As I type this, it’s turning April 18 in the U.S., and I’ve been surprised and pleased to see that — as we first started to mention back when the Scott Snyder / Jim Lee Superman comic rumors began to surface — many fans have noticed that this is probably the best day to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1, with the first appearance of Superman in a 13 page story by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Lois Lane first appeared in this story as well (Perry White and Jimmy Olsen came along a bit later).
What’s the deal? The cover says June 1938, right? Well, yes, but that was an indication for newsdealers as to when unsold copies of the publication were to be removed from the newsstands. The comic arrived at newsstands prior to that. A monthly publication might arrive on the newsstand roughly a month before its cover date. A debut issue might arrive even earlier to attempt to give it a slightly longer sales window.
If you’re a history-minded BC reader, you may have noticed our posts about some recent Marvel 50th anniversaries such as Fantastic Four #1 and Incredible Hulk #1, where we looked at a bunch of copies with penciled or stamped arrival dates to determine the true or best-fit release dates of those books.
We can’t really do the same thing with Action Comics #1, as arrival dates are quite a bit less common during the Golden Age of the late 1930s-1940s then they were in the Silver Age of the 1960s. Fortunately, we have something even better in this case: sworn court testimony regarding the release date of Action Comics #1.
In 1939, DC brought a copyright infringement suit against Fox Publications over Fox character Wonder Man’s similarities to Superman. During the trial, DC publisher Harry Donenfeld‘s business manager / partner Jack Liebowitz testified on the the stand as follows:
I can explain that first issue. We put that out April 18 and we left it on sale for about 6 weeks. The next on-sale date was about May 25, and thereafter it was published about that time so there was only a month’s difference after that time.
And while the arrival date would have varied a bit from location to location around the country (I know of one copy with a penciled arrival date of April 26), it’s hard to beat court testimony for marking this as the official day.
Liebowitz’s testimony gives us quite a bit of other info about the publication details of this momentous release, perhaps most notably that it actually sold 130,000 copies out of a total print run of 202,000. There’s a great deal to be learned from perusing those court transcripts, so be sure to check out the excellent Comics Detective blog.
And because of a contest that appeared in this first issue of Action Comics (and whose winners were named along with their state of residence in Action Comics #4), we also know that it appears to have had surprisingly good distribution around the U.S. and into Canada. It’s said that Harry Donenfeld was particularly diligent in striking deals with various distributors throughout the country, and that this was one thing that helped give early DC an edge.
Much more is going to be written about Superman’s history in the coming days and weeks leading up to the release of Man of Steel. New history books are being released, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are being remembered by fans and by their hometown, Cleveland — and the decades of legal struggles over the character will be remembered and reexamined also.
But if you’d like to spend a little time imagining the wonder of picking up a comic book off of a newsstand one day 75 years ago, and for the first time seeing the saga of “Superman! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (and I understand Lois Lane fans are going to commemorate the occasion tonight as well), today is a very good day to do it.
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