By: Super Mark
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Man of Steel’s first appearance. Everyone who is a Superman fan is celebrating this occasion in their own way. Some of us are going to the biggest Superman convention in the world in Metropolis, Illinois this week, where they will meet all sorts of exciting individuals who are connected to Superman’s lore. Meanwhile others like myself will be celebrating in the basement shelling out reviews. (sigh).
In all seriousness though, I decided to mark this occasion by looking at the comic book that made it all possible: Action Comics #1, the very first appearance of Superman. Honestly, where would we be today without it? Originally released in April of 1938 for a mere 10 cents, its approximate value today is $1,380,000 USD. As of September 2007, it is the most valuable comic book in existence, second only to Detective Comics #27 (which marks the first appearance of Batman.) Less than 100 copies are known to exist.
Superman was the brain-child of writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, who envisioned the character in 1933. His original conception, however, was not as we traditionally remember it. Superman originally began as a bald telepathic villain bent on world domination in short story entitled “Reign of the Super-Man”.
By 1934, the pair had re-imagined the character as a Herculean hero in the mythic tradition, someone who would use his powers for good.
The costume design was partially based on comic strips such as Flash Gordon, as well as circus strong-man outfits. The name Clark Kent was a combination of the names Clark Gable and Kent Taylor, some of Shuster’s favorite actors.
The city of Metropolis was inspired by the 1927’s movie “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.
This Superman was offered to multiple publishing companies for the next six years, without much success. Frustrated, Shuster burned all pages of the story, the cover surviving only because Siegel rescued it from the fire. It was ultimately accepted in 1938 as the lead feature in Wheeler-Nicholson’s new publication, Action Comics.
Superman’s first adventures in Action Comics were not only followed by the creation of his own title, but also the creation of hundreds of super-heroes that would be inspired by his example in the generations to come. The result was not only the creation of the very first super-hero, but the creation of a new fictional genre and changed the face of comic books forever. Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, even Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil exist because of this issue.
In order to fully appreciate Action Comics #1, you essentially have to imagine yourself in that time and place in the world. Imagine life in the late 1930’s. Imagine a world that has just lived through the depression, a world on the brink of a second world war. Imagine a world without a Superman. Then imagine you’re ten years old. You’re at the local convenience store with a dime in your hand, and you’re wondering whether you’re going to buy a bag of chips or a bottle of Coca-Cola. And then you see it. One special comic book on the magazine rack catches your eye. A powerful and mysterious figure in a red cape and blue tights is lifting a car clear over his head while people flee from him in terror.
Siegel and Shuster originally intended for Superman to be a comic strip, something published in a newspaper about four panels each day. As such, the comic book publishers decided to use the more dramatic strips available to them. So what you’re reading isn’t exactly a concise story. In fact, if you compare it with today’s comic book standards, it’s a complete mess.
But you don’t care. You’re transported to a world of possibilities you never imagined possible. You’re in a world where a strange visitor from another planet, with powers far beyond those of mortal men, fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. You see him tear through a steel-reinforced door with his bare hands. You see him shrug off a gunshot at point blank range. You see him bench-press a car. You see him jump skyscraper-height distances in a single jump.
Remember, this was written during the tail end of the depression. That meant that Superman was more of a crusader against social injustices. In this comic book, he barges into a mayor’s own home to prevent the execution of a wrongfully accused woman, and he rough-houses a bunch of thugs who kidnapped Lois Lane for having snubbed them.
This may not be the Superman we know and love, but this was the Superman the people in that day needed; fighting against crooked businessmen and corrupt politicians.
What humanizes this story at its core is that by day Superman is secretly a mild-mannered reporter for a metropolitan newspaper, who is deceptively dull and weak compared to what we already know him be. He is also pining for his lovely co-worker Lois Lane, who is far more interested in the Man of Steel. And immediately you’re hooked to the character because despite all his powers he’s still one of us. Despite his alien origins, he is ultimately human.