Superman’s Competition in the Archives of the University of Notre Dame
In the 1930s two high-school students from Cleveland invented Superman, who first appeared in public in the premier issue of Action Comics in June of 1938. In 1940 a man raised in nearby Elyria founded an enterprise intended to put before Catholic children heroes more suitable than Superman. John Dominic Ryan, known as Brother Ernest in the Congregation of Holy Cross since 1918, published his first book for children, Orphan Eddie, in 1926, and followed it with Captain Johnny Ford in 1938, Boys of the Covered Wagons and Dick of Copper Gap in 1939, and The Adventures of Tommy Blake in 1940.
In his autobiographical essay in The Book of Catholic Authors (Romig: Grosse Pointe, Michigan, 1945), Brother Ernest wrote: “For years I had wanted to write biographies of the saints in such a way as to appeal to readers up through the high school. . . . I insisted that these stories must be told in a fictional style, and be illustrated in the most modern manner.” With the encouragement of his religious superiors, he founded Dujarie Press at Notre Dame and started writing and publishing stories of saints and other suitable heroes.
In our Collection of Literature for Children, we have 56 of these books by Brother Ernest published between 1940 and 1961. After about a decade of writing all the books himself, Brother Ernest encouraged other Holy Cross Brothers to join him, and many of them responded with manuscripts of their own. Most of the books concern canonized saints, but a good many tell the stories of popes, prelates, founders of religious orders, composers, painters, poets, explorers, football coaches, sea captains, and military officers.
Brother Ernest died in 1963. The brothers kept writing, and Dujarie Press continued publishing until 1968.
Our Collection of Literature for Children also includes books for children by Catholic authors brought out by other publishers, including standard Catholic readers dating from 1909 and a dozen illustrated pamphlets, most of them by Daniel A. Lord, S.J., teaching children about prayers, liturgy, and sacraments.
The Congregation of Holy Cross in America published literature for children long before the arrival of Superman. In the 19th-century Ave Maria, Daniel E. Hudson, C.S.C., regularly included a Youth’s Department with writing aimed at children. And in the 20th century, the congregation published The Catholic Boy, which included both stories and comic strips, and Catholic Miss. We have manuscripts written for The Catholic Boy and Catholic Miss in our archival collections, and Notre Dame’s libraries have preserved both magazines. Catholic literature for children can be found in many of our other collections by searching archives.nd.edu.
In our Catholic Comic Book Collection students of popular culture might detect another response to Superman. We have many issues (3 linear feet) of Treasure Chest, 1947-1972, and smaller collections of Catholic Comics, Topix, and Lives of the Saints. The collection also includes 13 Catholic cartoon books, 11 of them about nuns (one by Bill O’Malley, six by Joe Lane, four by Margaret Carroll, Jerry McCue, and Don Cornelius), one about priests by Joe Lane, and one about children by Cliff Wirth. These have an appeal not limited to children—but that might be said about the comic books also, and even about the books of Dujarie Press.
We preserve these publications in the archives for the benefit of scholars who see them as primary sources, evidence supporting their efforts to understand the Catholic culture of the 20th century. Such scholars should also consult the excellent digital edition of Treasure Chest at the Catholic University of America.
--Wm. Kevin Cawley
This Archives Report originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.