THE FIRST SUPERMAN (?)
An Investigation into the
claims of Mayo Kaan
by Stephen L. Brooks
early 70’s a series of filler blurbs started appearing in
various publications, occasionally with a photo, about a man
named Mayo Kaan. Mr. Kaan claimed at the time to have been the
first movie Superman. The articles were usually mini-interviews,
probably made by reporters from Mr. Kaan’s then home state
of Massachusetts, which were distributed by the wire
The articles, as I recall, basically said the
same thing: that Mr. Kaan had made some early test films as
Superman, and that therefore he was the first actor to have
played the Man of Tomorrow. The first time or two the claim was
made, I marked it as interesting and wondered just what form the
films took. I thought of the Fleischer cartoons and wondered if
he had perhaps performed in some footage that had been used for
rotoscoping in creating the animation.
But one article,
showing Mr. Kaan as he was then (ca. 1974) holding a full length
portrait of himself in costume, said he appeared in the films
on there; Siegel and Shuster didn’t sell Superman until
1938; and the cartoons debuted in the early 40’s. Neither
Mr. Kaan nor anyone could have been doing Superman films as early
as 1936 or ’37.
So I just chalked it up as a typo or
some other error, and continued to speculate what form his films
About that same time I bought the book All in
Color for a Dime. Although some of the material has since
been superseded, corrected, or downright proven false (read
Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow; required on any
comics fan’s bookshelf) it was the best book of its kind at
the time. One of the chapters was devoted to comics characters
which had been adapted into serials. The Capt. Marvel and
Superman serials were covered there, but it was not in that
chapter, nor even the chapter on Superman, that an intriguing
piece of information was divulged.
It is well known now
that Republic Pictures, the best B Western and serial makers in
the business, had wanted to do a Superman serial perhaps as early
as 1939. In the 1970’s it was still news, and my own
“discovery” of it was in the chapter on Capt. Marvel.
I often wondered after that what a Republic Superman serial would
have been like. When I saw the Capt. Marvel serial for the first
time in the mid-80’s, and studied the way Republic had
handled that character, it piqued my curiosity even more.
late Jack Mathis, in his still-valuable book Valley of the
Cliffhangers, revealed from his extensive, exclusive, and
intensive research into the Republic files that indeed the studio
was so certain it would get the contract their writers had
composed the first three or so chapters of the serial script.
When the contract fell through, the script was rewritten to
introduce a new character, The Copperhead, and the serial was
re-titled Mysterious Dr. Satan. If you study the action in
those first few chapters you can see incidents and stunts that
were obviously designed for a character with super-strength. And,
as a thumbed nose to National Comics, the girl reporter heroine
was still named Lois and wore outfits similar to what Lois wore
in the comics of the time and Noel Neill would wear several years
In his book of reminiscences on directing serials
(In a Door, Into a Fight; Out a Door, Into a Chase), the
late William Witney said several things about the plans for the
Superman serial. One was that they considered casting two
different actors with similar features as Kent and Superman.
Another was that they saw and/or interviewed a large number of
actors and strongmen for the part. According to Witney, the actor
who most likely had the inside track to becoming the first film
live action Superman was Tom Tyler. Tyler, as we know, later
brought Capt. Marvel to brilliant life in the serial.
the serial was transformed from Superman to Mysterious
Dr. Satan, an actor named Robert Wilcox was hired to play Bob
Wayne, alias The Copperhead. (Bob Wayne; hmmm. Another
nose-thumbing moment, directed at Bruce Wayne?) Was Wilcox
perhaps slated at some point to play Clark Kent to Tyler’s
These are questions to which we may never have
the answers. But one cannot help but speculate: A Republic
Superman serial, directed by Witney and English, starring Tom
Tyler. And, following that, a Batman serial directed by W & E
and starring Kane Richmond. Perhaps in some alternate universe,
we may find such films.
Now, we have traveled somewhat far
afield of our original subject, Mr. Mayo Kaan. Let’s return
to him now in the early 1980’s.
My father-in-law was
from Maine. He moved down here in 1939, just in time to take the
woman who would later become his wife to the Baltimore premiere
of “Gone with the Wind.” Not too shabby a first date.
It was later a family tradition to spend vacation in Maine each
summer. When I joined the family in 1980, I became part of that
During the trip by car to Maine we went through
parts of Massachusetts. The route included going past this health
and fitness center which featured a larger than life cutout of
Superman, raised high off the ground, in front of it. The first
time I saw it was a blur, but something seemed familiar about it.
