Wednesday, December 03, 2008

COMIC-BOOK FLASHBACK # 14: Action Comics # 1 (June, 1938)

We all start somewhere, and the long-lived legend of Superman, the Man of Steel, begins right here, with Action Comics # 1, dated June of 1938. The comic -- which today is worth considerably more than its 1938 price-- sold originally for 10 cents.

Written by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, Action Comics # 1 introduces Superman as an infant. He arrives from a "distant planet" that has been destroyed "by old age." A scientist living there sent his son to Earth so the goy would survive the disaster. Once he arrives, the baby is discovered by "a passing motorist" and sent to "an orphanage."

When he "reaches maturity," Clark Kent/Superman devotes himself to fighting crime and becoming the "champion of the oppressed." The issue thoughtfully provides some statistics on Superman's powers at this early stage of his career: He can leap 1/8th of a mile, hurdle a 20 story building, and "nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin."

The comic is actually rather episodic, breezing through Superman's origin in a few frames, and then getting on immediately to crime-fighting business. Superman races to the governor's mansion (of Metropolis, presumably) and proves the innocence of a woman slated to die. He provides the governor the real criminal (tied and gagged) just in the nick of time.

This act causes a ruckus, and Clark's editor at the newspaper "The Daily Star" assigns him to cover this strange Superman character.

Later in the same comic, Superman combats a wife-beater ("You're not fighting a woman, now!") and rescues sexy Lois Lane from a thug she embarrassed at a night club. The issue ends with Superman exposing the corruption of Senator Barrows in Washington D.C.

Why feature this particular comic-book on my blog today? Well, first, I wanted to post about something older than I am, and it's my 39th birthday. So this fits the bill.

Secondly, Action Comics # 1 serves as a powerful reminder to me that all pop culture sci-fi/horror franchises evolve dramatically over time; nay that they must evolve if they are to speak powerfully to ensuing generations.

I mean just look at the details here again for a moment: Clark Kent works at the Daily Star not The Daily Planet, as we've come to know the Metropolis paper of record.

His planet of origin is not referred to by name (as Krypton), and furthermore, it dies of "old age" not some strange orbital calamity.

On top of that, Superman's powers are not the product of Earth's yellow sun. Quite to the contrary, Action Comics # 1 clearly establishes that all the people of Superman's planet shared his incredible strength because of a "physical structure millions of years advanced" of our own. The issue further specifies (in a side-bar called "A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION OF CLARK KENT'S AMAZING STRENGTH") that "upon reaching maturity" all those on Krypton "became gifted with Titanic Strength!"

That's not it either. Here, Superman isn't discovered and raised by the Kents...but rather found by a passerby and raised at a damn orphanage. And his strength...though much less than what we expect of the character today. I mean, this comic-book basically states flat out that an exploding bullet-shell would pierce his skin. It also limits the scale of his jumping ability, and his speed. No orbital joy rides for this Man of Steel, I guess...

I think there's something significant about all this.

If we are to take all of this data as literal, then absolutely every iteration of Superman in the ensuing decades in comic-book form, on film, and on television, is actually -- technically -- a "re-imagination" of the character. Maybe people should be nicer to Smallville, given where and how the mythos began.

I suppose my point (if I have one at all), is merely that James Bond, Batman, Star Trek and other such franchises change drastically across the decades, from conception to maturity. And over time,it is actually those "changes" that become the gospel.

As we ready ourselves for a re-imagined Star Trek movie in May 209, I'm going to keep Action Comics # 1 in mind. It originated the character of Superman; it started the ball rolling; but Superman as a character (and as a universe) matured and got better over time, across the years. It's possible that new iterations of our favorite legends -- even Star Trek -- will do the same.

And that's why both patience and optimism -- or at least cautious optimism -- is justified. At least until we can see the movie with our own eyes.


  1. Anonymous8:17 AM

    Lets see how you feel when The House Between gets re-imaginated.

  2. HA! Zots to you, whomever you are.

  3. Is "Re-imaginate" even a word? I love that!

  4. It would be interesting to know if there debates among fans in the 1940s as to which version of Superman is the "true" one, and if particular revisions to the character were misguided -- i.e., the same types of debates we fans now have over Battlestar and Star Trek -- or if this sort of thing is a far more recent development.

  5. I'd love to know the answer to that one, myself, Jason. I have a feeling -- but no facts -- that the Internet has played a major role in this type of debate. Not because it is bad or anything, but simply because it's the venue by which to bring so many fans together.