Action Comics #1 is a simple story with a simple premise – introduce the character Superman, make the readers care about him, and put him in a dangerous test to set up for the next issue.If one were to read synopsis of the plot, all these goals might even seem to be accomplished! It’s a generally accessible tale about a new Superman – and it’s even got some interesting ideas in terms of shaking up the status quo of the character. Seems great!
But the actual issue fails to deliver. And it is entirely because of a single fault – poor organization. The panel layouts start as decent, declines to mediocre, and by the end of the issue it hits just plain awful. I will investigate this decline in three stages. Let’s have a look.
1. Selling a Single Idea
Written by Grant Morrison and penciled by Rags Morales, the issue starts off well enough, with a bad-boy Superman swooping down upon a gang of thugs on the first page, before the story cuts directly to the police reaction. They rush into the building and head up the elevator. Here is where the problems begin.
Have a look at the first panel. There are four separate things occurring in this panel. First, the scared man is running into the elevator, yelling in fear. Second, the police officers are looking on in horror and disbelief, including Detective Blake. Third, Detective Blake is telling the yelling man to leave the area. Fourth, another police officer is inspecting the evidence of Superman’s brawl.
This is somewhat confusing to read. This is because one panel should convey one major idea, and if other ideas are present, they ought to be subordinate to it. This panel is conveying, at the very least, two separate ideas, all of equal importance. Detective Blake is both re-assuring a fleeing civilian, and looking on in disbelief at the damage. This discrepancy between the art and text, along with the added action of a bemused police officer, creates a very confusing conglomerate where four different things are happening at once. This is tiring to take in, and a poor way to organize information.
This trend repeats itself in the third panel on the page. The art portrays a wary group of policeman, readying their weapons for any threat. The dialogue, however, delivers the information of both their preparation and their discovery of Superman. Two separate and distinct events are happening in this one panel, with only a half-inch of balloon tail separating them.
This same mistake occurs yet again in the fourth panel, shown to the right. There is the police officer who expresses his fear, Detective Blake yelling commands at Superman, and Superman responding. These are two separate events – the conversation between Blake and Superman, and the apprehension of the Police Officers. Mish-mashing all this information together is difficult to read, chronologically confusing, and highly inconvenient. However, it’s no grounds for dismissing the issue entirely. After all, we still understand what is happening and why – a few organization problems on this scale are just minor slip-ups, right?
Unfortunately, it gets worse.
2. Wise Use of Real Estate
After a few pages establishing Superman’s powers and a quick page of Lex Luthor and General Lane conversing on the nature of Superman, the scene switches to Superman fleeing from his pursuers through a less fortunate section of town. A section of town which Luthor has decided makes excellent bait.
Superman, of course, takes this bait.
In the third panel, we run across yet another example of cramming information into a small space. There is one conversation between Superman and the civilian, and then another declaration from the police. Once again, this is inconvenient, but excusable.
But the next two pages start to go downhill. They are filled with absolutely nothing but Superman demolishing street tanks with a wrecking ball, defying military weapons, and generally destroying things. Well, what’s the problem with that? Don’t we need some action in this story! Well sure, but here’s the page that comes after them:
Down at the bottom half of the page, scrunched into two panels, is the people defending Superman for his good deed. This character-defining moment that separates Superman from Lex Luthor, General Lane, Mr. Glenmorgan, and any other character so far, is shoved into a short two panels, while the large 3-4 panel per page money shots of Superman destroying things is given a full two pages. Which one is more important here?
And if this were not bad enough, guess what happens right after the page with the people’s defense of Superman? Superman is attacked by a brigade of miniature robotic helicopters, and he promptly leaves. The people that defended him are nowhere to be seen throughout all of this. They have disappeared from the story after their two short panels of fame, except for a tiny cameo in the last panel of the next page, being shooed away by police officers.
They weren’t important anyway. All they did was provide a character-defining moment for Superman. Expendable at best!
