If assembling a complete, high-grade set of the Man of Steel's 1940 Gum, Inc. cards had been one of the criteria to join the Supermen of America club, there would've been very few members.
Fortunately, the popular DC Comics club, which began in 1939 and lasted for more than 25 years, had more lenient entry requirements. After all, this vintage offering is one of the most difficult non-sports sets to compile in pristine condition. In fact, more than 50 percent of the cards submitted to PSA have been deemed PSA EX 5 or lower.
"It was the first Superman set, so the cards were probably handled a lot by kids and many of the cards got thrown out," noted Brian Karl, who owns the No. 2 All-Time Finest set on the PSA Set Registry.
Mickey Campbell, owner of Mickey's Sportscards in Estes Park, Colorado, noted in a February 2009 e-mail interview that these cards boast a common print flaw.
"Like many of the Gum Company issues of the period, the common defect on the
card is the presence of a horizontal print line," he explained.
As one of the first Superman collectibles released, these pasteboards measure 2-1/2" by 3-1/8" and depict adventures of the revered red-caped superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Cleveland in 1932. The Man of Steel would make his comic book debut in Action Comics #1 released on April 18, 1938, and the buzz he created would inspire a self-titled Superman series the following year.
The cards flaunt colorful drawings of Superman's escapades, which frequently involve him saving people in the nick of time. Despite the set's popularity, the identity of the artist who worked on these cards remains a mystery.
Also unknown is the author that penned the riveting adventures on the card backs. Showcasing the card number, title and copyright information, the backs bring to life the scene on the card front with great dramatic flair. The backs also encourage kids to join the Supermen of America club.
These cards were distributed in yellow, blue and red penny packs that advertised "Super Bubble Gum" with the questionable assertion that it "helps keep teeth strong and healthy!" The wrappers also offer details on how to join the Supermen of America club.
This offering is so desirable that even wrappers can fetch several hundred dollars. One sold for $458.40 in a Hake's Americana & Collectibles auction in December 2008.
But tracking down the high-number cards is the true "Kryptonite" for collectors. Cards #49 to #72 are so elusive that for many years, hobbyists believed that this was a 48-card set. In a 2009 interview, Matthew Gallegly, who has retired his No. 8 All-Time Finest set, offers a viable explanation: he heard that the high-numbers might have only been test marketed in certain regions.
"Maybe a significant time passed before they released the last 24 cards," proposed non-sports card expert, Kurt Kuersteiner, who's the webmaster of www.monsterwax.com and www.monstercards.org. "So maybe," he adds, "a significant number of the people that were collecting it had moved on to different things."
Not only are the high numbers almost impossible to find, but they're often in poor condition when collectors do finally track them down.
"You can throw out any pricing charts for high-grade, high-number commons," said Karl. "I have two [PSA] 5s and a [PSA] 4 and I'd really like to upgrade those, but there just doesn't seem to be any cards out there."
Several other Superman sets have been produced over the years, most notably the 1966 and 1978 Topps offerings, but the 1940 issue remains the most coveted.
"If you're a Superman fanatic, this is going to be the Holy Grail of all things Superman in the trading card world," noted Kuersteiner.
As with anything that is Superman related, enjoying the daring undertakings described on these cards requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Written more than 70 years ago, the innocent, outlandish and sometimes politically incorrect tales featured on these cards are what make the set fun, says Kuersteiner.
In his perspective, the cards seem to possess an instructive theme; "[it's] like they know that all of the little boys are collecting them, [so] they want to make sure that all of the kids obey their parents," Kuersteiner noted. There appears to be "this subtext throughout the series, reminding them that they really should listen to their elders," he further comments.
A prime example of this can be found on card #3 "From the Jaws of Death." This pasteboard explains how Jimmy Watt and Dan Doyle had been warned not to play near the railroad tracks; however, they failed to heed this advice and went down to watch a train. When Dan attempted to cross the tracks, he tripped and bumped his head, knocking himself unconscious. With a train bearing down on Dan, Jimmy didn't have the strength to pull his friend out of harm's way. Fortunately, Superman arrives just in time to save the day.
