Action Comics 1938 (issues #1-7)
Posted by Tracy Poff on January 16, 2013
In June 1938, Detective Comics #16 had a new companion: Action Comics #1. This first issue is famous for introducing Superman, as well as for being the most valuable comic in existence, a single copy having sold on November 30, 2011 for $2.16 million.
Action Comics is an anthology work, like Detective Comics, and features several other comics per issue, besides Superman. Of particular interest is Zatara which also appears in the first issue. The full contents of the first issue are:
- “Superman” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
- “Chuck Dawson” by H. Fleming
- “Zatara” by Fred Guardineer
- “South Sea Strategy” (a short story)
- “Sticky-Mitt Stimson” by Alger
- “The Adventures of Marco Polo” by Sven Elven
- “Pep Morgan” by Fred Guardineer
- “Scoop Scanlon, Five Star Reporter” by Will Ely
- “Tex Thompson” by Bernard Baily
- “Stardust” (a page of celebrity trivia)
Most of these are series, and continue in future issues. I’ll not go into great detail about most–they’re the same sort of stories that run in Detective, largely a mix of Westerns and detective stories. Let’s look at a couple, though.
How could I ignore the first appearance of Superman? In the very first issue, there’s a lot of work done to establish the character, including both his abilities and his personality. Allow me to make an extended quotation from the first page:
When maturity was reached, he discovered he could easily: leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building… raise tremendous weights… run faster than an express train… and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin! Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created… Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!
Superman comes from an unnamed planet which had been destroyed by old age. His father, a scientist, sent him away in a hastily-crafted spaceship, and the baby Superman was found by a passing motorist, and put in an orphanage. The boy was named Clark Kent, and even when young, he was very strong. As he grew to maturity, he found he had amazing powers, which we are told is usual for the people of his race.
Having established Superman’s powers, and sketched his history, the first story begins, and it’s a noteworthy story: Superman has (somehow) discovered that a woman who is set to be executed is innocent, and has secured a confession from the real murderer. Armed with this, he strong-arms his way into the governor’s estate, so that the governor can halt the execution. Even from the first pages, Superman is established as the champion of the oppressed, caring for the wellbeing of the people. This sets him in distinct opposition to many other crimefighters of the day, such as Siegel and Shuster’s own Slam Bradley, a private detective superficially similar to Superman, but who is in it for the money and thrills.
Superman continues to show concern for the well-being of the common man as the comic continues. Later in the story, he stops a wife-beater, and the end of the first issue, and continuing into the second, he fights political corruption, leading to him single-handedly stopping a war. He captures the generals of the opposing armies, and delivers an ultimatum: “I’ve decided to end this war by having you two fight it out between yourselves.” He spends the third issue fighting for better working conditions for mine-workers. In the following issues, Superman retaliates against a crooked football coach by playing for the opposing team, saves a town from being flooded by a burst dam, stops a man who is pretending to be Superman’s agent from exploiting his good name, and saves a failing circus by joining up as a strongman.
Superman’s not exactly a boy scout, though–he joins the football team by disguising himself as one of its players, keeping the real player drugged the entire time, and he’s not afraid to use the threat of force to get what he wants.
Superman’s definitely the star of Action Comics, although he doesn’t appear on the cover again this year, after the first issue. He won’t reappear on the cover until issue #7, after which he begins appearing regularly.
He’s probably more famous for being the father of Zatanna, but Zatara, too had his own comic series, starting in Action Comics #1. The master magician fights crime using his magical powers, accompanied by his servant, Tong. Like his daughter, Zatara casts his spells by speaking them backwards, like “uoy era won ni ym rewop!”. One of the stranger recurring elements in the comic is Zatara’s penchant for turning people–criminals, Tong, even himself–into the oddest things. For example:
Zatara frequently uses the power of astral projection to travel invisibly and spy on his enemies, and he uses his powers for more frivolous things, too, like turning a meal that Tong didn’t like into chicken, which he preferred. It’s not clear to me what the limits of his powers are–in the sixth issue, he summons up a whole army to fight for him. I’m guessing that the limit is “however strong he needs to be to get out of the trouble he’s in”.
Zatara’s stories aren’t substantially different from the other stories in the magazine, or the ones that run in Detective, if you ignore his use of magic. I enjoy them, though, and it’s amusing to see the absurd things he uses his magic for, so I’d place Zatara as my second-favorite comic in Action Comics, after Superman.
The only comics in Action Comics that are to my taste, this year, are Superman and Zatara, and they are pretty good, particularly as compared to their contemporaries. Superman’s popularity really takes off, and he’ll be in other comics in the near future–particularly in his own magazine, Superman, and in World’s Finest Comics, in which Batman will also star. Of course, that won’t be all–according to Comic Vine, Superman appears in 9270 separate comic issues, just under Batman’s 9491 appearances. With that many issues, you could read a Superman comic every day for over 25 years without running out, even if they never published another comic. What’s the source of Superman’s massive popularity? I won’t speculate.
Whatever else you may think of Superman, he’s clearly left his mark on comics. It’s well worth reading these early issues of Action Comics, to see where it all began.