Man of Steel: Superman memorabilia
Cultural theorists perceive Superman as an extremely significant figure in Western cultural history. He was the first costumed comic book superhero, the one from which all future comic book heroes would emerge, thus ushering in the superhero genre. Superman possesses an unwavering moral code, adhering to humanity’s morals more than they themselves. He fights for social justice against tyranny, and is an ultimate symbol of good triumphing over evil.
Superman has maintained a presence in the world since his comic book introduction in 1938, and has established a recognisable presence in the social psyche of every generation. His character has been passed down through the capable hands and talents of numerous comic book artists and writers, radio, television and film directors and merchandise designers, through each new mind evolving and remaining relevant. Superman is just as popular today as a character and a concept as he ever was. Every generation has their share of real-world evil and tyranny, and every generation wants a Superman. There is therefore a wealth of memorabilia from over seven decades of comics, art, film, television, and merchandise for collectors to choose from.
Faster than a speeding bullet, the new Zack Snyder-directed Superman film, Man of Steel, is flying into cinemas this week. We take a look at memorabilia relating to the archetypal superhero and cultural icon, Superman.
In the 1930s, two young comic artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster developed the concept of a costumed superhero fighting against evil and tyranny. He was nominally modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, and concealed his super powers behind the guise of a bespectacled alter-ego, who was not a little like Harold Lloyd. They called him The Superman.
The idea was initially rejected by comic book publishers, but then in 1938, following a complicated series of events, the strip was chosen as the lead feature in Wheeler-Nicholson's new publication, Action Comics. The cover of Action Comics #1 featured Jerry and Joe’s character Superman lifting a car above his head.
This historic publication marked the very first instance of a costumed superhero being featured in a comic book. It began a new era in comic book history, now known as the Golden Age, and basically invented the superhero genre – which soon became the most dominant genre in the comic book market.
Superman maintained his presence as decades passed, as other superheroes made their debuts and rose to prominence. His character was updated at various points, his powers changed or increased, his back story fleshed out, a love interest introduced, and his popularity grew.
Superman has been developed for radio, a Broadway musical, television and film, and video games (though 1999’s Nintendo 64 game Superman is widely considered the worst video game of all time). Since its earliest days, merchandise such as toys and models has been produced to cash in on the worldwide fascination with this saviour of Earth, this alien trying to find his place in American society, this Übermensch.
As can be expected, Action Comics #1 (DC, 1938) is the holy grail of Superman memorabilia. This is not just a comic but an historic event. It is also the most expensive comic book ever sold. There are thought to be only 50-100 copies of Action Comics #1 still in existence, making it extremely rare and sought after. The record for a sale of this landmark publication is $2.16 million.
Action Comics issues number 2-6, while they did feature Superman strips, did not have Superman covers. However Action Comics #7 did, as did #10 and #13, then #15, #17, #19, #20, and all the covers that followed, evidencing the character’s rising popularity. Editions with Superman covers are almost always more popular and valuable than those without. Action Comics #23 is notable for introducing the character of Superman’s arch enemy Lex Luther. Comic issues which introduce significant characters are generally very desirable.
Superman #1 was published in 1939. It reprinted the first four Action Comics stories, plus additional ones which added depth to the character and his history. It was unprecedented for a single comic book character to have his own magazine, and no character had featured in more than one comic book before. Superman #2 is notable for a full page advert for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Issue 17 depicts Superman defeating Hitler. Superman #53 marked the 10th anniversary of the character. These early editions are all very collectible, due to their historical significance and increasing rarity.
The series became The Adventures of Superman in 1986 after 423 issues. Simultaneously, John Byrne had reinvented the Superman character in The Man of Steel limited series, as a post-Crisis on Infinite Earths version of Superman, and another series entitled Superman introduced the character anew.
The DC Multiverse allowed variations on Superman’s character to occur across different comic book universes and within other characters’ stories, as well as crossover books which brought together several superheroes, such as the Justice League.
A collector does not have to aspire to the dizzy heights of Action Comics #1. Superman has such a lengthy history that there are a vast number of comics one could collect that feature him, many at very affordable prices. These can be found at auction, at comic book conventions and fairs, on eBay, garage sales, car boot sales, and other second hand platforms.
You might even get lucky like the man who discovered a copy of Action Comics #1 in the walls of the 1930s house he was renovating, used as insulation when the house was built.
It makes sense to focus your Superman comic book collection, for example on one series, or one writer or artist.
A popular area connected with Superman comic book collecting is original comic book art. This is not for those with shallow pockets, as pieces of original art by Superman’s various designers can fetch as much as, and sometimes more than rare examples of vintage comics. For example, Fred Ray’s cover design for Action Comics #46 (1942) sold for $101,575 in 2011.
