In 2013, DC Comics produced a hardcover in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Superman, the first of what became an entire line of anniversary hardcovers in tribute to their wide catalog of superheroes…I mean, just a few months ago, I got my hands on the book celebrating Two-Face’s 75th Anniversary! So you know everybody is getting in on the fun.
To say fans were unhappy with that initial offering focused on comics’ first super-powered adventurer is an understatement. It was a book filled with dour, mopey Superman tales that seemed to alarmingly line-up more with the portrayal as made evident within the then contemporary Man of Steel feature film. Hardly the celebration the character and his mythos warrant. In fact, the diamond jubilee of Clark Kent came and went without a moment that felt a worthy tribute to the character, short of perhaps the Superman Unchained miniseries that paired their hottest writer and their biggest artist.
But five years later, and with the arrival of Action Comics #1000 – which Alex will touch on tomorrow in his review – there’s a bit more excitement in the air. How could there not be? It’s the first American superhero comic to reach one-thousand issues – a whole lot of people you know are going to run out and pick up a copy. It’s going to be huge, and suitably, DC produced a companion hardcover this past week to properly mark the occasion. While it has a a couple of new and “new” contributions, this is a tome that firmly has its eyes on Superman’s publishing past, specifically notable stories within the pages of Action Comics over the past 80 years. Given the sheer breadth of material for a comic that has been consistently published in varying forms since the late 1930’s, trying to compile a definitive round-up of stories is near impossible. Yet, I think they’ve done a remarkably solid job here of picking and choosing tales of the Man of Tomorrow that are representative of the respective eras in which he’s weathered – even on the occasions in which Action was not exactly the lead book of the line in comparison to its sister Superman series.
More than anything, this is a book where I think the real value is in how, between contextual text pieces by various contributors and the selections themselves, provide a sense of time and place regarding not only the creators behind the character and his supporting cast, but also in how comics storytelling was approached in each instance…let’s take a quick look, so you can get a sense of what I mean:
- After a pair of intros by Paul Levitz and Laura Siegel Larson that set the stage and then a particularly good breakdown of the non-Superman contents of Action Comics #1 by Jules Feiffer, which I found quite valuable since so little of that extra material has seen reprint; the book quickly moves into the first two Superman stories (from Action #1 and #2) by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I’ve read them numerous times in my life, but it remains remarkable to me how wild and wooly their version of Superman is, particularly when he’s carting around a lobbyist and scaring the bejesus out of him by running top of powerlines and jumping from building to building.
- The book also reproduces the entire first appearance of Zatara by Fred Guardineer. It’s not a particularly good comic by any stretch, I literally fell asleep while trying to read it, but it does serve as a point of defining just how unique and powerful Siegel and Shuster’s work was by comparison. I believe I read somewhere that those early Superman stories were actually cut and pasted together, and pulled from other original ideas they were working on in order to get published, and it rather reads that way. But they had to start somewhere, and it’s quite fun to see a form get invented right before your eyes.
- Following that first jolt of the character, we then segue into the World War II and post-war era of the industry, and while that conflict isn’t particularly touched upon (Author Tom DeHaven contributes a valuable piece to provide background on Superman as a Depression/New Deal-infused hero), we are “treated” to the first appearance of The Vigilante who also made his debut in Action Comics. It’s not exactly a sterling example of Golden Age Western adventure, but given Mort Weisinger’s impact on the character in the years that followed, it’s fitting that he’d have a writing credit in these pages. Also, I still laugh that somehow, every single cowpoke can whip out a guitar and just start serenading without any trouble. Plus Mort Meskin! Never forget Mort Meskin!
- The debut of the Toyman follows from Action Comics #64, and already you can see how the crude lines of Superman’s initial appearances are giving way to a smoother, more barrel chested form. He’s not quite “Superdad” yet, but he’s now a full-fledged American patriot at the very least. It’s interesting to note how Don Cameron and Ed Dobrotka are not credited on the issue itself, as was common in those days, as instead the only names promoted up-front were Siegel and Shuster’s. I’m not sure if Cameron and Dobrotka were ghosting, or if there was a publishing agreement to keep Superman’s creators names on the masthead…but it’s certainly a testament to their star-power at the time.
- Much has been ballyhooed about the unpublished Siegel and Shuster tale that Marv Wolfman furnished for this production, though when you read his actual essay before it, no one is actually sure if either creator was involved with the story or not. I don’t have a great eye to identify Shuster’s line in this era, but the dialogue certainly reads like Siegel’s. It’s perfectly pleasant, and it’s fun to see raw pencils and inks in a comic from this timeframe.
- After a David Hajdu piece on the importance of Clark Kent and Lois Lane as historical points of inspiration within journalism, we move fully into the Silver Age with some great Wayne Boring and Curt Swan art. The Boring + Jerry Coleman collaboration in Action #241 shows up here, with the first appearance of the Fortress of Solitude. I’m glad there’s at least one example of Boring’s redefinition of Superman here, given his own impact on the daily strip and the visual evolution of the character during the 50’s that really had its start with him. And then comes Otto Binder.
