The Unlikely Origin of a Comic Book Legend

#ComicBooks #Superman #origins The unlikely origin of a comic book legend

Joe and Jerry had an idea that was sure to be a goldmine. The 18-year-old high school students thought up a terrific story featuring a terrifying character. Between Jerry’s writing talents and Joe’s artistic abilities, they set to work to bring their idea for a comic book to life. What they created changed the course of comic book history — just not in the way they anticipated.

Every good story needs a villain and the young men conceived of the perfect one for their debut story. Their character’s name was Bill Dunn. Dunn is a bald-headed vagrant who is plucked out of a bread line by the mentally-unstable Professor Ernest Smalley. Smalley gets Dunn to agree to participate in an experiment in exchange for “a real meal and a new suit.”

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Bill Dunn

The experiment gives Dunn telepathic powers, and it also puts him on a power trip. He uses his newfound powers in a relentless pursuit of world domination. In an effort to make sure Professor Smalley does not create any similarly-powered people to rival his ambitions, Dunn kills the professor. Only then does he discover that his powers are only temporary. With Smalley out of the way, there is no way for Dunn to recreate the experiment that endowed him with his special abilities. The story concludes with Dunn returning to the bread line from which he started his adventures.

The opening words of the Bill Dunn story:

With a contemptuous sneer on his face, Professor Smalley watched the wretched unfortunates file past him. To him, who had come of rich parents and had never been forced to face the rigors of life, the miserableness of these men seemed deserved. It appeared to him that if they had the slightest ambition at all they could easily lift themselves from their terrible rut.

But while he eyed them with a world of condescension, he was busy scanning their faces, searching for the man he sought. Time and time again he seemed on the point of reaching out and putting a restraining arm on the hand of one of the men. But ever he hesitated at the last moment and allowed the fellow to file past.

At last, however, he gave up his search in despair and resignedly claimed the attention of the raggedly-dressed person who happened to be before him at that moment. “How would you like to have a real meal and a new suit?” he inquired.

Joe and Jerry featured the Bill Dunn story in their self-published comic book, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, using the copier machine at their school. The issues sold for 15 cents each. Approximately 50 copies were printed and distributed.

The sales and reception were disappointing, to say the least. The two friends gave up on Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization after five issues, but they never completely gave up on the character they created. The pair developed another storyline, again using a bald-headed villain as the antagonist. For the protagonist, they created a completely different character with substantially greater powers than Bill Dunn. In fact, there is really only one thing about Bill Dunn that their new character shared: a nickname.


The first published use of the name Superman by Jerry Siegel (using the pen name Herbert S. Fine) and Joe Shuster. It originally sold in 1933 for 15 cents. In 2008 a surviving copy was auctioned for $47,800.

When Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel finally had a chance to present their new-and-improved hero to the world, it was in a much more professionally-produced publication. When the full-color edition of Action Comics #1 hit the stands in June 1938, it featured a caped man lifting a car with ease. The world would come to know him by the name Bill Dunn claimed in the amateurish publication of five years earlier: Superman.

Read The Reign of the Superman here.

Action Comics #1

Action Comics #1, June 1938: the first appearance of the new-and-improved Superman.

Read more fun facts about comic books.

Read about more interesting origins.

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