"He [Superman] swept the lads from the tracks just as the roaring iron monster screamed past," the card says. "Jimmy and Dan promised Superman to never again play in such a dangerous place. What's more, they kept the promise!"
Kuersteiner also points out that People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) wouldn't approve of this issue. On card #42 "Danger in the Jungle," for example, our red-caped hero saves a woman from a charging rhinocerous by breaking the animal's neck. And on card #56, "Superman and the Killer-Whale," the Man of Steel drags a killer whale to the bottom of the ocean after it threatens to destroy a ship.
"Superman dispenses justice by dragging this whale to the bottom of the ocean where he holds its face in the mud until it suffocates," describes Kuersteiner. "Now is that politically incorrect or what?"
Kuersteiner also observes that while Superman is best known for saving lives, the Man of Steel's first priority seems to be looking good-a light-hearted critique referring to his habitual costume change. This is, perhaps, most evident on card #36 "Facing the Firing Squad." On this card, Lois Lane is struggling to convince the government of Rutania that she's not a spy, so they sentence her to death by firing squad.
"The bullets are en route to Lois while Clark Kent is changing into his costume," noted Kuersteiner with a chuckle. "It was like, 'Lois, I really love you dear, but hold on, I just need to get this last zipper zipped.'"
Nonetheless, Kuersteiner affirms that it's these types of tales that make the set fun to collect.
The first card of the set, simply titled "Superman," is the most coveted. Offering biographical details about the Man of Steel, this single was the first card on the top of piles. Moreover, it was also located on the top left edge of a 24-card sheet, which made it more likely to be miscut.
"The theory about the first card being exposed to the most wear is sometimes not [supported] by the Population Report, but in this case it was definitely a factor. The first card is definitely the key to the set, along with the high-numbers," said Campbell in 2009.
Of the 45 submitted, there has been just one PSA NM-MT 8 (with nothing grading higher). A PSA NM 7 sold for $2,310 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in January 2011.
But the set's last card, "Superman vs. Torpedo" (#72), is even more elusive in top grade. This card could be found on the bottom right edge of another 24-card sheet, a position that made it vulnerable to flaws. Of the 23 submitted, there has been just one PSA 7. A PSA VG 3 sold for $710 on eBay in March 2011.
There are also just two PSA 7 copies (with nothing grading higher) of card #66 "Danger at the Dam," which like card #1 and #72 was positioned on the edge of the sheet (second row, last card on the right). One of the PSA 7 examples sold for $380 on eBay in January 2012.
Two other elusive singles are #65 "The Runaway Trolley Car" and #71 "Trapped in Quicksand." The sole PSA 8 example of each of these cards represent the highest graded copies. A PSA VG-EX+ 4.5 of the latter sold for $255 on eBay in December 2010.
High-ranking PSA Set Registry sets have also commanded big bucks in recent years. The No. 2 ranked registry set garnered $32,313 in a Robert Edward Auction sale in 2010, while the finest known registry set fetched $43,502 in 2006.
And there's bound to be even more interest when the new Superman movie debuts next June. Titled "Man of Steel," the movie is directed by Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) and stars Henry Cavill as Superman.
But with the set's continued popularity and dearth of high-grade examples, you might have to be Superman to finish this issue in PSA 8 or better. Nevertheless, Kuersteiner says that tracking down these cards in any grade is a worthwhile endeavor.
"To me, [the reason] why it's such a great set is because it's a fun set, and that's what trading cards are supposed to be," he says. "And this card series has fun in aces."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any additional information or comments. Brian Karl, Mickey Campbell and Matthew Gallegly provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures and Set Registry rankings are those as of May 2012.
Copyright © 2013 PSA – A Division of Collectors Universe. Nasdaq: CLCT. All rights reserved.