On another trip we went by it slower, due to traffic, and I
recognized it. The rendering of Superman looked similar to the
version of the costume in the old picture of Mayo Kaan.
passed and we changed our route, and no longer passed the spot.
One morning we were watching a local talk show before going about
our travels for the day. One of the guests, it was announced,
would be Mayo Kaan, owner of a local Massachusetts gym and who
claimed to be the first movie Superman. This explained a lot: the
fitness center we used to pass was apparently that owned by Mr.
Kaan. I wanted to see him, and hear what he had to say, but we
left before he came on.
Flash forward to December,
At that time an ad appeared in various publications.
I saw it in USA Today. In it, Mr. Kaan was selling
colorized prints of him in his Superman costume. There were four
different poses, and the one I had seen in the 70’s, much
smaller and in B&W, was now the centerpiece of the ad, in
color, and large enough to discern the details. (This is
reproduced above, under the title.) One or two others showed him
interacting with local children.
ad greatly elaborated upon Mr. Kaan’s earlier claims,
saying that Art Moger, a PR executive with Warner Brothers, had
assisted Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in developing Superman. One
of Moger’s contributions, it stated, was to hire Mr. Kaan
to pose for Joe as he did his early drawings.
go into further detail except to say the article was riddled with
anachronisms and inaccuracies. The most obvious of them was to
imply ANY kind of outside help from anybody, and certainly not
Warner Brothers. WB has owned DC Comics since some time in the
1970’s, but had nothing to do with them prior to that.
Jerry and Joe developed Superman virtually on their own. There is
more to the story than that (again, see Jones’ Men of
Tomorrow) but both affirmed that they never used a live model
The only thing that the photos proved was
that Mr. Kaan had, probably on more than one occasion, posed for
photos in his Superman costume apparently some time in the early
Now, where he got into trouble was by
selling these photos of himself, in fancy framed “collectors’
item” form, for exorbitant amounts of money. This, on top
of his fabricated back story, was what brought about a “cease
and desist” order from the DC suits. And rightly so.
rather than dismiss all of Mr. Kaan’s claims out of hand,
what is there about his story that we can believe? Or, at least,
what can we deduce from known facts?
look at the costume. He wears a tight, but not form-fitted, blue
shirt and matching tights. The tights are probably athletic or
ballet wear. Over the tights he wears black trunks, and a yellow
belt possibly of a military type. There are no boots; the tights
are the type that cover waist to toe. The cape, in the colorized
photos, is red with a blue lining, tied at the neck with a
As some of my friends know, I have a fetish about
Superman’s shield: its history, its variations in comics,
costume and film, and enjoy drawing various versions of it. The
shield on Mr. Kaan’s costume is a large, wide yellow
triangle with a singularly angular red S inside. The S is
seemingly formed from several short strips of red cloth, placed
on the yellow shield and sewn end to end to form the S. The
result is a jagged, crudely stark S, like a twisted electrical
arc, which somehow fits the overall style of the rest of the
styling of the costume is a reasonable facsimile of the costume
in the comics of the 1938 – 1940 period. There were
variants in the depictions of it in those days, sometimes in the
space of one story. In fact, the shield itself was sometimes
portrayed in contradictory forms in adjacent panels, even when
drawn by the same artist. Though usually drawn in curves,
sometimes the S was shown as squared or jagged, as it is in Mr.
Kaan’s version. As far as the making of his costume is
concerned, however, it may have just been easier to adopt the
shaping of the S out of cloth strips rather than attempt a more
elegantly curved S inside a frame. And, as stated, it was
reasonably consistent with some renderings of the shield in the
comics of the time.
Here is one of the deductions that can
be easily made from the existing photos: the costume was
home-made, not the product of some Hollywood costume designer.
Nothing wrong with that; I can’t be the only one who
transformed an old pair of blue ski pajamas into a Superman
This negates any possibility that the photos
depict him wearing a costume made by a movie studio for any
publicity associated with a film either proposed or in
production. He didn’t don a professionally-made costume,
pose for some photos, and then return to Massachusetts absconding
with the costume as a souvenir. (Mr. Willy, are you reading
What, then, was the reason behind Mr. Kaan’s
use of the Superman costume and at least his initial
claims that he was the first movie Superman? Is there a scenario
we can reasonably accept as a possibility?
