While doing research for the Superman infographic, I came across this intriguing illustration by pulp artist H.J. Ward. It’s said to be the first time Superman ever appeared in painted form, and is the subject of not one, but two mysteries.
first mystery was of the painting’s disappearance. It hung on a wall in
Harry Donenfeld’s office at DC Comics until he retired in 1957, and then
was considered lost for over 50 years. However, a few years ago art
historian David Saunders discovered it hanging on the wall at the Lehman
College library in New York. You can read the full story on that here.
other mystery was why an image painted in 1940 has a version of
Superman’s emblem that didn’t appear until 1941.The easiest explanation
would be that this is the first appearance of the emblem appeared, and
it took a year before the artists at DC adopted it. But wait, what’s this?
photograph of the same painting hanging in Donenfeld’s office reveals
that it was originally painted with the 1939 emblem! Not only that, but
he also had a stronger jaw, and his hair was styled differently!
says the image was originally commissioned to help promote the 1940
radio serial (“an image for a medium you cannot see,” as the New York Times article says). You can see how it was used in this photograph, with the stars of the radio serial:
this photograph was taken no earlier than 1942. How do I know? Because
the microphone says “Mutual,” and the Superman radio series wasn’t
broadcast on Mutual until August of 1942, by which time the 1941 emblem
was well in use.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the emblem was
repainted just for this occasion, especially if it’s true that the
painting was originally commissioned for the start of the radio serial
in early 1940. Do any photos exist from the original promotional
But even if they did exist, they wouldn’t be in color.
And that’s what saddens me. It appears no color, or even high quality
reproduction exists of the painting in its original form.
What’s worse, according to this source the
retouching may not have even been done by Ward himself. Instead it was
modified by airbrush artist Joseph Szokoli, who was experienced at doing
touch-up work. (It’s unknown why he decided to paint the emblem with
six sides, the only time Superman’s shield has been represented that
The physical painting may have since been found, but in some ways the original still remains lost.