Thursday, March 3, 2011

May 1938: Action Comics #1

Cover by Joe Shuster
'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): I've finally done it.  I've been ploughing through the DC back list with this comic as my first major goal along the way.  The dull, dreary, non-super world of gangsters and cowboys is behind me, because this is Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman.

Having finally read the first Superman story in some semblance of context, it's damned exciting. It doesn't have a plot as such, more like a string of set pieces that showcase Superman's origin, powers and lifestyle.  It begins with his origin story and an explanation for why he's so strong.  Then Superman saves an innocent woman from the electric chair. Then he takes down a wife-beater. After that, as Clark Kent, he goes on a date with Lois Lane, and acts very weak and spineless when a thug pushes his attentions on Lois. Of course he later rescues her as Superman (recreating that famous car-smashing scene from the cover). Then his editor sends him to investigate a war in South America, but instead he travels to Washington to investigate a crooked senator. The story ends with him about to fall from a skyscraper while carrying the senator's accomplice.  All that in thirteen pages; as you can see, Superman is a hell of a busy guy.

It's amazing just how different Superman is from anything that has come before.  There have been a couple of characters with powers, but those were all supernatural and ill-defined.  Superman's powers are scientific, physical, and very rigidly outlined.  He's strong, impervious to anything less than a bursting shell, can run fast, and jump 1/8th of a mile.  He can't fly, has no heat vision and no x-ray vision, he's just an incredibly tough dude.  'Slam Bradley' had displayed similar qualities in his earliest stories, but not to the extent shown here.  Superman is getting shot and stabbed with no effect, outrunning and lifting cars, and running across power lines.  It's exciting, and the way the story bounces from one thing to the next without ever stopping just enhances that.  (As I understand it, this story was originally intended as a newspaper strip, but was re-purposed for publication in a comic book.  That probably accounts for why it's so jumpy.)

The version of his origin story given here is rudimentary, as expected.  His unnamed home planet is destroyed by old age, so his unnamed scientist father puts him in a rocket and launches it towards Earth. On Earth he's found by a passing motorist and taken to an orphanage, where he astounds the attendants with his great strength.  As an adult he decides to "turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind", thus becoming Superman.  His powers aren't attributed to a yellow sun or anything like that, but just said to be a result of his race being millions of years more advanced than humans.

The rest of the set-up is familiar, but slightly different.  Superman's alter ego is Clark Kent, as mentioned above, but he works for the Daily Star instead of the more well-known Daily Planet.  His editor is not named, and Jimmy Olsen is nowhere in sight.  But Lois Lane is present, and that relationship is established from the start; Clark likes her, but she hates him because he's always acting like a coward.  Not like that strong, rugged Superman...

I can already see why this took off in the way it did.  It's not the most well-written strip, nor is it Joe Shuster's strongest work, but it's just so different from everything else out there, in the comics and the movies of the time.  I wouldn't be surprised if there was a character like Superman in the pulp short story magazines, but this has a visual aspect they can't match.  I still have very little idea of what it would have been like to read this at the time, but I have a bit more context, and that's part of why I started this whole thing.

'Chuck Dawson' (by Homer Fleming): Oh joy, yet another western strip by Homer Fleming.  This one's about a cowboy who wants revenge on the gang that killed his father and stole his ranch.  It's the usual sort of stuff that Fleming deals with, but at least this one has a character with some emotional investment in what happens. It also helps that he's a cowboy who knows jiu jitsu.  Never mind where he learned it, it's just rad.

'Zatara, Master Magician' (by Fred Guardineer): Zatara is best known as the father of one of DC's most prominent heroic magicians (and future Justice League member), Zatanna. In this story he's trying to stop his archenemy, a female crime boss called the Tigress, from robbing trains. He does look good in his suit and top hat, and his magic uses the same backwards-speaking gimmick that his daughter will make famous.  He's distinctive, and that gives him a leg-up on a lot of the other characters out there at this time.

'South Sea Strategy' (by Capt. Frank Thomas): This is a prose story in which a seagoing trader and his black servant find a man whose daughter has been kidnapped by natives.  For the first time ever, one of these prose stories is to be concluded next issue.  At this point I should note that every DC comic at this point seems to have dropped the various text pieces in favour of a single two-page short story. I heartily approve.

'Sticky-Mitt Stimson' (by Russell Cole): In this story a criminal is chased by the police and uses a disguise to escape.  The end.  It may be the most pointless thing Cole has ever done, and that's saying something.

'The Adventures of Marco Polo' (by Sven Elven): This is a strip about the life of the famous Venetian explorer.  In this one he and his family are sent by the Pope to meet with the Khan in China.  During the journey their party is attacked by the fierce Barrari people.  To be continued!

'Pep Morgan' (by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer): Pep Morgan is back? Yep, but when we last saw Pep he was a student, doing teenage stuff and playing around at various different sports.  Now he's the light heavyweight champion of the world, which is a big step up.  This is much more interesting than Pep's early adventures.  He has to fight an 'Australian Bushman' who is managed by a crooked doctor, who cheats by injecting his opponents with a hypodermic needle.  No, it's not great, but I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

'Scoop Scanlon, Five Star Reporter' (by Will Ely): Scoop is a reporter, obviously, and in this story he and his sidekick Rusty help the police stop an escape attempt by a renowned jewel thief.  It's six straight pages of car crashes and shooting, which is okay I guess.

'Tex Thomson' (by Bernard Baily): Tex is a millionaire cowboy who travels the world.  In England he gets framed for murder, and then spends the rest of the strip rounding up the gang that really did the killing. You know, I don't think the story ever explains why the gang was killing people... It's not very good, but Tex Thomson also knows jiu jitsu. At least his back story makes it plausible; perhaps he taught Chuck Dawson as well.  Also, this story has the worst lettering I've seen so far in this project.  It's really hard to read.

1 comment:

  1. " I wouldn't be surprised if there was a character like Superman in the pulp short story magazines"

    The character of Hugo Danner in the 1930 sci-fi book Gladiator, by Philip Wylie.

    This was a novel, not a pulp story. It was written in 1926, but his publisher left it on the shelf for a few, so the author could get some seasoning. In 1926, it was quasi-fantasy, because its in a genre that didn't exist at the time. He invented superheroes before the Phantom, Doc Savage, Zatara or Superman.