Sunday, October 15, 2006

Superman in Action Comics #1 (Cover dated June, 1938)

Characters

Major Heroes: Superman, Lois Lane

Major Villains: Butch Matson, Senator Barrow, Alex Greer
Minor Villains: Unnamed Murderer, Unnamed Wife Beater

P'Shat

In 13 pages of comic, there are 4.5 different stories told:

1. (1 page) A baby is rocketed to Earth from a distant planet. Due to a physical structure that is millions of years advanced, the boy has super strength and spead on Earth. He decides to devote his life to benefit mankind.

2. (3.5 pages) Superman carries a bound woman to the governor's mansion. Breaking in, he forces his way in to see the governor, survives being shot by the governor unharmed, and shows the governor a signed confession, proving that a woman about to be executed in death row is innocent. She is pardoned just in time, but Superman's intervention is not mentioned in the newspaper. The editor of the "Daily Star" puts Clark Kent on the Superman beat.

3. (1 page) Clark Kent gets a tip of a wife beating and rushes off the cover it. Arriving as Superman, he threatens the wife beater, who then passes out. He changes back to Clark Kent before the police arrive.

4. (4 pages) Lois Lane finally agrees to a date with Clark, and they go dancing. Butch Matson tries to cut in, and Clark acts like a weakling, allowing it. Lois slaps Butch and leaves in a taxi. Butch follows and runs the taxi off the road, kidnapping Lois. Superman leaps the car, chases Butch on foot, dumps everyone from the car, and hangs Butch from a telephone pole. Superman tells Lois not to put him in the newspaper. Lois tries to report, but her editor doesn't believe her.

5. (3.5 pages) Clark is assigned to cover a war in San Monte. On his way, he takes a train to Washington, D.C., where he sees Senator Barrows speaking to Alex Greer, a lobbyist. Barrows insists that the requested bill will pass, and soon America will be embroiled in the war in Europe. Superman confronts Greer, who won't talk. Superman grabs Greer, and they rush off into the Washington skyline. The issue ends as a cliff-hanger.

Drash

It's interesting what issues were addressed in the very first "superhero comic book": the death penalty, spousal abuse, implied attempted rape, and special interest lobbying. A comic book that addressed even one of those issues today would likely get accused to pushing a liberal agenda, or being too "topical". Apparently, the topics haven't changed much over 70 years. And looking back, the only issue that would later prove questionable was not getting "embroiled" in Europe.

Contrast the anti-death-penalty politics of Action #1 (innocent woman almost executed!) with the pro-death-penalty position of, say, Manhunter #1 (kill him so he can't escape and kill again!).

Overall, the "dated" aspects of the story -- like Lois Lane writing the "sob stories" -- and the implausible aspects -- the newspaper gets a tip of a wife-beating in progress befoer the cops arrive, Senator Barrow and Alex Greer chatting in a public place in the Capitol where Clark can casually snap a picture -- are less obtrusive than they could have been.

I had forgotten that the original explanation of Superman's powers was millions of years of evolution, rather than the high gravity on Krypton. My favorite panel is the "Scientific Explanation", illustrated by ants and grasshoppers who can lift hundreds of times their weight, or jump the equivalent of city blocks. I actually like that explanation better than "low gravity" or "Yellow sun", as it explains both the "faster than a speeding bullet" AND the "leaping tall buildings" things simply.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Timothy Liebe said...

::It's interesting what issues were addressed in the very first "superhero comic book": the death penalty, spousal abuse, implied attempted rape, and special interest lobbying. A comic book that addressed even one of those issues today would likely get accused to pushing a liberal agenda, or being too "topical".::

Ragtime, thank you for this write-up. It's been ages since I read (a reprint of) ACTION COMICS #1, and the things Superman dealt with hadn't stuck with me. Seeing it laid out like this suggests that Siegel and Schuster may have originally intended Superman as somebody who could save the day from real-world problems that they saw around them every day (which is what progressivism is supposed to deal with) rather than the larger-than-life issues of flying robot thieves or mad scientists with labs inside active volcanos. Not that there's anything wrong with cool retro-futuristic flying robots or Art Deco labs in really dangerous locales! :)

::I actually like that explanation better than "low gravity" or "Yellow sun", as it explains both the "faster than a speeding bullet" AND the "leaping tall buildings" things simply.::

Yes, but I'm not sure they could've made that work with what some of Superman's powers developed into (heat vision, actual gravity-defying flight). Besides, would you really want the whole "Intelligent Design" crowd boycotting SUPERMAN comics b/c his origin supports evolution...? >:)

Best,
Tim Liebe
Dreaded Spouse-Creature of Tamora Pierce
- and co-writer of Marvel's upcoming White Tiger comic

10:03 AM  
Blogger Ragtime said...

Timothy,

Thank you. I agree that Superman works better when he is dealing with "real world" problems, although I think they can work even better when the real world problems are dealt with metaphorically, through Supervillains.

A good enemy should, I think, represent an exaggerated version of some real-life-type problem, even if only just in the abstract.

Doing it otherwise may lead to a "good story", but not really one that stays with you.

10:58 AM  

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