By Ken Zurski
In January of 1933, a short story titled “The Reign of the Super-Man.” appeared in a science fiction fanzine created by two teenagers at the time, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
The “Superman” or title character of their story was a bad guy with a bald head and telepathic powers.
“The Superman theme has been one of the themes ever since Samson and Hercules; and I just sat down and wrote a story of that type – only in this story, the Superman was a villain,” Siegel later explained in an interview.
Eventually the two friends decided Superman would be better as a good guy. But they weren’t sure how to make the transition. So they drew up another character named Slam Bradley. “Jerry came up with the idea of a man of action with a sense of humor,” Shuster relates. “Still, he couldn’t fly, and he didn’t have a costume.”
Actually the concept of Slam Bradley, including the name, is credited to Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, an avid horse rider and one of the youngest cadets to join the US Calvary in 1917 at the age of 27. Wheeler-Johnson was commissioned a major in World War I. When the war ended, Wheeler-Nicholson openly wrote letters to president Warren G. Harding describing mistreatment by senior officers at West Point. The accusations led to counter charges, lawsuits and a court martial trail conviction of Wheeler-Johnson for violating the 96th Article of War which essentially prohibits public criticism of the military by an officer.
Wheeler-Nicholson resigned from his duties in 1923 and became a pulp writer and entrepreneur instead. While looking for a distinctive character to highlight his new Detective Comics series, he sent a letter to Seigel. “We want a detective hero called ‘Slam Bradley’ he wrote. “He is to be an amateur, called in by the police to help unravel difficult cases.”
Wheeler-Nicholson was even more specific: “He should combine both brains and brawn, be able to think quickly and reason cleverly and able as well to slam bang his way out of a bar room brawl or mob attack.”
Siegel and Shuster, however, used Slam Bradley as a test run. “Superman had already been created, and we didn’t want to give away the Superman idea; but we just couldn’t resist putting into Slam Bradley some of the slam-bang stuff.”
Despite his penchant for cigarettes and dames, the target audience of preteen boys took to Slam Bradley as a super hero of sorts. So Siegel and Shuster worked late nights and long hours to perfect their original character, Superman, which they felt had more appeal.
Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938.
Even Superman’s secret alter ego, Clark Kent, was patterned after Siegel’s real life luck – or lack of it – with girls. “What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that, then maybe they would notice me,” he confessed.
The look of Superman changed too, from a bald headed man to the costumed, caped crusader we know today.
In an interview in 1983, Siegel compared the look of the original Superman to a popular television star at the time.
“I suppose he looks a lot like Telly Savalas,” he said.