The Reign of the Superman
"The Reign of the Superman" (January 1933) is a short story written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster. It was the first published use by the writer/artist duo of the character name Superman, which they later applied to their archetypal fictional superhero. The title character of this story is a telepathic villain, rather than a physically powerful hero. (Although hyphenated at the break between pages on the story's opening spread, the name is spelled Superman in the magazine's table of contents and the story's text.)
High school friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried selling their stories to magazines in order to escape Depression era poverty. With their work rejected by publishers, 18-year-old Shuster printed the duo's own typewritten, mimeographed science fiction fanzine titled Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, producing five issues.
According to a 1983 interview with Siegel, he first wrote the short story "The Reign of the Superman" in 1932. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of an Übermensch, Siegel's original story featured his first Superman as a powerful villain bent on dominating the entire world. Siegel's short story appeared in Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization Issue #3, with accompanying artwork by Shuster. For this publication, Siegel used the pen name Herbert S. Fine, combining the first name of a cousin Herbert with the maiden name of Siegel's mother.
The term "Superman" derives from a common English translation of the term Übermensch which originated with Friedrich Nietzsche's statement, "Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen" ("I will teach you all the Superman"), in his 1883 work Also Sprach Zarathustra. The term "Superman" was popularized by George Bernard Shaw with his 1903 play Man and Superman. The character Jane Porter refers to Tarzan as a "superman" in the 1912 pulp novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Siegel would later name Tarzan as an influence on the creation of his own Superman.
A mad scientist, a chemist named Professor Ernest Smalley, randomly chooses raggedly dressed vagrant Bill Dunn from a bread line, and recruits him to participate in an experiment in exchange for "a real meal and a new suit". When Smalley's experimental potion grants Dunn telepathic powers, the man becomes intoxicated by his power and seeks to rule the entire world. This superpowered man uses these abilities for evil, only to discover that the potion's effects are temporary. Having killed the evil Smalley, who had intended to kill Dunn and give himself the same powers, Dunn cannot recreate the secret formula. As the story ends, Dunn's powers wear off and he realizes he will be returning to the bread line to be a forgotten man once more.
Siegel re-wrote the character in 1933 as a hero bearing little or no resemblance to his villainous namesake, resulting in a five-year quest to find a publisher. When Siegel saw the 48-page black-and-white comic book titled Detective Dan, Secret Operative No. 48, he decided that a Superman who was a hero could make a great comic character. He went on to write a crime story which Shuster would draw in comic format. Titling it "The Superman", Siegel and Shuster offered it to Consolidated Book Publishing, the company that had published Detective Dan. Although the duo received an encouraging letter, Consolidated never again published comic books. Discouraged, Shuster burned all pages of the story; the cover surviving only because Siegel rescued it from the fire. Siegel and Shuster compared the character to Slam Bradley, a private detective the pair later created for Detective Comics #1 (March 1937). "We had a great character," Siegel later said, "and were determined it would be published."
Siegel and Shuster would next use the name in June 1938's Action Comics #1, featuring the superhero Superman.
- After DC Comics' "The Death of Superman" storyline and before Superman's return from the dead, four other characters replaced him during a storyline called "Reign of the Supermen", which ran through Action Comics and other Superman titles (June - October 1993).
- In DC's year-long weekly series 52 #35 (January 2007), numerous superhero characters abruptly lose their powers and fall from the sky in a story titled "Rain of the Supermen".
- In 2008, DC Comics published a story called Tangent: Superman's Reign featuring an alternate conception of "Superman" as a highly evolved human.
Few intact copies of Science Fiction #3, the original publication for this story, survive. Collectors value it both because of its rarity and because of its importance in the history behind the development of the DC Comics character Superman. In September 2006, Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, auctioned off a copy for $47,800.
Reprints and digital reissues
- The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #18 reprints the first two pages with opening text and Shuster's splash art.
- Nemo, the Classic Comics Library #2 (August 1983) p. 20-28 reprints the entire story.
- A digital copy of the magazine issue that includes this story is available from the University of Florida's digital collections.
- This work is available in various formats at the Internet Archive.
- Daniels, Les (1998). Superman: The Complete History (1st ed.). Titan Books. ISBN 1-85286-988-7.
- Fine, Herbert S. (August 1983). "The Reign of the Superman". Nemo, the Classic Comics Library (2): 20–28. ISSN 0746-9438.
- Overstreet, Robert M. (1988). The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (18th ed.). House of Collectibles.
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