Friday, June 06, 2008

Action Comics #1

Seventy years ago, Action Comics #1 was published by Detective Comics, Inc. with a cover date of June 1938 (although it actually arrived on newsstands on April 18th). The lead story featured a mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent, a disguise for a strange visitor from another planet who became known to the world as Superman.

With that story, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, introduced the first superhero and ushered in the Golden Age of Comic Books. Their creation is one of the few comic book characters to never go out of publication. Despite that, the story of Siegel and Shuster is a sad one of being exploited and robbed by the corporation they sold their creation to, although recent judgments in favor of their heirs assures that some measure of justice will finally be done.

Prior to creating Superman, Siegel and Shuster created swashbuckler Henri Duval and supernatural crimefighter Doctor Occult for National Allied Publications, a corporate ancestor of DC, and tough guy detective Slam Bradley and spy Bart Regan for DC. After leaving DC in 1947, they created Funnyman for Magazine Enterprises, a company formed by Action Comics #1 editor Vin Sullivan. Nothing they did before or after Superman achieved the kind of unprecedented mass popularity that he did.

Siegel and Shuster's status as sons of Jewish immigrants is important to their creation. Kal-El (derived from Hebrew words that have been translated as "all that is G_d" or "voice of G_d") is an immigrant whose original home was destroyed by a great calamity, much as Jewish communities in Europe were being destroyed in the 1930s. In a new world and unable to return to the old one, he's given a new American-sounding name and does his best to succeed in his new community, a time honored immigrant's tale. Comic book creator and historian Will Eisner considered Superman a conceptual descendant of the mythic Golem, a mystical protector of the oppressed Jews of Prague. Similarities to the story of Moses have also been noted.

As first conceived by the duo when they were teenagers, Superman was a bald, megalomaniacal villain who bore a strong resemblance to his future arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor. Siegel eventually decided the character would make a better hero, one who would aid the downtrodden and oppressed. Superman in his early years was a liberal crusader against injustice, a "Champion of the Oppressed" as he was described on the very first page of Action Comics #1.

Superman's earliest opponents were lynch mobs, war profiteers, corrupt politicians, slum lords, greedy mine owners, and abusers of women, a marked contrast to the megalomaniacal supervillains, menaces from outer space, and the like that he later became associated with. In many ways, Superman was a child of the Great Depression and the New Deal, a champion of ordinary working class men and women.

Action Comics #1 also featured the first appearances of magician-hero Zatara, whose daughter Zatanna is more familiar today, and adventurer Tex Thomson. The latter was created by writer Ken Fitch and artist Bernard Baily, the team that would later create Hourman. In 1940, Baily collaborated with Siegel in the creation of the Spectre, bringing two key creators who worked on different stories in Action Comics #1 together. Much later, Baily's art studio was a starting point for future greats like Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Frank Frazetta.

Action Comics #1 is well-deserving of its exalted place in comic book history.

If anyone wants to read Action Comics #1, scanned images from a low-grade copy are online here.

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