Action Comics #1 is the quintessential comic book. Beyond simply being Superman’s first appearance, the cover is iconic, and it holds the distinction of being the most expensive comic book of all time. If ever there was a piece of perfect Americana, then Action Comics #1 is it.
Though we hold all of these truths to be self-evident, how many of us actually know what happens in the first Superman story? More than that, how does this issue establish the mythology of Superman that has endured for more than 70 years?
The first page features Superman’s origin story, which has some notable differences to the origin that most are familiar with:
1) The Kents aren’t mentioned anywhere. Baby Clark is found by a passing motorist and is sent off to an orphanage.
2) Originally, Superman couldn’t fly. The first page states that he could “leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty story building.” He wasn’t invulnerable either because “nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.” Compare the original Superman to the god-like All-Star Superman, and they are almost unrecognizable characters in terms of powers.
The bottom of the page features a scientific explanation of Superman’s powers comparing his abilities to the way ants are able to lift several times their own body weight and grasshoppers can leap farther than their bodies technically should.
The very first panel of the story features Superman leaping through the night as he carries a woman. We learn that Superman has to speak with the governor in order to save an innocent woman’s life. Superman has discovered that a woman on death row was innocent and it would only take a pardon from the governor for her to be set free. When the governor’s butler won’t let Superman in, our hero breaks down the front door… and then the steel door of governor’s bedroom.
Breaking and entering (followed by assault after Superman beats up the governor’s butler) doesn’t start Superman’s career off strong, but the central theme of Superman being the defender of the defenseless is at least established in this scene. In fact, this Superman seems to be more proactive in his approach to protecting the rights of people. Also, the modern Superman probably wouldn’t bother with bureaucratic issues of gubernatorial mandate by saving the innocent woman just as they were about to pull the switch.
Clark returns to the newspaper the Daily Star (not the Daily Planet), where he is assigned to cover Superman. Soon, the paper receives a phone call that a man is beating his wife, so Clark swiftly changes to Superman and is off to stop spousal abuse.
It should be noted that both instances in this issue so far center around helpless women.
After the spousal abuse incident, Clark asks Lois out on a date and a mobster named Butch Matson cuts in while Lois and Clark dance. It’s during this scene that the difference between Superman and Clark is established. Clark is cowardly and makes excuses so no one will ever assume that he is Superman. Over time, the differences between Superman and Clark have gone away, but this was the very beginning of Clark Kent being cowardly.
Lois is soon kidnapped by Matson and Superman outraces the car in order to save her which is the third instance of a woman in trouble in this issue.
The issue ends with Superman confronting an evil lobbyist who is trying to get a senator to propose America join the war in Europe, but before we can learn who is backing the evil lobbyist, the issue is over and “to be continued.”
It’s fascinating to think about how this was the issue that started it all considering the mythological status Superman has attained over the decades. The original iteration of Superman may be a little stronger and faster than an average man, but he’s far from the solar deity that Morrison uses in All-Star Superman. He’s a more hands-on and political hero than the Superman that we all know and love today, but I feel like the most impressive aspect of the original Superman was how important Clark Kent was to the hero.
The original Superman didn’t have super-hearing, nor sight that could see radiowaves, so Clark Kent’s job as a reporter is just as important as Superman’s powers because his ability to get information allowed for Superman to fight crime.
Also, defending women is a central theme of the first issue, but stopping lobbyists is interesting as well because it implies that Superman’s powers suggest that he must interfere with corruption in government. Furthermore, it suggests that the original idea of Superman wasn’t a staunch defender of the status quo, but rather, a hero that tries to invoke change.
While its hard to see the hero that I love today in this rough sketch of Superman in Action Comics #1, it’s still a very beautiful thing to behold. The Golden Age really was a different time for comics, and this original Superman is so full of optimism and hope that it isn’t a surprise to see how the character has lasted for so long.