In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero.
Story Title: “Superman”
Published: 18 April 1938 (cover-dated June 1938)
Writer: Jerry Siegel (credited as “Jerome Siegel”)
Artist: Joe Shuster
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants, first met in 1932 while attending Glenville High School; by the time they were both sixteen, the two were already accomplished comics creators and, in 1933, they thought up their first concept for a superman with the story “The Reign of the Super-Man”. This story depicted a bald mad scientist (very much a prototype for Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor) attempt to dominate others with his telepathic powers; later, the two would revisit and dramatically retool this concept into the world’s first super-powered crimefighter.
Considering the massive success Superman has become as a character and a brand, it took some time for Siegel and Shuster to sell their revised concept, which took inspiration from mythological figures such as Hercules, fictional adventurers like Robin Hood and Zorro, and even circus strongmen for the character’s now-iconic costume. Yet, when DC Comics eventually purchased the character for publication, the two were paid a pittance for the now globally renowned superhero. Legal issues and disputes would follow the character for many decades before DC were able to iron out a mutually beneficial agreement with Siegel and Shuster’s heirs and allow them to be more fairly compensated for depictions of perhaps the most influential fictional character in American history.
Action Comics #1 presents a much different version of Superman, one who might seem far removed from the virtual demigod we know and love today; back in 1938, for the Man of Steel’s iconic debut, Superman was still very much superhuman but he had yet to develop many of the powers and abilities he is now known for, much less the crazy, over-the-top powers he would later possess throughout later decades. The story begins by detailing Superman’s memorable origin…by summing it up in one simple panel. Yep, Superman’s home world (not yet identified as “Krypton”) is “destroyed by old age” in the comic’s opening panel and the future Superman’s rocket is discovered by a passing motorist in the next. Unlike traditional depictions of Superman’s origin, the alien infant within is immediately handed over to an orphanage where the attendants were “astounded at his feats of strength”. The next few panels quickly showcase the range of Clark Kent’s (his name comes out of nowhere a few panels later with no explanation) superhuman abilities: he can easily leap over a twenty-story building, lift incredible weight, run faster than an express train, and possesses impenetrable skin. Rather than explain his abilities as the result of Earth’s yellow sun or the differences in atmosphere between Earth and Krypton, the comic explains that the inhabitants of Kent’s home world had evolved a “physical structure millions of years advanced of our own” and compares them to the abilities of insects to lift incredible weights and leap vast distances.
Rather than being taught values and morals by loving, doting parents, Clark simply decides, off panel, to put his fantastic abilities to good use and crafts the persona of Superman, “champion of the oppressed [and] physical marvel]”. Superman is then introduced racing through the night with a bound and gagged woman, with no context or explanation; he can’t fly yet so he just runs at super speed to “the governor’s estate”, barging his way in and forcing his way past the governor’s butler with an uncharacteristic discourtesy. The butler is aghast when Superman easily dismantles the door to the governor’s “sleeping room” which, for some reason, is made out of solid steel! Superman explains to the governor that he has a signed confession that proves one Evelyn Curry is innocent of murder but, before the governor can properly digest this information, his butler confronts the costumed intruder with a pistol. Superman, however, easily shrugs off the bullet and disarms the man. With time fast running out, Superman convinces the governor to make the life-saving call and leaves the real culprit (the woman he was carrying in his first panel) in the custody of the governor. The next day, Kent is pleased to see that his actions, as Superman, have made the front page of the Daily
Planet Star and the governor is left feeling eternally grateful that Superman is on their side…and well he should be given Superman’s blunt and direct approach to the fight against injustice.
Kent then meets with the unnamed chief editor of the Daily Star, who orders him the assignment of covering the mysterious Superman who has been making so many headlines. While it might seem like Kent has walked in off the street, the next panel seemed to prove that he does, in fact, work for the paper as he is informed by a co-worker of a wife-beating taking place (seems like an odd thing for a paper to be tipped off about but I didn’t live in the 1930s so maybe this was a thing…?) Superman immediately rushes over to the scene of the crime and makes the abuser pay by shoving him violently into a wall, breaking his knife on his impenetrable skin, and threatening the man so fully that he faints in his arms. Superman then quickly changes back into his civilian guise to explain the situation to a policeman, making sure to attribute the woman’s rescue to his super-powered alter ego. Later, Clark works up the courage to ask his co-worker, Lois (no last name yet), out on a date and she decides to “give him a break…for a change”. This, and the next panel, quickly summarises that Lois tends to avoid Clark and give him the run around in the office as, when he asks why she treats him so unfairly, she simply scoffs: “I’ve been scribbling “sob stories” all day long. Don’t ask me to dish out another”. When Butch Matson, a local tough or possibly a mobster, decides to impress his gang of apes by cutting in on Lois and Clark, Lois reveals the truth about why she avoids Clark: she sees him as nothing more than a “spineless, unbearable coward!”