It goes back to
two theories, involving the two studios vying for film rights to
Superman in the 1939 – 1940 period. One possibility is that
speculated upon above: Mr. Kaan performed in some footage that
was used in the rotoscoping process used in making the Fleischer
cartoons. If so, he presumably wore the costume seen in his
photos, or something similar. This is where the discussion of the
S shield comes in. As anyone who has seen the Fleischer cartoons
knows, the shield was depicted as a curved red S on a black field
framed in white, and five sided. Mr. Kaan’s shield was a
jagged, angular red S on a yellow field with just a hint of a red
frame, and triangular. There are also two stories about Joe
Shuster’s involvement with the making of the Fleischer
cartoons. Though conflicting, the salient point in both stories
is that he did the initial sketches for the model sheets used by
the animators. Some of Joe’s early drawings of Superman’s
shield depict it with a black field; indeed, the “pin-up”
drawing on the back of Superman #1 shows the shield substantially
the way the Fleischer animators depicted it. A variant of this
appeared in the first few Sunday strips and later for a while in
the dailies. Perhaps this was a version of the shield favored by
Shuster that didn’t make the final cut and this was his way
of letting it be widely seen. I don’t know. In any event,
if Kaan had appeared in preliminary footage, wouldn’t the
studio have provided him with a costume that more resembled what
the animators were instructed to draw and color? And if,
afterward, he had made a costume for himself wouldn’t he
have most likely used the Fleischer version as a model? So that
possibility is out.
the Fleischer Studios weren’t the only ones hoping to bring
Superman to the screen; they were just the winners. Republic
Studios was bidding to produce a Superman serial.
above, Witney and English auditioned several actors and athletes
for the part of Superman when Republic was in negotiations to
produce the serial in 1940. Perhaps Mr. Kaan was one of those who
tried out for the part. He may have even gotten as far as to do a
screen test or two, in costume, which are the “test films”
he spoke about in those early articles in the 1970’s. Who
knows, perhaps it got as close as to be between Kaan, Tyler, and
maybe one or two others. The fact that he may have brought his
own costume might have piqued the directors’ interest.
can imagine Mr. Kaan, sitting in his home in Massachusetts,
reading perhaps in Variety or some similar trade paper
that auditions and screen tests were being made for a proposed
Superman serial. He could have flown out to California, home-made
Superman suit in tow, hoping to portray the hero on film.
KAAN: Did you pack the costume I made for you?
It’s in the suitcase.
He looked the part at the
time, judging from the photos, home-made costume notwithstanding.
But then again, wasn’t Superman’s real costume
home-made? Maybe if Kaan had been able to get some Kryptonian
blankets... But I digress.
Seriously, he may have shown up
at some “cattle call” tryout, a trench coat covering
his costume until an appropriate moment or perhaps wearing it
openly, and someone took notice of him. Based on his look in the
makeshift costume, they may have thought it was worth taking some
test footage of him. If so, it may be that personally memorable
incident, the sole extent of his earliest claims, which was the
germ of the tall tale he told in later years.
prevented Mayo Kaan, and just as significantly Tom Tyler, from
becoming the first movie Superman was of course that the deal
between Republic and DC fell through. The Fleischer studios won
the right to produce their series of excellent cartoons, which
today are still a classic version of Superman. If our
suppositions so far are right, Mr. Kaan returned to Massachusetts
with his home-made costume and resumed his business.
from the photos, and from some comments in various news articles
at the time of his passing, Mr. Kaan continued to appear in his
Superman outfit. I’m sure he wore it a number of times,
making unauthorized but well-intentioned appearances at local
events. He may very well have taken the role seriously, and
appeared at playgrounds, little league games, school assemblies,
perhaps even hospital children’s wards, greeting kids and
speaking about healthy diet and exercise. He is certainly spoken
of as having worn the costume at times at his gym, perhaps as a
sort of role model or ideal for his customers to work towards. If
indeed this is true, in spite of his later claims and fraudulent
attempts to gain money through them, Mr. Kaan may very well have
for a time lived a life dedicated to the ideals of a true
Taking this scenario as plausible, we may have
the answer to the riddle of Mayo Kaan, the first movie Superman -
The above was posted:
January 2, 2013
And yet... the
story continues. On January 31, 2019 Kevin Greenlee wrote saying
he found an article from the Boston Globe dated July 28, 1942
and that it might answer some of the questions posed in the above
TAC article by Stephen Brooks. I sent the article to Steve. After
reading the Boston Globe article shown here, Steve responded...