Reign of the Supermen #1: The Original Superman

Source: Action Comics #1 (1938)
Type: The real deal (since retconned)This is where it all began...

Many of the elements are here: He came from another planet as a child. As the cowardly weakling Clark Kent, he works as a reporter. Lois Lane can't stand him, but may fall for Superman. He has fantastic strength, speed and toughness.

But there are differences too: Clark has to take his own pictures (no Jimmy). He was placed in an orphanage where he first showed his amazing strength. His costume lacks the red boots... not that he wears it a lot. Many of the original stories had Superman go undercover and sometimes never even don the spandex. I guess he wasn't sure it would fly. (cough, cough) Speaking of costumes, the cover is the only appearance of that particular design. Instead of a triangle, the S is in a policeman's badge, and he has little red booties.

And of course, he has far fewer powers than he ultimately will. He can "leap 1/8 of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building... raise tremendous weights... run faster than an express train... and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!" Siegel will punch this up later. For now, it's all very reasonable.
See? Science.

I'm also struck by how adult the first Superman story is (or half-story, it ends in a cliffhanger). There's this lobbyist fronting for European powers paying off corrupt politicians, and women being threatened with sexual violence.

One thing was for sure, things would never be the same. The story ends with a rather prophetic blurb before Action gives the rest of its page count over to cowboys, magicians, athletes, (other) reporters, and... Marco Polo!
For comics, there was no character more influential.

7 comments:

De said...

I read the first 80 issues of the Golden Age Superman stories over the summer and was astonished that he was primarily facing gangsters and other fairly common criminals. Also interesting was that Luthor (who didn't even rate a first name back then) was pretty much a second-rate version of the Ultra-Humanite.

Matthew Turnage said...

I love the early Superman material, particularly the pre-war stuff where he was manhandling slum lords and wifebeaters, and shutting down grafters and racketeers. It's hard to make that type of story work today, but it really taps into the power fantasy aspect of superheroes when the type of evil and injustice we experience everyday is given its just desserts in such a manner.

Siskoid said...

Yes it's intertesting to see the character unfettered by the trapping of the genre... because the genre doesn't exist yet!

I'm reminded of Doctor Who's infinitely more varied and even experimental early stories before they thought of it as a format.

Anonymous said...

The thing that gets me is how Superman was originally a pumped-up version of Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. They even had their own Fortresses of Solitude. So if there is a genre that Kal-L originally hailed from, I guess it's pulp.

I like the "super-humans on Krypton" explanation well enough, and it stuck around in the comics for a good decade or so. Of course Superman's Kryptonian abilities were creeping upward all that time, so by about 1950, Superman was powerful enough that Krypton's explosion would have been a mere inconvenience to any of its inhabitants. In matters of theology I prefer to reconcile conflicting beliefs where possible, and so I have come to this: in the Earth-2 universe, a trait of super-evolved humanity was the ability to absorb and channel various radiations, and it just so happens that Kryptonians can (with time) acclimate themselves to yellow sun radiation with unexpectedly potent results. I think everyone from John Calvin to the Pope can be happy with that explanation.

P.S. Captain Marvel was flying first. The Big Red Cheese 4 Ever!

David H. said...

i do like it when the writers have come up with "scientific" explanations for superpowers. when it's at least somewhat plausible it does make the characters feel a bit more true to life and who doesn't think that is cool huh?

David H. said...

there's a show called "1000 Ways to Die" which is about all the weird ways people have managed to get themselves killed. in one case a there was a woman who was so desperate to loose wait show swallowed a tape worm larvae. apparently a tape worm manages to survive in your digestive tract by generating an electrical field to protect it from the digestive acids. i think they've come up with some sort of rationale how some superheros clothing never seems to get messed up accept for maybe a cape or jacket.

Teebore said...

These early Superman stories really are a great example of "comics as wish fulfillment".

It's pretty cool how abashedly progressive he is at this point.

 

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