(c) 2016 Arthur L. Lortie


irvin1.jpgPoor Rea Irvin.

By1943, he was already a grizzled veteran of the comics. After graduating from the Mark Hopkins Art Institute, his successful career as a humorous cartoonist had begun in the early 1900's at The San Francisco Examiner and The San Francisco Evening Post. Afterwards, he provided innumerable drawings for the pages of RED BOOK, GREEN BOOK, LIFE (the humor weekly, and not Henry Luce's more famous magazine of the same name), COSMOPOLITAN, PUCK, JUDGE, and several books, while juggling a number of national advertising campaigns in the newspapers.

At THE NEW YORKER, he created that magazine's cover mascot, the iconic Eustace Tilley, for its debut issue.

Irvin had also been a syndicated comic strip artist for 25 years. His first efforts -- HOW ROMANTIC IS, ISN'T HE THE SLY DOG?, and EVEN SO -- had appeared in 1907 and 1908, and from June 15, 1930 to October 25, 1936 he produced a popular Sunday page, THE SMYTHES.

He therefore knew the ins and outs of the business and probably figured it was time to launch another strip. There was no shortage of genres to choose from, but superheroes seemed the way to go!

SUPERMAN had started the phenomenon a mere 5 years earlier, and almost immediately, many more muscular figures in colorful tights could be found flying and fighting in every book rack, on every radio channel and in every movie theater. They were even invading the funny papers!

Most of these, predictably, were male. There were the occasional WONDER WOMAN, MISS FURY and INVISIBLE SCARLET O'NEILL thrown in for variety, but for the most part, the gentler sex was relegated to supporting or romantic roles.

Irvin had been an supporter of women's rights almost from the start . One of his first magazine covers, for a 1913 issue of LIFE, depicted suffrage activists in ancient Greece, led by one who looked remarkably like the modern day Susan B. Anthony.
Life Magazine 19130220.jpg
His new character, then, while presented in his trademark humorous style, simply had to be a woman!

And so it was that on June 27, 1943, his creation SUPERWOMAN debuted in newspapers from coast to coast.
Superwoman 19430627.jpg

I'm sure Irwin never expected one of SUPERMAN's legion of lawyers, huddled in a plush upper Manhattan apartment financed by the deep pockets of DC COMICS, to take a break from reading the latest depressing World War II news over his morning coffee, and flip through the Sunday comic strip sections.

It mi
ght have been the record breaking 18-day heat wave New York was enduring that made that guy a little more ornery and litiginous than usual, but the name of Irwin's creation certainly had him grinning from ear to ear.

Or perhaps it was the close resemblance between the coloring and form of the costumes of SUPERWOMAN and the DC character THE SPECTRE -- with her long flowing hair as a stand-in for the hood -- that caught his eye.
But he also knew that DC -- or more formally, Detective Comics, Inc -- had filed a trademark on the name SUPERWOMAN on October 24, 1941 that was granted May 5, 1942, likely coinciding with -- or at least prompting -- the creation of an "ash can" comic with the SUPERWOMAN logo.

Whatever it was, faster than DC's THE FLASH could run to the nearest courthouse, he filed a Cease-and-Desist against the New York Tribune Syndicate and hurled a few harsh words in Irwin's direction.

NEWSWEEK further reported:

"It looked as if talented Rea Irvin, ex-officio art director of The New Yorker and former comic-strip cartoonist in his own right, had hit on something good in his SUPERWOMAN satire on SUPERMAN. Only after The New York Herald Tribune had run off Irvin's first strip in the Sunday comic section was it discovered that the SUPERWOMAN trademark had already been registered by Detective Comics, Inc., and that a set of drawings by that name had made one legally required appearance in ACTION COMICS."

Further legitimizing their claim to a SUPERWOMAN trademark came by virtue of crack reporter Lois Lane briefly gaining powers and costume in the SUPERMAN story in ACTION COMICS #60, cover dated May, 1943.

SUPERWOMAN ashcan and the splash page from ACTION COMICS

Less than 24 hours after the strip appeared, newspapers reported the unfortunate and premature demise of Irvin's creation.
Superwoman 19430628 (Cincinnati Enquirer).jpg
I'm not entirely certain how closely Irvin's SUPERWOMAN's powers mimic those in the comic book. Lois Lane / SUPERWOMAN was a carbon copy of her male counterpart. The comic strip character can obviously fly -- and "hurtle" -- and has enough super-strength to easily carry her pint-sized book reading minion along side her in flight. Her income rivals that of Bruce Wayne's, with a butler maintaining her "lavishly appointed snuggery"and like the movie version of LARA CROFT, she trains in her spacious mansion, presumably to hone her fighting skills.

She -- or possibly her tiny flight companion -- is also shown to be a biblical scholar with a greater vocabulary than most mere mortals!

Her whispered answer to the crossword clue of "a hymenopterous insect cited as an exemplar for sluggards" is ANT. The answer depends on the puzzle solver knowing that the sixth verse of the sixth chapter of Proverbs in the Bible says "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." I'm not sure the average 1940's comic strip reader would know that, or that a sluggard is a person who doesn't read or work, or even that a hymenopterous insect has two sets of wings and a rear stinger, but SUPERWOMAN did!

I'd like to think that Irwin's completed artwork for any future installments is still resting comfortably in someone's vault, just waiting for the moment when DC COMICS' lawyers take a nap. My fingers are crossed.