- The truth of the matter is, when we discuss Superman’s most impactful creators, we probably don’t mention Otto Binder anywhere near enough. But after Fawcett mopped the floor with DC in sales with their Captain Marvel, they decided the best way to capture that same creative spark was to enlist the writer of their hated rival. And man oh man, so many of the things we love most about the character came during his tenure. Here we get a few Binder penned tales such the first battle between Superman and Brainiac (Action #242) and the debut of Supergirl (Action #252), both teaming him with Al Plastino. The imagination on display, particularly in the former story, is basically occupies a big chunk of what I think of when I ponder definitive Superman storytelling.
- Author Larry Tye provides an essay on how Superman has endured these 80 years when so many of the same creations that were birthed around the same time have vanished from the cultural landscape. And then we get a two-part Jerry Siegel/Jim Mooney Supergirl story, when Siegel was back at the publisher as a freelancer. We return to Siegel when he had fallen upon pretty hard times, and just one year away from being hired as a proofreader for Marvel. A tragic turn of events for the man who basically co-created an entire genre. It remains one of the great injustices of the industry. The Supergirl story he’s a part of here (Action #285) is serviceable, but Siegel…based on this, the Legion stories I’ve read, and his quick cup of coffee at Marvel, never really seemed quite at home with the storytelling style of this era. But I’m glad it’s here for representational purposes.
- And then comes Curt Swan. What can really be said? It’s the definitive Superman artist. And he gets two stories here, one Silver – teamed with Legion vet Edmond Hamilton and the other Bronze, with the great Superman scribe Cary Bates. Honestly, I wish they had chosen a more representative story than the former (Action #309), which is basically Superman on a “This Is Your Life” type program. It’s fun to a degree, and gives Swan a ton of characters to draw…which is probably the reason it was chosen, but I would have personally rather seen one of the imaginary stories make the cut – or just something with a little more excitement at all. That’s it’s the second straight story, in this very book, where JFK makes a cameo certainly underlines the fascination with his presidency that permeated all facets of American culture at that time. Given the month of publication, this must have come just a few months after his assassination. The Bates-written (Action #484) tale is a lot more my cup of tea, and centers on the Superman of Earth-2, the only time we get to visit with this concept. It’s neat to have examples of the 14 year difference in Swan’s own evolution as a storyteller to reference to just a few page flips away, where the more staid approach of his Silver Age layouts give way to more dynamic panel work and action in the 70’s.
- In between the two, acting like a harbinger of what’s to come, is the first appearance of The Human Target. Largely inessential stuff, but very representative of its time, and another one of those stories that I’m glad is here just to showcase the variety of characters that have occupied this landmark title.
- From there, it’s all Dark Age/Modern Age, whatever you want to call it. I’m happy to note that these stories don’t actually occupy the bulk of this book as is typical of a lot of collections of this type, and DC even pulls a surprising move by only featuring one Byrne story (Action #584 – the one with the Teen Titans), though admittedly their hands were a bit tied since his only Action Comics work was the team-up stories, which are great reads, but the generally less impactful comics of his revamp. Just ahead of that is the Marv Wolfman/Gil Kane meta-tribute to Siegel and Shuster from Action #554, “If Superman Didn’t Exist”. Even long after they had left Superman behind creatively, their presence is still felt.
- And post-Byrne, right after a really sweet little bit of cartooning concentrating on the immigrant experience of Kal-El by Gene Luen Yang; the line-up veers into Roger Stern, the chief Action writer of the 90’s and one of the big superhero workhorses of that era, with Action #662. Clark reveals his true identity to Lois, maybe still the most impactful Superman comic in terms of continuity these past 25-some odd years. It lead them down a road of marriage and family anyway, which is the very status quo we’re in now.
- Lastly, the book comes to a close with a trio of stories from Joe Kelly (and a huge line-up of artists I’m not going to list here), Grant Morrison and Ben Oliver, and Paul Levitz and Neal Adams. The Levitz-Adams short is the other new comic made especially for this publication. It’s fine, basically just an excuse to have Adams drawing Superman breaking out of chains again. Surprisingly, it’s the only story where Lex Luthor pops in for a scheme at all. But the Kelly contribution is the full issue of Action #800, still as awesome as ever. I’ve long held that we undervalued the creative teams that were on those books at the time, the whole Man of Action crew (Kelly, Steven Seagle, Joe Casey, etc)…DC, get to putting those books back into print! I want that no-punch Superman in my collection again.
- And for the Morrison example, Action #0 as always. To be honest, I’ve never been as over the moon for this one, and would have maybe preferred the Gene Ha-drawn Action #9, which to me is still the stand-out, standalone story of his tenure. I mean look, if the Human Target gets to make a cameo in here, President Superman deserves an appearance.
I don’t know how you close out a 2000+ word description of a compilation hardcover like this, other than to say, it’s a nicely balanced work and clearly a labor of love in its curation with a strict focus on where everything we love about Superman got its start…from the minds of two Depression-era kids from Cleveland. Combine this with your reading of Action Comics #1000 this week, and you’ll cap off a perfect celebration of the original (and best) superhero.