Action Comics #52 by Jerry Siegel and longtime Shuster Shop artist John Sikela has always been one of my favorite issues of Action Comics. It's got that spectacular cover of course, but this issue is much more than just a a boldly-rendered cover by artist Fred Ray. The caption on the title page lays out the premise:
This is a tale that could occur only after the war… many years hence! It's up to all of us to see it doesn't!
Land of the free and home of the brave! That's America! But once there was a swashbuckling power-mad fiend who tried to change it to the land of the enslaved and home of the craven! A grasping, ruthless opportunist who sught to seize the riches of the united states of America for his own! And of the 130 million citizens throughout the land, there was none to oppose him– except one solitary individual.
But that was sufficient– for it was none other than that A-1 muscle marvel of all time… the incredible Man of Tomorrow! Read how super-strength overcomes monstrous evil when Superman clashes with…
"The Emperor of America!"
As the Comic Connect blurb for their sale of the beautiful census-topping CGC 9.4 copy of this issue notes, this is of course in part inspired by the war era concerns of that day. Newspapers were full of debate regarding the seeming ease of Hitler's rise to power:
The Superman story within, "The Emperor of America," like many of Superman's social commentary tales, still resonates today as the plot concerns a mysterious man who hijacks the White House through the use of a special ray that causes the populace to become apathetic, allowing this crafty villain to take control of the country, but, as usual, Superman is there to save the day, disabling the indifference contraption and bringing the illegitimate emperor to justice.
There's a bit more specific inspiration in play here, however — the Emperor of America is pretty clearly inspired by a man who once did declare himself Emperor of America: Joshua Abraham Norton of San Francisco. A businessman who parlayed an inheritance into a tidy fortune — but then failed spectacularly in 1859, he subsequently declared himself emperor.
Compare his public announcement, which was printed in San Francisco newspapers of the day because it made for a fun bit of Victorian-era click-bait…
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States
…to the statement made by the Emperor in Action Comics #52:
In response to the pleading and cajoling of over a hundred million Americans, I have reluctantly agreed to assume the office of Emperor of America!
Gaining and losing a fortune can drive one a little mad, and that's generally assumed to be what happened with Emperor Norton. And as is well-documented elsewhere, because he was an engaging personality and both an amusing and kind person in his Emperor persona — and as was frequently noted in that day he also caused a fair bit less harm than most men who declared themselves Emperor over a nation — the entire city of San Francisco tacitly agreed to just indulge him. More or less. Thinking about it, he almost seems like a living political cartoon.
Emperor Norton's history came into vogue with the 1939 Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 book Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America. Over the next few years, Norton history was kept alive in newspapers around the country after San Francisco's mysterious Pacific-Union Club announced that they would be commissioning a statue of the Emperor. As for why an exclusive club consisting of media moguls, titans of industry, and government officials might be interested in promoting the notion of an emperor that Americans would readily accept, that's… probably not much of a mystery.
Which leaves us only with figuring out what might have inspired the tech that powered this peaceful takeover of the entire country. When Superman caught up with the villain at his Penton's Peak laboratory, he told the Man of Steel: "this wonderful ray of mine… lowers one's initiative, the will to resist… I blanketed the nation with the invisible rays".
Given Siegel's background and interests in science fiction, this is likely a reference to Nikola Tesla's infamous "lost laboratory", the Experimental Station near Pike's Peak and Colorado Springs. It is from this laboratory that Tesla conducted electrical experiments to a variety of purposes, and made claims of being able to transmit energy and data over great distances. This lab was also the site where some of the most famous Tesla photos were taken.
A cleverly-written tale combining super-heroics, super-science, and wartime warnings, the census-topping Edgar Church copy of Action Comics #52 CGC 9.4 is up for auction right now at Comic Connect.