Comic Book Legends Revealed #453
COMIC LEGEND: Vin Sullivan came across Superman for Action Comics #1 by writing his friend Sheldon Mayer looking for discarded strips that could work for the title.
STATUS: Looks Like False
In the past, I’ve cited the following often repeated story, as detailed by Gerard Jones in Amazing Heroes #96 (but many other places – and certainly not just by Jones) about National Comics obtaining Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman feature for Action Comics #1:
[Jack] Liebowitz pressed Vin Sullivan to get the fourth comic book [title] up and running…The title would now be Action Comics. There was no time to go soliciting material.
Independent wanted it on the racks in the spring of 1938, and the sales force was going to push it hard. The deadline was so tight that Sullivan would have to pull it together from inventory and stockpile pages. Only parts of it would be printed in color. He collected a decent set of adventure strips, but it lacked a strong lead feature. He wanted something with a catchy central character, something he could splash on the cover, but there was nothing at hand strong enough. So he asked his friend and former coworker Sheldon Mayer if Charles Gaines had anything knocking around that he hadn’t been able to set up with the McClure Syndicate.
Mayer found a rejected Superman comic strip, and then…Vin wrote his letter to Jerry [Siegel] and Joe [Shuster], telling them that their Superman samples were headed for Cleveland by parcel post and that if they could cut and paste them into thirteen comic book pages in a matter of days, he’d buy them.
That’s been a common story for many years.
Only it doesn’t exactly appear to be true.
R.C. Harvey has written an extensive examination at The Comics Journal of the history of who, exactly, was the person to “discover” Superman. It’s a fabulous piece. In the end, Harvey has to more or less make a guess like many of us have over the years as to who is the most likely to be the true “discoverer” of Superman, but it’s a very well-informed guess.
However, apart from the main idea of who discovered Superman, I think Harvey’s research has done a strong job in at least explaining that, at the very least, the Sullivan story likely did not happen. Vin Sullivan still played a major role in Superman’s fortunes (a MAJOR role – I’ve written in the past about how much of an impact he had, and how much of a “What If…?” there is on how things would have gone differently if he had remained as Siegel and Shuster’s editor on the title), but only as an editor, not as a discoverer. Being the guy who actually said “Okay, Jerry and Joe, we’re putting your character in the title” is still a major deal in the Superman mythos, but Harvey has found a number of references from Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson referencing Superman well before Mayer “found” him for Sullivan. Not to mention the fact that Siegel and Shuster had worked for Wheeler-Nicholson and Sullivan BEFORE Action Comics #1. In addition, M.C. “Charlie” Gaines looks to have been pretty involved. It appears likely from seeing all of Harvey’s research that what we have with Action Comics #1 is more a case of Siegel and Shuster finally relenting to put their character into a comic book after trying to avoid doing so for a while (as they were more interested in selling the character as a comic strip) than a matter of Mayer sending over a discarded strip that was just begging to be published.
Harvey’s piece is a really great read and I am intentionally trying to avoid stepping on too many of his points here, but suffice it to say that whether you agree with the conclusion Harvey ultimately reaches, I think he makes an extremely compelling case that the Sullivan/Mayer story above is likely not true.
Thanks to Travis Pelkie for suggesting that I feature something on Harvey’s excellent article.
Check out some classic Comic Book Legends Revealed related to Action Comics #1!
Was Victor Fox DC’s accountant and when he saw the sales on Action Comics #1 he formed his own comic book company?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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