Superman's Hidden History: The Other "First" Artist

Hidden History: Russell Keaton

It’s relatively common knowledge that in 1934 Jerry Siegel approached other artists besides Joe Shuster to be his collaborator on Superman. One of these artists was Russell Keaton, who had been ghosting the Buck Rogers Sunday pages. Siegel and Keaton maintained a brief correspondence over the character, with Keaton eventually deciding “not to gamble on such a young and inexperienced writer.” Instead, a few years later Keaton launched his own newspaper strip, Flyin’ Jenny.

And now, in the words of Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.

In preparing the termination notice to regain the Superman copyright, the Siegel family found a box of old Superman material, catalogued its contents–and then, in a move, lost track of it. Fortunately, the material was re-discovered in April of last year.

Among the documents: photostats of the scripts and artwork of Siegel and Keaton’s Superman.

That’s right, Siegel and Keaton.

As Jerry Siegel would later explain, in 1934 Joe Shuster had become discouraged with the Superman newspaper strip and decided to let it go. His departure prompted Siegel to look for a replacement, so he sent an inquiry to Keaton. Which we have in these rediscovered documents in Siegel’s follow-up letter outlining the origin story and touting the prospect of selling the strip to the Bell Syndicate.

Based on the surviving artwork, it would appear that Keaton did indeed prepare a set of sample daily strips for the syndicate to review. Had Siegel and Keaton succeeded in selling the strip, the history of comics would no doubt have been far different. At the very least Russell Keaton, not Joe Shuster, would most likely be remembered today as Superman’s co-creator.

The material also provides a decidedly different take on Superman’s origin. In this version, the infant Superman arrives here from the future via a time machine, sent to 1935 by “the last man on earth.” The couple that discovers him: Sam and Molly Kent.

The story then takes a series of fascinating turns in regard to Superman’s childhood, which is the subject of the first extended storyline. Most poignant: in a nod to Siegel’s own immigrant parents, the boy speaks a language that Sam and Molly don’t understand, leading them to speculate that he came from “a foreign country.” The secret of his origin appears to lie in a cryptic “Mystery Note” found in the time capsule, but–as is all too common in immigrant families–when Clark Kent grows up he can no longer read the words.

What this material might mean for the Superman and Superboy lawsuits we’ll discuss in a later post. For now, these historic documents deserve to be read in keeping with Siegel’s original intent–not as the subject of a legal dispute, but as an astounding adventure.

Related:

Superman's Hidden History: Lois' 'Abortion' and Superman too Gay?

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