Superman was like nothing ever seen before in comics. Not just because he was a super-powered alien who fought crime, the rampant success of the character was unheard of. In a little over a year after his first appearance, Superman became the regular cover feature on Action Comics, changing forever the way covers were done, he had spun off into newspaper serials, and most ground-breaking of all, had been rewarded with his own comic book. The first issue simply reprinted his first four stories in Action Comics (with an additional six pages for the debut tale), and the following two issues were a mix of reprints and recut newspaper stories.
It was the crowning achievement for Siegel and Shuster, and unlike their other series from the era, Shuster would stay on Superman until his eye problems forced him to retire. Shuster had an amazing skill at making the outrageous look commonplace. None of Superman’s powers would have been impressive if the art had made them laughable.
Because the first six pages were missing from his debut tale, there was no real origin given for Supeman until those were printed in Superman 1. In Action Comics 1 we simply learn that he was sent off in a rocket by his scientist father from a planet that died “of old age”, landed on Earth, and was briefly in an orphanage. In Superman 1 we learn that the planet’s name was Krypton, get to see the rocket in more detail (it’s the one from Slam Bradley), and see that it landed in a farmer’s field. He is found by an elderly couple, the Kents, who bring him to an orphanage, then return to adopt him.
He has powers from the very beginning, and we see the Kents lecture and train the young boy in using them well.
In these early days, Superman cannot fly. He can leap great distances – an eighth of a mile is cited in the first story, and we see him jump over tall buildings. While at first he crashes into the sidewalk when he lands, sending concrete flying, within a few issues he is able to land on a window ledge, and also able to execute turns and rolls while in the air. He often moves from place to place by running on phone wires.
He is extremely strong, able to stop a train, hold up a bridge, and lift an elephant, and nothing seems to be able to injure him. Text refers to “nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin.” We don’t see that put to the test, but he withstands clubs, bullets, even a buzz saw without pain.
He can run faster than a train, and swim faster than a ship. He can also spend an extended time underwater, not needing to breathe. He is also resistant to illness.
His x-ray vision and super-hearing are used only in a couple of the stories at this time. In others, he hangs from the outside of buildings, hides behind furniture, even listens on a phone extension to spy on others. His x-ray vision is referred to in issue 11, and in issue 18 is shown for the first time. We see beams leave his eyes (much the way heat vision would later be shown), and a wall become semi-transparent, so he can see the people talking inside.
In the extended version of the first story, we see young Clark come to the Daily Star, applying to editor George Taylor for a job, and getting one by the end of the story, the scoop on Superman. George Taylor is clearly older than Clark, but not by much, and looks like he would do well in a bar brawl.
Lois Lane is already working at the newspaper. She writes advice to the lovelorn, while longing for real newspaper work. She is willing to risk her life for a story, but also thinks nothing of lying to Clark to steal a story out from under him. After a couple of rescues, she realizes she has fallen in love with Superman. Clark has fallen for her, and even takes her out on a date, but to preserve his secret identity he acts like a coward, and she has nothing but contempt for him. When Clark first learns of Lois’s feelings for Superman he has to go off and laugh to himself.
In Action 6 and Superman 3 there is a young blond office boy. He is not named, but retroactively these are considered the first appearances of Jimmy Olsen.
Action 7 introduces another staffer at the Daily Star, Curly. Curly is a loudmouth braggart and a prankster, with Clark as his victim. At the conclusion of the tale, Clark uses his powers to get revenge on Curly. Although Curly is not seen again, in the Bronze Age sportscaster Steve Lombard would be introduced, with a similar relationship with Clark.
There was a rival newspaper to the Daily Star in issue 18, the Morning Herald. The Herald is shown as a sleazy rag, willing to ruin a senator’s reputation in order to sell papers, while the Daily Star represents responsible journalism
Although he had the cover of Action Comics #1, and the lead spot was his without exception, Superman would not be featured exclusively on the covers until the end of the period. Most covers had just the generic actions scenes common to all books. In issue 12, a cover that featured Zatara has a small circle on it, mid-cover, with an image of Superman bursting through chains and a small logo. This circle would be moved into the upper left corner with issue 16, and would eventually become the DC Bullet.
