The 1938 Superman comic book that helped take down a cheap imitator called Wonder Man heads to auction

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The 1938 Superman comic book that helped take down a cheap imitator called Wonder Man heads to auction
Action Comics #7 Court Copy (DC, 1938) CGC FN- 5.5 Off-white to white pages.

DALLAS, TX.- Action Comics No. 7, published in December 1938, is noteworthy for a few reasons, chief among them it marked only the second time Superman appeared on a comic book cover. This 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; that alone lands 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 Sept. 10-13. 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 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 Wonder Man a one-issue obscurity.

Turns out, Wonder Man might have been invulnerable, like his Kryptonian counterpart. But in the end, he was extremely defenseless against federal judges.

That’s because Wonder Man’s origin story began in an office building, with Fox Publications namesake Victor Fox ordering writer and artist (and The Spirit creator) Will Eisner to create a Superman knockoff. 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 – “faster than a speeding bullet,” Levitz wrote. And almost as quickly, he prevailed: 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.” Wonder Man didn’t live to see a second issue.

And it was this very issue of Action Comics No. 7 that helped put a stop to The Man of Steal.

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