Of course, during Clark’s confrontation with Butch, the narration boxes and Clark’s thought balloons briefly gloss over the fact that Clark merely pretends to be a “weakling” to keep his secret identity…well…a secret, which is another pivotal aspect of the character that would be explored further in later Superman stories. Lois leaves in a huff and her taxi is soon forced off the road by Butch’s car; in what would quickly become a recurring tradition, Lois is kidnapped by Butch and his gang for little other reason than he took a liking to her, felt slighted by her rejection, and apparently has plans on raping her. Clark, as Superman, had been observing the whole thing from a distance and puts the wind up Butch and his cronies by first leaping over their speeding vehicle, then catching up to it, shaking them all out, and finally smashing it to pieces on a nearby rocky hill.
Superman teaches Butch a further lesson by leaving him stranded high up on a telephone pole before racing Lois, who is struck with fear and awe at his presence, to safety. Against Superman’s wishes for anonymity, Lois tries to tell her editor about her ordeal but he dismisses her story as ravings (which is really strange as the other day he was desperate for the scoop on Superman!) Anyway, Kent’s editor sends him to San Monte to cover an escalating conflict but, similar to when he was given the Superman assignment, Clark immediately disobeys this directive and, instead, takes a train to Washington, D.C. to investigate Senator Barrows. Clark snaps a picture of Barrows talking with a man whom the local newspaper identifies as Alex Greer, “the slickest lobbyist in Washington”. His unfounded and unexplained suspicions about the senator aroused, Superman climbs up to Barrows’ residence (the visual of him clambering up a building like Peter Parker/Spider-Man is both amusing and bizarre) and discovers the senator and Greer are in cahoots to get a seemingly innocent bill passed that will see America “embroiled with Europe” before anyone even knows what’s happened. Superman immediately confronts Greer and demands answers, taking him out onto the telephone wires high above the city and taunting the crook him with the threat of electrocution. He then leaps over to the White House to put the wind up Greer and the issue ends with a cliffhanger as Superman continues his intimidation of his victim by, apparently, unsuccessfully making the leap to a nearby skyscraper.
“Superman” is, honestly, a dreadful story in terms of its pacing and narrative; very little time is spent explaining much of anything, with Superman’s alien origins completely glossed over and readers being forced to infer everything through context. We’re never told that Clark works as a reporter for the Daily Star, we just have to get that he is through inference; Superman races around with a bound woman and barges into homes without provocation and we only find out why after the fact; and God only knows why he pursues Senator Barrows rather than attempting to intervene in the San Monte conflict. But…it’s Action Comics #1, the first ever appearance of the greatest and most recognisable superhero the world has ever known, so I have to recommend that you read it if only for the purposes of witnessing history but, if I’m being brutally honest, the story isn’t really that great beyond the introduction of such an iconic character.
The entire story hinges on the colourful and extraordinary character of Superman himself; an enigma capable of incredible superhuman feats, Superman is visually and imaginatively appealing, I’ll admit. He has no time for decorum or adhering to the rules of the system; he simply strikes back at injustice no matter how trivial it may seem. To Superman, the life of an innocent woman is just as important as the torment of a victim of abuse and he tackles both with the same brute efficiency, utilising his fantastic strength and unmatched physical abilities to dominate the corrupt and the wicked. It’s interesting that pretty much everyone Superman saves in the story is a woman, with each of them being powerless victims of male oppressors, making Superman the paragon of virtue and honour as much as justice.
As Superman’s first ever story, and a product of its time, a lot of forgiveness and leeway needs to be given to Action Comics #1. Many of Superman’s more recognisable and traditional elements wouldn’t be introduced for some time so, in that regard, the story is a little alienating to those who’ve only ever known him as the flying, all-powerful demigod with a colourful rogues gallery and fully developed supporting cast. Indeed, the seeds for Superman’s more critically regarded aspects are there, they’re just glossed over or barely touched upon: Superman’s status as the most powerful immigrant, for example, and his adoption of a meek alter ego in a reflection of his views on humankind are seen very briefly but the story is more focused on the wish fulfilment of a colourfully-garbed super man shrugging off bullets, smashing up vehicles, and teaching good-for-nothings a much needed lesson.
Similarly, the story introduces the idea of tension and friction between Clark and Lois. I’ve always hated the early characterisation of Lois Lane and never understood what Clark ever saw in her or why she was deemed worthy enough to carry her own comic title; she was a snobby, condescending, annoying woman who constantly berated Clark and was obsessed (obsessed!) with marrying Superman for no other reason than she wanted him and she was a far cry from the strong-willed, independent, snarky, and yet actually likeable and supportive character she is often depicted as these days. Interestingly, Lois reacts to Superman more with fright than the fanatical wonder she was known for for many decades and isn’t shown to prefer Superman over Clark in this story but her bitchy attitude towards Clark is well and truly intact, though it’s just a hint towards the despicable character she would eventually become.
Could Be Better
Have you ever read Action Comics #1; if so, what did you think of it and Superman’s debut? Were you surprised at how underdeveloped Superman’s origin and powers are in his debut issue or do you feel the focus on the action and spectacle of Superman justifies the brevity of its narrative? Do you prefer Superman as a more grounded, less elaborate superhero or do you prefer him as an all-powerful character? Which of Superman’s later, wackier powers and stories was your favourite? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating Superman Day today? Whatever you think, feel free to share your opinion and thoughts on Superman in the comments below.