Original Art Stories: The Holiest Grail Of All, Superman

I don't care what anyone else has to say, but if this art is genuine then surely this must be the holiest of the Holy Grails that all comic book art collectors seek. If you're one of the few people on the face of the planet who, like Richard Lester, claim to never have heard of the character Superman, then stop reading right now.

That such a cover can still exist astounds me and makes me seriously wonder about it's veracity. I'd not be at all surprised to learn that the image is a fake, and indeed I'm hoping that some of the more knowledgeable people who sometimes frequent this blog will able to shed some light on it. In the meantime though it did remind me of the Sotheby's New York 1994 sale of comic book art - a sale that I'd have loved to have attended.

The sale featured a number of lovely items. The sale featured official Jack Kirby recreations of his early Marvel Silver Age covers, some of the same from John Romita and Dick Ayers, amongst others, and some classic art from the likes of Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, Lou Fine, Ross Andru, Russ Heath - well, you think of a 20th century comic book artist and the odds would have been better than good that they'd have been represented in this sale.

The sale featured some absolute gems, such as the original cover art to Conan #1 by Barry (Windsor) Smith, along with the entire contents of that issue, a number of vintage Jack Kirby splash pages plus some of the most important comic book art that you'd be likely to find. In short it must have been an incredible collection of comic book art and mind blowing to see it all in the one room. As good as it all was one item stands out for me, three panels from the first ever Superman newspaper strip, panels that pre-date Action Comics #1.

The catalogue describes the panels as such:

Joe Shuster - Origin Artwork to Superman Daily No 1, circa 1930s, pen and ink on Craftint paper, the surviving three panel section of the original art from Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's historic first Superman daily. This unused artwork is the only known and earliest surviving example from the first series of dailies.

Originally it consisted of a five-panel sequence depicting the origin of Superman. Panels No. 2 and No. 3 were long ago cut and removed, and by all indications, may have been used in pasting up the first page to Action Comics No. 1 in 1938. The first panel of the strip depicts the planet Krypton exploding as a spaceship (containing the son of Lora and Jor-l (sic)) rockets into space. As the text explains: As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised spaceship, launching it toward Earth.

Based on the "origin" sequence of panels published in Action Comics No. 1, the missing second panel from this probably depicted the rocket ship (now landed on Earth) being discovered by a passing motorist who finds the sleeping baby and turns him over to an orphanage. The missing third panel most likely showed the baby lifting a chair above his head, as orphan age personnel look on in astonishment.

The fourth panel, represented here, depicts the young Clark Kent (in Superman costume but without the cape) outrunning a speeding train. As the text indicates; When Clark Kent, the babe, grew to maturity he discovered he could easily hurdle a twenty-story building, leap 1/8 of a mile, raise unbelievable weight, run faster than an express train, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.

The fifth panel depicts the full figure of Superman, now with flowing cape, standing over the cityscape, with the "Superman" lettering running across. The text tells us; Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created ...Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!

The art is rendered with pen and ink on Craftint art paper. Craftint was actually developed and produced in Siegel and Shuster's hometown of Cleveland, Ohio during the early 1930s. It involved a process where by the artist applied a chemical to the paper which could bring out, or highlight, a dot pattern. This dot pattern added a shading effect to the final art, allowing the artist to create "painted" panels of soft tonal shades.

The condition of these panels is very good. Yellowing and discoloration from age is apparent. The border area around the art measures between 1 inch to 1 1/4 inch wide on all sides, except on the right side of panel No. 1, and the left side of panel No. 4, where the art was trimmed closely to the black border line for the removal of panels No. 2 and 3. A circular stain, approximately 3/4 of an inch in diameter is apparent in the lower portion of panel No. 5. In the border, just above panel No. 1 is neatly lettered in pencil "Superman - No. 1". In the bottom right hand corner of panel No. 4 is lettered in ink "No. 1". Just above panel No. 5, lettered in pencil, are the words by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. On the back of panel No. 1, neatly printed in pencil is Jerome Siegel, 10622 Kimberley Ave., Cleveland, Ohio.

This historic art is accompanied by three statements of authenticity prepared and signed by the artist Joe Shuster, duly witnessed and notarized in Los Angeles County, California, on August 29, 1978, at the time the art changed hands from Shuster to a private collector. One of these statements (hand written by Joe Shuster) states: These three drawings, the original art work, are the first daily strips created by Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel, of the character known as "Superman". Included in this lot in a single frame are two pages from Joe Shuster's sketchbook depicting how Superman could be merchandised in 1936. These two pages are laminated and show considerable aging.*

What has always amazed me about that description, other than it describing one of the most important artifacts in comic book history, is the physical description of the character of Superman himself. If you look at the description given by Siegel; "could easily hurdle a twenty-story building, leap 1/8 of a mile, raise unbelievable weight, run faster than an express train, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin, well that's miles away from the utterly invincible character that we've come to know and love. Today's Superman can fly faster than light, can shift entire planets without breaking sweat and pretty much nothing can break his skin. Personally I like the idea of a more human, less God-like Superman, but I do fear I'm in the minority there.

Having said that the art in question, wherever it is, and whoever now owns it, should be hanging in an art gallery. Forget the so called classic 'pop artists', this is far more important, and far more valuable, if not in cultural terms moreso than monetary, than anything that Roy Lichtenstein ever produced. Indeed, without these panels to lead the way to a vibrant comic book industry, Lichtenstein would probably have had nothing to swipe.

Is that above cover genuine? I don't know. I wish I owned it though, but for now I'll settle for the next best thing, a recreation done by a master! What we do know is that art pre-dating Action Comics #1 does exist and frankly, as good as that cover is, and it is an absolute icon, I think I'd rather own the panels and the sketchbook pages. But hey, it's not likely that I'll ever have to choose between the two.

*Sotheby's Comic Books and Comic Art Sale, New York, Saturday, June 18, 1994. Pages 110-111


BPearce said…
What an amazing sight!

From what I can see by comparison with several different copies of the printed cover, the art appears to be genuine -- though I believe the type elements on the top must have been replaced at some point over the past 70-odd years, because the type weight on the printed cover is slightly heavier on all of the copies I looked at (while all of the other line weights appear to be consistent).
Jimmy T said…
Hi Danny, I see several differences from the original on the printed cover to this. But Ink can determine it's age. Also the paste on the paste up.

It should not bring what a 9.9 grade of the book does in theory, but the way people over spend for this stuff today, it may fetch a ridiculous price if an authenticated copy was auctioned.

Jimmy T

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