Over at The Comics Journal, R.C. Harvey tries to sift through all of the various books and accounts to figure out who was the first to “discover” Superman. His account is very comprehensive. This is the toughest part of the story to decipher, I think.
Why? This is where personal narratives overcome the facts the most. There are letters and documents, but it is (at best) an impressionistic picture. Like almost every part of the Superman creation story, there are a lot of voices saying “Me, me, me.” It’s Superman.
Harvey claims it was The Major, who was definitely interested in publishing Superman. He definitely saw how the character would work. But he put it off a lot and Jerry and Joe didn’t trust his money. He was their mentor in comics, but his appreciation of Superman may have worked against him as it gave them confidence to keep trying elsewhere. They wanted Superman in newspapers, not comic books. That was where the money was. I don’t know if I would say that The Major discovered Superman, but he definitely discovered Jerry and Joe. No question.
I think it was Gaines who set the publication of Superman in motion. Taking into account the timeline, as well this key bit of evidence below — that Gaines urged Jerry to submit to Detective — really made me wonder if he wasn’t the mastermind. By sending Superman as a tryout to Detective first so that Donenfeld himself could make the syndicate sale — that made them both rich. And this shows that Gaines and Donenfeld were in that office together with the Superman proposal literally on the table. Whether by intention or not, the results were the same. The deal was made and Jerry and Joe were left out in the cold.
The “discovery” of Superman is a tough question because so many different people — writers, artists, publishers, and readers — are part of that bigger equation. But it’s one we constantly ask because we want to know where he came from.