IN HONOR OF THE MAN OF STEEL’S MILESTONE ANNIVERSARY, CHECK OUT 10 HERO-WORTHY COLLECTIBLES FROM THE HERITAGE ARCHIVES
By Robert Wilonsky
He’s a young 85, no doubt – the benefit, perhaps, of a skin-care regimen that involves shaving with heat vision and the perpetual glow-up that comes from a lifetime spent beneath a yellow sun. Superman doesn’t look a day over … 27? 34? 41? Whatever the age, certainly not like a man born on April 18, 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics hit newsstands like a rocket ship from the planet Krypton.
Heritage’s archives brim with every iteration of Superman: the ferocious social-justice vigilante originally portrayed by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; the square-jawed do-gooder who became the Big Blue Boy Scout in the 1950s and ’60s; the Bronze Age hero who kicked off the 1970s by eating Kryptonite and wondering “Must There Be a Superman?”; the government stooge of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in the 1980s; and the loving father and husband who dominates modern tale-telling. And every other Man of Steel in between.
He has been at once among the most indestructible mainstays in American literature and the most malleable – whatever and whoever a writer needs him to be, which means he’s been a Soviet Superman, John Kennedy’s trusted confidante and a Black president whose secret identity is Calvin Ellis. Yet no matter the guise, he remains an alien more human than most born on this planet. James Gunn, the maker of Marvel movies now flown to DC’s cinematic universe, is about to begin making his first Superman movie and says he envisions his Man of Steel as someone “who has the kindness and the compassion that Superman has … somebody who you want to give a hug.”
Superman is more than comics’ first superhero. He is the Everyman.
“We’re all Superman in our own adventures,” said Grant Morrison, whose beloved All-Star Superman Gunn has hinted he’s adapting for the big screen. “We have our own Fortresses of Solitude we retreat to, with our own special collections of valued stuff, our own super-pets, our own ‘Bottle Cities’ that we feel guilty for neglecting. We have our own peers and rivals and bizarre emotional or moral tangles to deal with. I felt I’d really grasped the concept when I saw him as Everyman, or rather as the dreamself of Everyman. That ‘S’ is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our neuroses, our constructed selves, and become who we truly are.”
To celebrate the Man of Steel’s 85th anniversary, we traced the character’s evolution through the Heritage Auctions archives.
1939’s SUPERMAN NO. 1, whose cover is one of the most recognizable in the history of the medium, marked the first time an entire comic was devoted to a single superhero. It arrived on newsstands barely a year after the Man of Steel’s first appearance in Action Comics No. 1 to support his meteoric rise in popularity. This copy sold for $720,000 in a May 2022 Heritage auction.
BEFORE THERE WAS Superman No. 1, there was this 1939 Superman Comics ashcan. The hastily produced, stapled-together mockup was made to secure the title’s trademark. After that, it was meant to be tossed in the trash, hence the name ashcan. There are only two copies of the Superman Comics ashcan known to exist: this copy, which realized $288,000 in an April 2022 Heritage auction, and one that was sold in 2001.
SUPERMAN’S FIRST APPEARANCE on the silver screen was in a brilliant series of cartoons produced by the legendary Fleischer Studios; in fact, the first of the series was nominated for an Academy Award in 1942 for Best Short Subject, Cartoons. Stock sheets like this 1941 poster, which sold for $31,200 in a November 2020 Heritage auction, are prized among comic collectors and poster collectors alike for their brilliant colors and terrific images of the Man of Steel.
BY THE EARLY 1940s, Superman was already a legend and a natural for the serials, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the Man of Steel would make it to the big screen in a live-action format. With Kirk Alyn portraying the dual role of Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent, he flew through the skies, stopped bullets and performed other amazing stunts that kept kids glued to their seats. This rare poster for the Columbia Pictures film serial sold for $35,850 in an April 2018 Heritage auction.
THE FIRST ACTOR to play the Man of Steel in live action, Kirk Alyn paved the way for every Superman actor to follow. The three-piece costume Alyn first donned in 1948 sold for $81,250 in a November 2021 Heritage auction. George Reeves, the first actor to portray Superman on the small screen, became a staple in American households in the 1950s. His costume from Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952-58, sold for $350,000 in a November 2021 Heritage auction. Christopher Reeve made his Superman debut in 1978 and reprised the role in three subsequent Man of Steel movies. His four-piece costume from 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace realized $187,500 in a November 2021 Heritage auction.
WHEN DC COMICS revealed that it planned to kill Superman, word spread worldwide, and the event fostered unprecedented news coverage, resulting in Superman No. 75 becoming the top-selling book of 1992. This cover art by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke, which sold for $204,000 in an April 2022 Heritage auction, was created for the collected edition, one of the bestselling trade paperbacks of all time.
FAN-FAVORITE ARTIST Alex Ross teamed up with writer Paul Dini to create two prestige-format graphic novels featuring DC’s most recognizable characters, Superman and Batman. Not only did Ross provide the interior artwork for the one-shot editions, but he also created their iconic covers, like this stunning close-up image of the Man of Steel. Ross’ 1998 artwork for Superman: Peace on Earth sold for $90,000 in a September 2021 Heritage auction.
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.