Requesting Superman

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By Jef Sensabaugh

No, I don’t have a copy. But I have held one.

Unlike many of the writers who grace this blog, I was not a steady comic book reader as a child.  My mother would occasionally buy me a comic, or one of those three-comic discount bags.  My knowledge of current DC and Marvel continuity was practically nil.  I did, however, read nearly every book of comic art in my public library. Someone in the Oakland public library system liked comic books (and comic strips). There were Batman collections featuring reprints of 1950’s books, the era when Batman fought the Joker on giant typewriters. There were the Marvel Secret Origins books, which allowed me to read the first issue of every major hero but offered no hint as to what happened to them.  In that mix, I read a reprint of Superman’s first appearance.  The book mentioned the rarity of Action Comics #1 and how valuable a copy of it was.

I went to a college with vast resources. Certain aspects were obvious: gothic architecture everywhere, professors who had written best-sellers, and small classes.  Other aspects were very well hidden, but you could tap them if you just knew where to look. I think that’s the point of this story – there are amazing things out there if you have the will to look and to follow through.

When I was in college, the internet barely existed. I had an email account, and you could use newsgroups but the Web would not be invented for a few years. To look things up, you needed the library. The library was my go-to entertainment center. I had friends, I really did, but somehow I found myself in the library multiple evenings a month.  Sometimes I knew what I wanted. Sometimes I just wanted to get lost in the temple of paper.

One night I wanted comics.

I opened the ‘CO’ card catalogue to ‘comics’ and started looking at the listings.  There were some sociological studies. There were some old Peanuts collections. There were a lot of things, some mildly interesting, some not.  I kept flipping. And then I hit “Action Comics”.

The listing said that “Action Comics” was in the Rare Book Room, not in the stacks.  That didn’t sound like a reprint.  Some wealthy alum must have donated them to the library, and they were right there in the building.  The Rare Book Room wasn’t open, so I would have to come back. I found something else to amuse myself that night, but “Action Comics” started rolling around in my brain.

Why couldn’t I look at those books? I was a student of the university, with an interest in comics.  I wasn’t researching a book or a paper, but I was researching for my own curiosity. But would they let me look at it? I didn’t have any compelling reason to see it, besides curiosity. I mentally whipped back and forth. Eventually I decided that the worst that could happen was that the library would just deny my request. What was the harm in asking?

I went to the Rare Book Room.  To look at anything required filling out some forms and reading some cautionary material.  You could not take anything into the room except for pencils and paper. No backpacks, no bags, no pens.  You had to fill out a request slip and hand it to the librarian. I handed mine to a somewhat dour-looking lady. She instructed me to sit at one of the reading tables and disappeared.

I sat and waited.

There were people engaged in serious scholarship all around me. Pretty much all I could hear was the sound of scratching pencils taking notes. I think I had a pencil in front of me, just for appearances. After a long while, my librarian returned with a box and a smile. She seemed surprised and pleased that the University had such treasures. As she set the box in front of me and opened it, she whispered “I think you’ll enjoy this.”

In the box were the first ten issues of Action Comics. They were in good condition; certainly better than the well-handled books I had at home. On top of the stack was Action Comics #1. I gently picked it up and set it on the table.  I opened it and read the origin story of Superman. Then I read all the other stories in the book. There was a cowboy story and a cub reporter story and the first appearance of Zatara the magician. Quite honestly, they were all pretty dull to me. The seed of Superman is in that book, but it was what the character grew into that was exciting to me. I flipped through a few more issues, but the writing wasn’t getting that much better. I was done. I signaled for the librarian to take the box away.

The stories in Action Comics #1 did not change my life.  The fact that I got to hold it changed me. It was random chance that my library had it. It was random chance that I found out it was there. Knowing it was there was tantalizing, but empty.  So what if the college had this tucked away? Only by taking action could I claim to have touched one of the rarest of all comics. Five years later, they sold the comics to raise money for the library. Chance favors the bold and the early.

While writing this I uncovered some of the back story. The comics belonged to Philip Wylie, a pulp writer. In 1930 he wrote a novel called Gladiator that featured a main character with super strength and speed. A character that seems a lot like Superman, enough for Wylie to threaten legal action against Superman’s creators.

My library’s Action Comics were part of his legal research.  Since I couldn’t find the comics in my college’s current library listings, I wrote a short email to them to find out what happened. I got back a long email on the history of the books and their fate from the head librarian.

Libraries take care of their own.