The first painting of Superman was made in the early Golden Age, but since its inception it has become the basis of a few mysteries.
Tomorrow’s man, Superman first began to taste his popularity in 1940, when the golden age of comics was in its infancy and DC Comics ruled the comic book landscape. Times were good for Superman’s publisher National Allied Publications and its owner Harry Donenfeld because of Superman’s unprecedented and untapped success. Thanks to Superman, Donendeld and his partner Jack Liebowitz had access to millions of dollars in their most successful business venture to date. Donenfeld hired one of the star cover painters from his Pulp magazines to paint him a portrait of Superman to celebrate Superman’s leap to radio, where it would become a staple in DC’s offices for nearly 20 years. After Donenfeld retired due to ill health in 1958, no one remembered seeing the painting again, and there was only a single amateur photograph left.
The rights to Superman were purchased by Harry Donenfeld for National Allied Publications’ new practice of printing original comics instead of just those collecting reprints of newspaper strips. After Superman made his Golden Age debut in 1939 with one of the most valuable comics ever, Action comics # 1 written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, he quickly became the most sought after character in the local newsagents. It would take a while before Superman was clearly defined, where his first few years involved a series of experiments involving his powers, his logo, and his appearance.
The first Superman painting ever was by HJ Ward, a famous pulp illustrator who had contributed several covers to magazines such as “Spicy Detective Stories” and several others owned by Harry Donenfeld. When HJ Ward was hired to paint Donenfeld’s star character, he had plenty of leeway to bring Joe Shuster’s drawings into a fully rendered painting, adding an air of intrigue to the work due to its off-model look. Donenfeld ordered the massive 60×45-inch painting from Ward for $ 100, and it was delivered to Donenfeld in June 1940, where he eagerly hung it behind his desk.
The origin and obscurity of the painting
The painting was commissioned with the intention of using it to promote Superman’s new radio show by making photos of it to send to radio listeners. Due to the size of the painting, it was probably Donenfeld’s real intention to have a painting of his most successful character by his favorite staff painter hanging in his office. The painting’s first appearance was on a photograph staged on June 21, 1941 Saturday Evening Post article, one year after the creation of the painting, and the only known photo of the painting as it is painted by HJ Ward.
Donenfeld eventually decided to take pictures with the painting to promote Superman’s adventure radio show, but it was now 1942. While Superman became a staple of many American households as a best-selling comic book, radio, and animation star, DC filed several lawsuits against other publishers for tearing off their star ratings. The largest and most talked about lawsuit involved Captain Marvel and Fawcett Publications. Author David Saunders found a connection between the lawsuits and the painting, which he narrated in the biography HJ Ward, saying:
“Joe Szokoli, another cover artist who routinely worked for Donenfeld’s Spicy Pulp Magazines, was hired to change the painting. In addition to being a cover artist, Szokoli also had a side job as a graphic artist and retouching artist. For fifty dollars, he painted the prescribed changes under fifty dollars. at Donenfeld’s office, without spilling a single drop on the carpet.The revised painting was in line with the detailed design elements set out in the copyright infringement lawsuit … Giving Ward’s painting a facelift not only removed conflicting evidence, it extended also the life of the painting as Superman’s officially approved paradigm. “
To better strengthen their position in the suits they launched, there was a need to bring uniformity to Superman’s appearance. The painting was altered due to an act of synergy and had Saturday Evening Post the picture has never been taken, no one would have known of the original’s existence. The retouched version is markedly different with the biggest changes given to the face and logo, but it certainly looks more like the version of Superman’s suit that most fans know and love.
The mystery of another painting and a missed one
Due to the size of the painting on the previous photographs, which measured 60×45 inches, the reports of others seeing a much smaller painting of about 24×36 inches in DC’s offices or in Warner Brothers’ warehouse seemed strange to many. This would be another mystery Saunders would solve while researching HJ Ward. Saunders saw Ward’s painting of Superman reproduced in Les Daniels’s Superman: The Complete History which prompted him to call DC to find the source of the photograph. As Saunders told in an article by James Barron in New York Times:
“The image that existed was of very low quality … I called DC and asked them and their archivist if they could help me find a high quality original. They said the painting had been lost in over 50 years. The only thing that exists is an amateur color snapshot. “
This snapshot was what was used to create the cover of 1974 Superman Treasury which was what gave most fans their first look at a painted Superman decades before Alex Ross’s Superman: Peace on Earth. The snapshot was used to produce everything that involved the painting for over 30 years, including its appearance in the 1981 comedy Arthur, which is probably the smaller painting reported over the years, and possibly the one that hung in Jack Liebowitz’s office for a period of time.
After confirming that the second painting was in fact a print of an amateur photograph, Saunders immediately began trying to track down what happened to the original painting. It was common knowledge that the original hung in Donenfeld’s office during his tenure, but given its disappearance after Donenfeld’s retirement in 1958, Saunders logically decided to contact all living members of Donenfeld’s family in hopes of tracing the painting. After Saunders sent letters to anyone with the last name Donenfeld he could find in the United States, he heard back from Donenfeld’s relatives and discovered that the painting had been donated to the Leonard Lief Library at Lehman College in the Bronx, where it was hung up without ceremony until was finally rediscovered in 2010.
The now iconic painting of Superman has since been properly photographed and was used as a cover for the 2011 mass market paperback edition of It’s Superman by Tom De Haven. For fans of the painting, a much closer look at the painting can be seen in the 2017 film Professor Marston & Wonder Women, where the original painting was used and is exhibited in a re-creation of DC’s offices. The rediscovery of this incredible piece Golden Age comic book story is a reminder of the treasures of the world waiting to be found and its story is a unique look at how DC Comics was about to establish Superman in his early years.
Sources: NEW: The Mystery of the Missing Man of Steel by James Barron, A Stanley Kaye Superman Painting Mystery by Todd Klein, Saturday Evening Post, HJ Ward by David Saunders
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