Retro Review: Action Comics #1 (1938) – “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”

Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC comic books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.

Action Comics #1 (1938) – “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”

Written by Jerry Siegel

Art by Joe Shuster

Published: June 1938 (National Allied Publications)

Grade: A

The first issue of Action Comics was, as were most comic books of the era, an anthology. And though some of the background stories of this issue became significant in their own right, it was the lead comic and its appearance on the cover that changed the world of comic books forever. “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”, written and illustrated by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (respectively) became an instant success and is widely regarded as the first superhero comic.

Opening panel of "Superman" - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Opening panel of “Superman” – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

“Superman” wastes none of its precious 13 pages and speeds through the Coles’ Notes version of Superman’s origin story in only two pages, establishing his doomed homeworld, his being found and raised by the Kents, and the discovery of his extraordinary abilities (“…he could hurdle skyscrapers…leap an eighth of a mile…raise tremendous weights…run faster than a streamline train…and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!”). While it is obvious that this haste is the product of limited page space and the need to establish the background of their character, Siegel demonstrates a very clear understanding that the origin of a character is only important if readers care about where they are now – something that is thoroughly lost on today’s screenwriters, who insist on showing us where our heroes come from again and again instead of showing us what they can do. Siegel gets this, and after establishing that Clark creates “Superman” to champion justice using his powers, he leaps right into the first of several small encounters.

Make no mistake, there is no endgame. No super-objective. There is no series-long arc being set up, and Shuster’s art is certainly not hiding any Easter eggs to come back later. The story is itself a collection of small encounters: Clark Kent tries to get a job at the Daily Planet, Superman stops a lynching at a local prison, rescues a woman wrongly accused for murder mere minutes before her execution is to take place (in the middle of the night, which is when all executions take place), and saves Lois Lane from a group of thugs who kidnap her after Clark Kent fails to defend her on their date (though she more than capably smacks one across the face). Superman obviously saves the day in all cases, with incredible ease, and finishes off the story in Washington investigating a corrupt Senator. This story continues in Action Comics #2, partially because a cliffhanger brings readers back, and partially because Siegel and Shuster ran out of room.

The obstacles placed between Superman and his goals in all of these mini-adventures do not even constitute thinly-veiled attempts to showcase his abilities. Having to leap or run his way across town to apprehend thugs and save Lois; or how every person even remotely culpable carries a gun that they fire at him without a passing thought, causing bullets to ricochet left, right, and centre. Of particular note, though, is the Governor’s steel-doored “sleeping room”, an unlikely and terribly clinical sounding location that Superman must break into at the last minute in order to give the Governor the signed confession that will stay the wrongful execution.

Superman breaks down the steel door to the Governor's "sleeping room" - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Superman breaks down the steel door to the Governor’s “sleeping room” – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

The contrived ease and simplicity of the story-telling is, of course, indicative of the relatively low artistic standing of the comic book medium at the time, but it is also very telling about the era in which “Superman” was written. Post-modernism was still a long way off and American society had a very clear view of what was right and what was wrong. Whether or not they were correct is another matter entirely, but that clear moral distinction is extremely present in Siegel’s writing, which depicts a Superman who, though moral and on the side of good, takes great delight in threatening and punishing moral or criminal transgressions. Superman’s no-killing code of conduct does not exist here, and he does not hesitate to use excessive (by even Superman’s standard) force on those who “deserve” it. Yet for all his implied and actual brutality, we never see him as anti-heroic, and this is owed to the strong sense of morality implied in Siegel’s writing.

Shuster’s art is equally simple, but he very masterfully demonstrates the power and speed of Superman in the small panels of the comic. Crushing the Governor’s steel door, leaping from telephone wire to telephone wire, and standing unflinchingly through a barrage of bullets are just some examples of feats that are truly extraordinary. The iconic front cover of Action Comics #1 is a panel appearing later in the story, where Superman is holding a car above his head and smashing it to pieces on a rock. Bad guys are running away and Superman destroys their car – it’s the sort of simple revenge we dream of exacting on those who wrong us, and in bringing it so simply to life Shuster imbues Superman with spirit of our wildest dreams.