3. Sealing the Deal
After escaping his pursuers, Superman deftly transforms back into Clark Kent and has a decently scripted conversation with his landlady. After reassuring her on his employability and paying his rent, he calls his buddy, Jimmy Olsen, and the scene switches to a train station. And now all the storytelling woes of Action Comics #1 come to a head. Here’s the first page:
In the first panel, we’re establishing three separate characters, one of them being shoved unceremoniously into the edge of the panel, away from the focal point and center of interest. Lois Lane is exhibiting two different emotions: excitement at catching up to their quarry, and curiosity as to who Jimmy Olsen is talking to. Jimmy answers both her and Clark in the same panel.
If that were not bad enough, a whole host of information is shoved into the next three miniscule panels. Clark and Jimmy are friends, Clark works for a rival newspaper, Lois doesn’t really like him, Jimmy receives Clark’s ambiguous warning about trains, and Lois urges for them to catch up to their target. The last panel finally pulls out to establish where we are – but only from an exterior shot that does not show where the characters are. Where is this Mr. Grundig? How close are they to him? Despite rushing to establish a whole host of information in too few panels before, we are still missing vital information on the goals of the characters we are following. The scene just cuts there.
Now who is this Mr. Taylor? What the hell is happening? Clearly, Clark has learned some very important information that affects the safety of Jimmy and Lois – and he quickly makes an excuse to hang up and get into costume. These two panels and the crammed dialogue on the preceding page are the only indication we get of Clark Kent’s relationship to Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. That’s it.
The rest of the page serves to establish that Jimmy has received more information from Clark, advising them of the danger they are in, Lois doesn’t care, the train is breaking down, and Lois confronts Mr. Grundig. If these nuggets of information were actually organized into separate, linked panels instead of being mashed into conflicting moments of time, I would call it a masterful piece of storytelling and not a complete mess.
But if the creators were cramming all this narrative information into such a small amount of space, without any kind of pacing or even basic legibility, clearly they had something plot-defining, character-breaking, and super important planned for the rest of the issue! Something has got to be waiting in the wings.
Nope. The next five pages all focus on a single event – a train crashing and Superman trying in vain to stop it. Five pages, one event. Two of these pages are absolutely nothing but money shots of wanton destruction.
The comic closes with another page of Lex Luthor and General Lane conversing, and a final splash page reveals Superman – rendered unconscious by the collision of the bullet train with the Daily Planet, the young vigilante sandwiched right in the middle.
These last two pages really ought to be moving. The page between Lex Luthor and General Lane is even well done, each panel expressing a singular idea and flowing well into one another. It ends on the particularly gratifying line, “Behold, I give you Superman.” It really ought to be goosebump-inducing stuff. But it isn’t. I don’t feel outraged at Luthor’s manipulation of Superman’s altruism. I don’t feel like I want to be right there with the people, fighting the good fight for the man who saved their lives.
The fact is, I don’t feel a thing because I don’t give a damn about Superman. Perhaps I would have if the whole comic hadn’t rushed through the plot to get to the spectacle. Perhaps I would have if the creators had put the emphasis on Superman’s nobility, his self-sacrifice, his altruism, and his concern for his friends.
But that was not at all their choice. Apparently what was more important was that Superman can intimidate the hell out of an old man, blow up military tanks, zip out of the way of robotic helicopters, and valiantly try, yet absolutely fail to stop a bullet train. After all, it is these events that get the vast majority of the panel real estate, while all the plot and drama – really everything that makes any of that action mean anything – is shoved into tiny panels and choked for space so tightly that the events are barely legible.
This serves to make what might have been an accessible, fascinating, and moving introduction into an all new Superman a disjointed, disorganized, disinteresting romp through money shot after money shot, where plot and characterization serve only as an afterthought.
It’s really rather disheartening, because with a bit of re-organization, Action Comics #1 could have been great.