Promotional art for radio, television, films and merchandise also has a following. Commissioned to excite and tantalise viewers for upcoming appearances of Superman, the original artwork for these pieces can also see high prices at auction, or you could try and get your hands on one of the posters, billboards or advertising displays they were produced for.
Superman has also been a source of inspiration and fascination for renowned artists. Andy Warhol famously focused on pop icons in his work, and Superman was no exception. His painting of Superman, dating from 1981, was part of his Myths series focusing on the significance of the superhero in American culture. It sold for $1.77 million in 2002.
If you can’t quite find that much cash however, there is an unrelenting wealth of Superman fan art being produced, some of it is for sale, and some of it is even rather good. There really is no excuse to not plaster every inch of wall with images of the Man of Steel as a shrine within which to house your collection.
Films and television
Very soon after Superman’s popularity in comic books was firmly established, he was introduced on the radio in the 1940s The Adventures of Superman series. His first feature film was in 1951, entitled Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves. This sparked as television series which continued until 1958.
The film that is perhaps the most famous is 1978’s Superman: The Movie starring the previously unknown Christopher Reeve. This brought Superman to a much wider audience, and several sequels were produced.
Another generation were introduced to Superman through the television, with the 1990s series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.
More recently the Smallville television series told the story of Superman’s earlier life prior to his move to Metropolis.
And now, in accordance with a contemporary fashion for Golden and Silver Age comics being adapted into film, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel feature film has landed.
There are several items of film and television memorabilia that collectors hanker after, and a collector’s focus is often determined by which representation of Superman they grew up with, which one they are nostalgic about.
Christopher Reeve’s Superman costumes have sold several times at auction, the top sale achieving $115,000 in 2007. Marlon Brando’s Jor-El costume from the 1978 movie sold for $60,000 in 2008. Props from the Reeve-era movies are also popular. A piece of green kryptonite used on screen in the 1978 movie sold for $22,500 in 2012. Another piece of kryptonite used in the 1983 sequel Superman III sold for $14,000 in 2012. A special effects model of Christopher Reeve in a flying pose sold for $14,000 in 2008.
Kirk Alyn’s Superman costume from the 1948 television serial sold at auction in 2004 for $20,000. George Reeves’ Superman cape from the 1950s television series sold for $9,000 in 2012, and Dean Cain’s Superman costume from Lois & Clark television series achieved $8,000 in 2008.
As Superman’s popularity soared, companies quickly began to license him for merchandising. The first item of merchandise was the 1939 button proclaiming membership to the Supermen of America Club, bearing the motto ‘Strength Courage Justice’, and picturing Superman busting some chains.
The Supermen of America was the early official Superman fan club. Their membership cards read: ‘(name) is a member of the Supermen of America Club, and promises to do everything possible to increase his or her strength and courage and to aid the course of justice’. In 1999 the name of the fan club was appropriated for two fictional superhero team comics. However, early fan club memorabilia remains sought after by collectors, especially the rare Supermen of America rings issued in 1940, of which only 21 are believed to still exist.
Superman trading cards have also been produced since 1940, another of the first Superman collectibles produced. The very first Superman set, the original Man of Steel 1940 Gum Inc cards, are one of the most rare and difficult non-sports sets to complete in pristine condition. The artist who produced the images for the cards remains a mystery. The reverse of the cards encourage people to join the Supermen of America club. Cards #49 to #72 are so rare, for many years it was thought that these were a 48 card set. It could be the case that the higher numbers were test marketed in certain areas. This is one hell of a collecting mission to undertake, especially as most of the cards, when found, are in terrible condition.
Since then, there have been numerous sets of trading cards produced, in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s. Some were based on the comics, and others on the television series and films. Later sets are likely to be easier and cheaper to collect.
As the years rolled by, almost every type of merchandise that you could fit Superman onto was being produced: jigsaw puzzles, paper dolls, bubble gum, vinyl records, trading cards, figures, lunchboxes, colorforms sets, cookie jars, clothing, ponchos, jewellery, mugs, glasses, aprons, ice trays, thermoses, pocket watches.
Food and packaging included Superman promotions, using his image for advertising, such as breakfast cereal. There were safety matches produced using Superman’s image, and even a Superheroes Super Healthy Cookbook published by Warner Bros in conjunction with DC in 1981, to encourage children to cook and eat healthily.
The popularity of and scope for merchandise increased as Superman was featured in film and on television. Kryptonite rocks were produced in 1977 by Pro Arts Inc, likely based on Gary Dahl’s ironic ‘pet rocks’. They were painted in glow in the dark green, and the box decorated with classic Superman art.
Vintage merchandise is ever more valuable than modern merchandise. With Superman, it has existed in an ever constant flow since 1940. However, the merchandise of today could well be the vintage collectibles of the future. It might be worth looking out for merchandise produced in relation to the new film, if you trust Zack Snyder to have directed something iconic enough to live up to Superman’s legendary and eternal status.
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