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Part Four

It was 1938. The comics were full of adventures for folks with imagination, and they had all kinds of freaky abilities. There was Flash Gordon, he was an Earthman stranded on Mars waging a battle against the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. Flash's ability - he had super strength because of Mars' lower gravity. There was Mandrake the Magician. He had the power to cast magic spells by talking backwards. There was Tarzan, the ape man. Raised by apes he could swing through trees and fight the strongest animals in the jungle.

But that was about it for special powers. Dick Tracy and Prince Valiant were just regular guys. So were Captain Easy and Pat Ryan (of Terry & the Pirates). As a matter of fact, none of the comic characters really had any special or mutant powers as we knew them. That was about to change.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were just two Cleveland, Ohio teens when they created a hero with remarkable abilities. Fashioned after both Flash Gordon and the character in Philip Wylie's famous novel "Gladiator", this man was actually an alien from the planet Krypton.

Put into a rocket aimed at the Earth, his parents had hoped to send him to another world because their's was about to be destroyed by an impending planetary explosion. They launched their son, Kal-El, into space just moments before the cataclysmic destruction of their planet. Hurtling through space, the capsule with it's infant cargo landed on earth, just in time to be discovered by Ma & Pa Kent, two farmers in America's middle country.

It was soon apparent that this was no ordinary child. One day while repairing his truck, it fell on top of Pa Kent. Little Clark (as the baby had been named) saved Pa by lifting the truck with his tiny hands. When the child grew to adulthood, he moved to Metropolis where he became known as SUPERMAN.

This is the popularly told origin of the character, though the original version is slightly different. As a "super human" being the blue & red suited hero could "leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle a twenty story building, raise tremendous weights and run faster than an express train" (quotes from Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman).

When the two teenage creators attempted to "sell" Superman to the newspaper syndicates as early as 1933, they were rebuffed. After all, who would believe such extraordinary feats could be accomplished by a man, whatever planet he came from. Rejection after rejection followed for the next six years until finally the two wound up in New York City at the offices of Max Gaines (father of William Gaines, the late publisher of Mad Magazine). Max was then publisher of All American Comics Company, a part of DC Comics.

Max looked at the pages Shuster had drawn from Siegel's script and said that even though he could not use them, he felt that Sheldon Mayer over at DC might as he was about to launch a new comic title and he needed a cover feature. Mayer looked at the pages and immediately gave the two teens a check (for $130, all rights included in sale!), had Joe draw a cover and Action Comics #1 was published. It appeared on the news stands in May 1938 and the rest is history.

An immediate smash hit, Superman's success would not go unnoticed. This was a remarkable hero and each of the other comic companies quickly began creating other "super" heroes to cash in on the new phenomenon. Some were successful, others failed, but the proverbial "Pandora's Box" was opened, the floodgates sprung wide.

By 1941 there were so many of these super characters that they could not be counted. Powered by anything imaginable, the comic books flourished by the creation of these heroes, and this is where the comic strips and the comic books diverged from each other. The strips were not a medium of super powered beings. In the strips, Tarzan and Flash Gordon were as super as it got. The comic books were on the other hand, the super hero's domain.

next chapter: Heroes flourish and die, and America is thrown into the pit of horror and crime.

A Pictorial History of Sequential Art from Cave painting to Spider-Man

The History of Comic Art

A Chronological History of Comic Art in America

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