But perhaps the greatest triumph of this issue is its portrayal of the alter ego, Clark Kent. The relationship between Clark and Superman is one of the most explored and academically studied in all of comic books, but here at its genesis we see a simple dichotomy: Superman the strong, Clark the weak. Shuster does a great job disguising Superman’s physique in the bulky, uncoordinated trappings of a newspaper man, and Siegel’s writing for the Clark Kent persona is spot on.

Lois slapping a thug - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Lois slapping a thug – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

After implying that she’s been avoiding him for a while, Lois begrudgingly agrees to go out for a night with Clark. This should be a victory, and yet the first panel of their date has Clark asking “Why is it you always avoid me at the office?”. This is the sort of meek, approval-desperate character that backs down from a fight later in the same scene. Credit must also be given here to the strong, albeit brief portrayal of Lois Lane, the only woman appearing in this comic who does not act out a stereotype. Siegel and Shuster, despite a simplistic style, manage to give Lois some of the most emotive dialogue and action in the entire issue. This is an important component of the comic, as her strength and fierceness further help to define Clark – a “spineless, unbearable coward” in Lois’ own words. The contrast between Lois and Clark illuminates key aspects of his guise. He dwells on his weaknesses, his failures; keenly aware of his own shortcomings without attempting to transcend them in any way. He is the sort of man who could never dream of being Superman. In essence, he is us. This is a concept that is brought up time and again in academic analyses of the character.

Clark sticks to his persona - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Clark sticks to his persona – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Compared to where Superman, and indeed all superhero, stories have ended up, it’s difficult to imagine just how incredible a story “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed” was. In a sense, we are desensitized to superpowers and the extraordinary, and it is admittedly very difficult to read or write about Action Comics #1 without adopting a patronizing tone about readers’ sensibilities in the 1930s. But Superman is the first superhero. There was no precedent for a man with powers like his. Leaping tall buildings was more than impressive, flying would have made him unbelievable. As would Superman’s ever growing level of invulnerability; in the early days Superman could be hurt (in Actions Comics #4 Superman tries to rescue a fleeing crook from an oncoming train and exclaims “Fool, you’ll get us both killed!”). Superman’s early adventures are entirely populated by regular people, good and bad, and his first super-powered foe didn’t arrive on the scene until the Ultra-Humanite in Action Comics #13 – over a year after Superman’s first appearance.

The writing is simple, yes, as are the visuals, but in their proper context they were both exactly what was essential and enduring about Superman. The world was on the brink of war, something alluded to in the final arc of the issue and continued in Action Comics #2, and after the horrors of the First World War and the desperation of the Great Depression, what people and society desired was the quick fix. And Superman obliged. A deus ex machina in the truest sense, he came to our planet and decided to help us, and without flinching a muscle he wrought justice from corruption, good from evil, and hope from hopelessness. Superman was forged by Siegel and Shuster in the pages of Action Comics #1; a symbol of hope, represented in the modern age by the “S” on his uniform – the shield of the House of El and the Kryptonian glyph meaning hope. And his enduring legacy is entirely owed to this single issue.

The Superman stories of “Action Comics #1-4” are available as a single, digital publication – “Superman #1 (1938-2011)” – for free on the DC Comics website.

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Bonus thoughts:

– After finding an alien baby, the Kents first bring him to an orphanage, then return later to adopt him. But while at the orphanage, Baby Superman masters not only his strength, but also balance and poise.

Superman as a baby in the orphanage - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Superman as a baby in the orphanage – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

– Jonathan Kent’s cynicism regarding how the world would receive Clark is starkly clear in this issue. Proof, perhaps, that Man of Steel‘s interpretation of the character was not as far off the mark as many believe.

– Superman is incredibly trusting, just believing a convicted felon that he was wrongfully accused.

– “You attract me”…said the female killer to Superman. A particularly stilted bit of dialogue from Siegel, though I find it deliciously nostalgic sounding.

Superman arrives at the Governor's house at night - Action Comics #1, DC Comics

Superman arrives at the Governor’s house at night – Action Comics #1, DC Comics

– Night time = Heavy Hatching. It felt heavy-handed on my first read, but I’ve really grown to like Shuster’s style, in this regard. It almost feels like these middle panels are drawn by someone else, and it emphasizes a very dramatic shift in time of day and brings out the menace of the dark.