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HJ Ward Superman - Superman - Cleveland Public Library | by Tim Evanson
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HJ Ward Superman - Superman - Cleveland Public Library

Painting of Superman by pulp magazine artist H.J. Ward.

On exhibit at the Cleveland Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.

 

The painting was commissioned in 1940 by National Publications (later to become DC Comics). Legendary pulp magazine artist H.J. Ward was paid $100 ($1,747 in 2017 dollars) to create the image, which was used to promote "The Adventures of Superman" radio series, which premiered on February 12, 1940. Ward's brother-in-law, Bill Conley, was the model. It is the first full-length portrait of Superman known to exist.

 

Three things were different in the original work: (1) The spit-curl was to the right and curved to the viewer's left; (2) There was a very strong jaw; and (3) The chest emblem was a small, three-sided "S".

 

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The painting was altered in 1941 by Joseph Szokoli, another pulp magazine cover artist working for Donenfeld. The retouches were done because National had just successfully sued Fawcett, whose Captain Marvel (Shazam) character was found by a court to have infringed on the Superman copyright. A number of indicia regarding Superman were identified in the lawsuit, including descriptions of the spit-curl and chest emblem. This painting was seen as the "official" Superman portrait, and Donenfeld felt it needed to be updated. He paid Szokoli $50 ($750 in 2017 dollars) in 1942 to retouch the painting to align it with the indicia described in the Fawcett court ruling.

 

It's unclear why Szokoli painted the emblem with six sides. (It is the only time it has been depicted that way). Nor is it clear why he made the smile smaller, removed the chubby cheeks, and made the jaw smaller. Moving the spit-curl, and changing its direction, was part of the indicia.

 

For years, this portrait hung in DC Comics' New York offices. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw it every time they visited.

 

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Donenfeld retired in 1957, and took the painting with him. It was displayed in his home. Donenfeld suffered a head injury in 1962 that left him with no memory and unable to speak. He died in 1965.

 

The painting was inherited by Irwin Donenfeld, Harry's eldest child. When Irwin divorced his second wife, Alice (nee Greenbaum) in 1970, the divorce settlement required that the painting be disposed of. They agreed to donate it to Lehman College in New York City.

 

The painting hung in the offices of several deans, before moving to the college's Leonard Lief Library.

 

In 2010, Ward's painting was "rediscovered" by author David Saunders, who was working on a biography of Ward. His discovery led to a major article about the painting in "The New York Times."

 

This exhibit in Cleveland is the first time the painting has been seen outside of New York City.

 

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At some point, someone at National Publications took a color snapshot of the revised Ward painting. This was blown up to roughly 40 by 30 inches in 1972.

 

According to Elliot S! Maggin, this blow-up hung in the office of Julius Schwartz, who was editor of "Superman" and "Action Comics" from 1971 to 1986. Schwartz apparently found the enlargement in a storage room. This enlargement was used for the cover of "Limited Collectors Edition Presents Superman" (November 1974), and sold as a poster.

 

The enlargement was used as a prop hanging on the wall of Arthur's bedroom in the 1981 film, "Arthur".

 

The enlargement is apparently in storage again at DC Comics.

 

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There's yet another Superman painting out there, too. It was painted by Stanley Kaye, an artist who began working for National in 1941. By 1943, he was inking Superman comics and the daily comic strip. Kaye had trained as a painter, but never worked as an illustrator or cover artist.

 

The Kaye painting is just the head and upper shoulders of Superman, but is remarkably similar to the Szokoli revision. Why was it painted? No one is sure, but it has been suggested that Harry Donenfeld paid Kaye a nominal fee to make a study to show Szokoli want Donenfeld wanted. It is clearly dated 1942.

 

Jack Liebowitz, who was co-owner of National/DC Comics with Harry Donnenfeld, hung Kaye's study in his office. About 1964, Liebowitz gave the study to Asa Herzog. Merredith Lowe, Herzog's 10-year-old godson, was a major Superman fan. Herzog was a well-known bankruptcy lawyer who worked for Donenfeld and Leibowitz. Merredith's father, Sheldon Lowe, also did work for Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

 

Merredith Lowe has retained the study ever since.

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Taken on March 27, 2018