Action Comics No. 7, published in the United States in December 1938, is noteworthy for a few reasons, chief among them that it marked only the second time Superman appeared on a comic book cover.
But a copy of the comic – in fact, the very copy up for sale from Heritage Auctions later this month – was also used as evidence in a court case battle to beat off one of the Kryptonian hero’s first – and as it turned out, short-lived rivals, Wonder Man… the brainchild of none other than the man considered father of the graphic novel form, Will Eisner, and partner Jerry Iger.
Action Comics No. 7 was the issue that launched Superman’s bow as Action’s main attraction, per the orders of Detective Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld. That alone makes it a treasured milestone, landing it at the No. 7 spot on Overstreet’s Top 100 Golden Age Comics List.
It’s also rare in any grade. CGC, the comics-grading company, has seen and slabbed but 50 copies – and few higher than the FN- 5.5 Action Comics No. 7 that’s being offered as part of Heritage Auctions’ Comics & Comic Art event over 10th – 13th September 2020. It has been more than a decade since the Dallas-based auction house has offered an unrestored copy in such good condition.
But what makes this particular issue of Action Comics so special – a rarified piece of comic-book history – are the words stamped across its cover: “U.S. District Court Filed Mar 16 1939 S.D. of N.Y.” And: “Exhibit 18 U.S. Dist. Court S.D. of N.Y. Apr 6 1939.”
More than 80 years ago, this copy of Action Comics was entered into evidence in the federal court case – titled Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. – that essentially determined what makes a superhero.
This was the fight that pit Superman against a red-and-yellow-clad knockoff called Wonder Man – and rendered the title he appeared in, Wonder Comics, a one-issue, er, wonder…
While Wonder Man might have been invulnerable, just like his Kryptonian counterpart, the court action revealed the company behind his creation was less so – and extremely defenceless against US federal judges.
Wonder Man’s origin story began in early 1939 in an office building, the same building DC had theirs, in fact, with Fox Publications namesake Victor Fox ordering writer and artist (and The Spirit creator) Will Eisner to create a Superman knockoff. Fox was determined to get into the comics business after seeing his distributor’s reports on the incredible sales for National Periodicals’ Action Comics in February 1939.
Eisner and partner Jerry Iger fretted about the legality of the demand, according to former DC Comics Publisher Paul Levitz in his 2015 book Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel.
“But both the dubious morality and the potential consequences were [clear]: If Fox pulled its business from Eisner and Iger, leaving a large debt unpaid, it might be enough to close the firm,” Levitz wrote. “Eisner created Wonder Man to order.”
Donenfeld sued to protect the fledgling Superman, “faster than a speeding bullet,” Levitz wrote.
As noted in Kurt Mitchell and Roy Thomas’s American Comic Book Chronicles, National Comics Publications/ DC Comics brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against Fox, due to the Wonder Man’s similarities to Superman, as well as story and illustration elements that were similar to previous Superman adventures.
And, they won: in April 1940, a panel of federal appeals court justices ruled that “the only real difference between them is that Superman wears a blue uniform and Wonderman a red one.”
And it was this very issue of Action Comics No. 7 on sale this month that helped put a stop to The Man of Steal.
Wonder Comics lived to see a second issue, featuring Yarko the Great in #2, then changed its name to Wonderworld Comics featuring The Flame in #3 and continued for another 30 issues. But the Will Eisner version of Wonder Man was never seen again, although he did allude to events in his graphic novel The Dreamer, even if Eisner’s memories of this first copyright lawsuit in US comic book history are at odds with his own court testimony, covered in detail here by Ken Quattro.
The case set a precedent for DC Comics’ vigorous protection of its characters, including their long-running action against Fawcett Publications in an effort to clip the cape of another Superman rival, Captain Marvel.