations and text stories aimed mostly at boys. But on 30 July 1938, The Beano Comic appeared from publisher D C Thomson. A sister title to The Dandy, which had been launched the previous December, it featured generally one-page stories of a humorous nature, featuring identifiable caricatures such as Lord Snooty and the cover star, Big Eggo the ostrich. A resolutely British comic – despite having as its masthead for the first few years the now deeply un-PC image of a caricatured black child eating a melon – The Beano went on to hold the record as the world’s longest running weekly comic and, perhaps more importantly, was not specifically aimed at a male market.

On the whole, though, the UK stayed away from superheroes for many years (after all, with the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, who needed them?), but the world of comics in general was certainly transformed by the arrival of that baby from the doomed world of Krypton. That first story ended with the prophetic line: “And so begins the adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time.” Having gone on to be a star of radio, books, television, games, movies and virtually any medium you can think of, that star of 1938 still shines bright today.

© John Brown, 2013