If you were a child in April of 1938, liked to color, wanted to make a buck, and had a copy of a brand new comics magazine called Action Comics, then all you had to do was color in the first page of the black and white “Chuck Dawson” feature to the best of your ability, tear it out, and mail it to Detective Comics, Inc. You would have preferably done this by the end of May so it would be received in the company’s office by June 6, just in time to be entered into a contest that could potentially win you one dollar, which would have easily covered, and then some, for the ten cents you paid for that first issue of Action Comics.
Of course, you would also have torn out the last page of the debut story of Action Comics #1’s lead feature, Superman. That is a scary thought today.
And if you were a child at that time, in a year when Germany invaded Austria and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was America’s most popular motion picture, you would be in your late seventies or early eighties now, and most likely no longer have that issue of Action in your possession, mutilated or not. Maybe it was contributed to a paper drive during World War II. Maybe mom had you throw it away. Maybe you gave it to a friend in exchange for a copy of Wonder Comics. But maybe you did save it; in which case, I suggest making an immediate call to Mile High Comics. Or better yet, contact me!
The men who published Action Comics, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz; the editor of the title, Vince Sullivan; and Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, have all passed away.
Superman endures, and thrives, and remains a larger than life American icon. The Man of Steel turns 70 this year.
I can’t imagine what comics?what the world?would be like if the two young men from Cleveland hadn’t conceived and honed their creation, never submitting it to skeptical or indifferent newspaper syndicates. And even if they did, what if editor M.C. Gaines of the McClure Syndicate never gave Leibowitz the Superman strip that had been languishing on his desk, that had changed hands only because Leibowitz was desperately seeking original features for a new comic book DC had in the works, a companion to the year-old Detective Comics, a comic that proclaimed Action in its title and really needed to deliver on its premise?
It’s honestly impossible for me to imagine any other kind of scenarios. It means reshaping a monumental aspect of history and popular culture from scratch.
The first Superman tales were rough in places, choppy in pacing, seemingly patched together in a hurry to make the publishing deadline. But there is no denying the strip’s energy, even when the Man of Steel spends extended periods disguised as a miner or a football player. Bizarre lapses in continuity, such as Clark Kent working for The Daily Star newspaper in one tale, The Evening News out of Cleveland in the following story, and back to The Daily Star in the next issue, ironed themselves out. And it was indeed this early on that Lois Lane confessed to Clark her love for Superman and contempt for her cowardly colleague. Lois was Superman/Clark’s greatest challenge, as the villains at that time never rose above gangster level.
These early tales were heavy on Superman confronting social injustice. Wife-beating, corrupt politicians, poor safety conditions for miners, drunk driving and juvenile delinquency all crossed Superman’s path. And he crossed back. He threw men against walls, threatened permanent bodily harm, dumped a man head-first into a barrel of tar, tossed people into the air, and in one instance during a South American war hurled a torturer to his death. Clark Kent’s existence tempered Superman’s often violent reactionism, and his feelings toward Lois, played out for the most part through Clark, kept him grounded. The kids could relate to the essences of both men, and, boy, did they ever! Superman was an instant hit, although it would be a few months before DC realized it and depicted Superman permanently on Action‘s covers.
There is more to Action Comics than the debut of Superman, of course ? Marco Polo, anyone? ? but none of the anthology comics’ other features came close to matching the success of the Man of Steel.
The best books on Superman’s historical origins are Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books, 2004) and Les Daniel’s Superman: The Complete History, the Life and Times of the Man of Steel (Chronicle Books, 1998). I’d also recommend the essay by Jules Pfeiffer on the Man of Steel that first appeared in The Great Comic Book Heroes (Bonanza Books, 1965). The Superman Chronicles, published by DC comics in 2006, is undoubtedly the cheapest means of reading the first nine adventures of Superman, all originally published in 1938 in Action Comics #1-9.
The best way to celebrate and appreciate Superman this year is to learn about him, how he came to be, and the struggles Siegel and Shuster endured early on and then throughout their careers to gain recognition and financial comfort for their immortal creation (legal battles still persist, unfortunately, but that’s a story for another day). It is a truly unique, unsettling, yet uplifting story of the American dream realized, sold away, and popularized; fraught with truth, hard feelings, justice, crass commercialism, and, in time, the better aspects of the American way.