It was early 1938 on Earth-Two when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster transformed their world’s comics books forever.
Like our own Siegel and Shuster, they were established comics creators, working on DC strips including Slam Bradley and Spy. But they were ambitious, determined to come up with something bigger and better. Something unlike any other strip out there.
And then Siegel reads a wire services account, picked up from the Daily Star, about how a man in a bizarre circus costume solved the Jack Kennedy murder case. He exposed the real killer, saved the falsely accused Evelyn Curry from the chair and saved another man from a lynch mob. He can smash through steel doors, shrug off bullets and leap over a house. And he calls himself — Superman.
Is it some kind of fraud or exaggeration, like some papers are saying? Maybe, but who cares? The guy’s a perfect comic-book concept: visually colorful, heroic, and he makes the strongest men in history look like pikers. The newspaper quotes the eyewitnesses, but a comic strip could show what happened! DC’s been asking for some material to fit in their new Action Comics; what could be more action-packed than Superman?
While that may not be exactly how it happened, it’s close enough for a blog post. The inspiration for which dates back to an article by Rich Morrissey in Mark Gruenwald’s Omniverse fanzine (#2). I’m going to expand on Morrissey’s excellent work to look at the comics of Earth-Two, Earth-One, post-Crisis Earth and Earth-616. My assumption throughout is that just as the other Earths’ history resembles ours, the history of comic books does too, except when canon or logic proves otherwise.
Logic: Comic books obviously didn’t give away the heroes’ identities. Either they presented them with no secret identity (e.g., the Spirit or Quality’s Quicksilver) or they made one up (as Earth-616’s Timely did with the WW II Destroyer). Even without that, the stories wouldn’t be exactly the same as ours. The Justice Society never told anyone about their battle with Ian Karkull (All-Star Squadron Annual #3), so it wouldn’t have been in the comics. Conversely, the All-Star Squadron probably had 1940s comics on Earth-Two, even though we didn’t read about them until the 1980s.
Canon: in our world, Little Boy Blue debuted in our world’s Sensation #1. In the origin story, Tubby and Billy are actually reading Sensation #1 so obviously they weren’t in it. Johnny Quick’s first adventures in our comics were (post-Crisis) just daydreams (All-Star Comics #65).
Getting back to the history, Superman’s adventures were undoubtedly a hit, and undoubtedly inspired other creators (“Bill, it’s Bob Kane. Have you heard about this Bat-Man who fights crime in Gotham City?”). Before long, DC began scooping up every masked mystery man (or woman) who showed up. Or most of them; as the Earth-X heroes started on Earth-Two, perhaps it was Quality Comics who wrote about Earth-Two’s Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Phantom Lady, etc. Other publishers made up fictional superheroes and found a market for them too. All-Star Squadron #36 shows Earth-Two had Fawcett and MLJ books, so I’m guessing they had Timely, Fox, etc. as well. A few comics characters, such as the wacky Geezer (Superman #25) were unique to Earth-Two.
As the superheroes were outlaws and vigilantes, DC probably didn’t bother with negotiating a licensing arrangement; just adapt the news reports or heck, make stuff up if it helps (“They say Wildcat moves like a jungle cat, maybe he has a mystical cat totem to give him power!”). Adults who read the comics may have assumed a lot of the material was exaggerated, even when the story got it right.
World War II could have changed things. FDR considered America’s mystery man a valuable asset in the war effort, giving the government a stake in how DC portrayed the heroes (“The JSA’s bomb-defense formula was a dud, so why not kill the story? You do like having comics available in military PXs, right?). With government input, the stories may have become more accurate. Certainly some creators began working closely with the heroes they wrote about; Simon and Kirby had no qualms asking the Sandman to find out if the Boy Commandos were dead in “Satan Wears a Swastika” (Boy Commandos #1).
But eventually the war ended, the Cold War started and the Justice Society ran headlong into the blacklist. After which — well, that’ll be the next post.
#SFWApro. Covers by Jerry Siegel, Harry G. Peter.