Superman’s costume was largely the same from the start as it is now, the biggest difference being the crest. In most panels, it is not clear at all that there is meant to be a “S” in the crest, as it is triangular, and relatively small. But then, in many stories from this era Superman is not in costume for much of the time. He is just as likely to go in disguise as a worker or an athlete as he is don the cape and tights.
Superman is also fairly ruthless in pursuing his goals. He throws criminals in the air or off of buildings to extract confessions, causes a mine collapse to trap wealthy partiers who do not appreciate the risk miner’s face, drugs and imprisons an innocent man to facilitate taking his place to outwit gamblers, and tears down an entire slum to force the city to build decent housing.
The police are obliged to hunt him down, but are not for the most part too concerned about doing this, even the police commissioner is on Superman’s side. Metropolis is his home base from the start, but we learn little about the city, simply that is has a lot of really tall buildings.
Superman is ‘the friend of the helpless and oppressed.” Most of the stories from this era see him dealing with concepts of social justice – wife abuse, underprivileged children, workplace safety, and reckless driving would all be featured in these early tales. He faced off against gangsters, gamblers and thieves, but in one story, about dangerous driving, he went after used car dealers, corrupt police, shoddy manufacturers and lobbyists.
He did get his first major villain in these tales, though, the Ultra-Humanite. This bald mad scientist debuted running a cab protection scam, and Superman defeated him without too much effort, but the Ultra-Humantie returned for two more battles, once being behind shoddy bridge construction, and finally releasing a deadly purple plague on the city. Hr briefly captures Superman using an “electric gun,” but stupidly ties him up to a sawmill buzz saw, which sends broken bits of metal flying dangerously around the room when the blade makes contact with Superman. His mind-control device fails entirely, and when the electric gun explodes, it appears the Ultra-Humanite has died. He didn’t, and returns in the Early Golden Age, but so would one of his assistants. In the first two Ultra-Humanite stories, among the people he has working for him there is a red-haired man. He is not named, or ever shown clearly. The best panel we get of him is when the sawmill blades are flaying around and one almost cuts him. In the “Generations” mini-serieses (not a word, but I’m going to be using it a fair amount), John Byrne makes this man Lex Luthor, and I have to agree. Fits well with my earlier Lex Luthor appearance in Radio Squad.
So much of this era is very unlike what Superman would become, both in powers and in the way the stories were told, but one issue, Action Comics 5, would have the essence of the Superman “format” to come. George Taylor intends to send Clark out to cover the possible collapse of the Valleyho Dam, but Lois wants the story and lies to Clark, sending him off on a story that doesn’t exist. Clark discovers the ruse, heads to Valleyho as Superman, deals with the dam collapse and saves Lois’ life. Lois returns to file her story, only to discover that Clark has already given his to the editor.
There is a remarkably prescient story in Action 6, dealing with merchandising the Superman image. They really do try to take it to a preposterous degree, but history has done them better.
Superman appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, even making a cover appearance (though his hair was blond, so it doesn’t much look like him.) As Clark he is assigned to cover the Fair, and he manages to get Lois assigned to it as well, though of course she shows no gratitude. As Superman he helps construct the Infantile Paralysis Pavillion, and while touring the Marine Transportation Exhibit with Lois, they come across fugitive Nick Stone. At the end of the story, after Stone is apprehended, there is a lovely panel of Superman with Lois in his arms, and fireworks going off in the background.
There were no actual guest appearances by other characters in the series, but both Batman and Sandman would have teasers for their upcoming series at the end of Superman stories. The one for Batman makes Action Comics # 12 the real first appearance of the character, but as the Sandman had already debuted in New York World’s Fair, the teaser was technically his second appearance.
Superman continues in the Early Golden Age
Superman: Action Comics 1 – 19 (June 38 – Dec 39)
New York World’s Fair 1939
Superman 1 – 3 (Summer – Winter 39)