Before they made the Superman we all know, Siegel and Shuster self-published a zine featuring a bald villain also named Superman.
Zines, self-published magazines exchanged or sold between enthusiasts, have been around since the early 20th century at least. They offer a way for those excluded from – or wishing to remain independent of – traditional publishing channels to reach a wider audience.
The creators had absolute control over the content. That meant they could do things not possible in traditional media, like writing their own stories with other authors’ copyrighted characters (first seen in 1967’s Star Trek fan fiction zine Spockanalia), writing their own erotic stories with copyrighted characters (Spockanalia again), sharing sci fi from a feminist perspective (the classic zine Janus aka Aurora), or spreading the word about punk music (Punk and Sniffin’ Glue).
In the 1930s, zines were an opportunity for aspiring comic book writers and artists to share their work. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, had their start in zines – and, in fact, Superman first appeared in a zine.
Now, this isn’t the Superman we all know. In this 1933 work, titled Reign of the Superman, Superman is a bad guy – an incarnation of Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. (Side note: this idea was also picked up by another outfit in the 1930s, and they certainly weren’t good guys.) The basic plot is that a vagrant is given telepathic abilities by a rogue chemist. This man, Superman, kills the chemist and tries to take over the world. But! The effect is temporary, and with the chemist dead he has no choice but to return to ignominy. It’s a good tale with a nice barb in the tail.
Five years after that zine’s release, Siegel and Shuster had a new Superman – a hero instead of a villain, published in a legit comic: Action Comics #1.