The first Superman action figure
This wood jointed and composition Superman doll was first sold by the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1940. It’s an important Superman item because it’s the first Superman doll, and the first Superman action figure. Heck, it’s also the first superhero action figure.
Standing about 13 inches tall, the head and upper body are made of composition, which is a mixture of materials such as glue, sawdust, cornstarch, resin, and wood flour, while the arms, legs, and pelvis are wooden. The Cameo Doll Company were pioneers in the development of this style of jointed doll, and some doll reference web sites suggest that this Superman may have been made by Cameo for Ideal. Cameo Doll Company is best known, however, for its Kewpie dolls.
According to Harry Matetsky’s book Adventures in Superman Collecting, the Ideal Superman doll originally sold for 94 cents. I found an old ad from a 1942 catalog from John Plain and Company, a now-defunct distributor of various products like toys, clothing, and appliances. He’s listed at $1.65 in there.
Though the wooden parts of these dolls are fairly sturdy, the composition tends to crack and flake over time, so many examples that exist today have been restored. Both of the samples show below have undergone a degree of restoration/preservation. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad restoration jobs out there, too. For me, the important thing to look for when buying one of these is the face. Because the composition material of the face is so delicate, a bad restorer will just glop on paint to try to seal up the cracks, but that also causes the detail in the sculpting of the face and hair to be lost, as well as the detail of the coloring. So many of these dolls look like creepy death masks… I’d post pictures but I don’t want to offend anyone.
Both of these samples were purchased with “good face” in mind. What’s weird is that a year ago, when I started this web site, this item was on the top item on my want list. Now I have two of them.
The first one was purchased from Hake’s Americana and Collectibles auction. It has a great face, but unfortunately, does not have the original cape. Instead, it has what appears to be a vintage replacement that was probably made by someone’s mom or grandmother; it’s red felt with a vintage style logo patch on the back. The emblem is also incorrect… it’s too large. The only thing I had the restorer do to it was to add eyebrows… he also touched up some of the paint around the neck area. I left the wear on the joints alone.
In July of last year, one of the members of the Mego Museum message board had posted about finding one of these in an antique mall. It was in pretty rough shape with severe composition chipping, but the face was really nice. I actually posted in that thread advising him to buy it; at the time, I was in the market for one and had been watching Ideal Superman auctions pretty carefully, so I knew the price was a good one and if he needed to sell, he could easily get his money out of it if not turn a profit.
Six months later, he offered it to me at a great price. Even though I already had one, this one had the original cape and the emblem was nicer, so it was technically an upgrade even though it needed to be restored. Here’s a picture of it before it was restored:
Here’s are some pictures after restoration:
Interesting note about the cape… when I took it in to be restored, a friend of mine told me he wasn’t sure if the cape was original, because all of the capes he had ever seen were square and this one was rounded. However, it appeared to be made of the same material as the original Ideal Superman capes… it was just the shape was different. It was kind of a bummer because part of the reason I had bought this second because of the original cape.
After I got the figure back from the restorer, my friend had two boxes on his desk: my Ideal Superman and this composition doll of King Little from Gulliver’s Travels, which was made by the Ideal Toy and Novelty Company during the same period as they made the Ideal Superman dolls. Its jacket tail has the exact same shape as the cape on this Ideal Superman! So the rounded version is original and a variant from the typical straight one.