The Superman of today and the Superman that first appeared in 1938 are very different characters. While some of the important stuff is in place—Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and the tights—one of the more well-known bits of Superman trivia is that most of the stuff strongly associated with Superman didn’t come along until later. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly, he didn’t have heat vision or freeze breath. (To be fair, a lot of modern Superman stories are strangely embarrassed by that power for some reason.) And much of what becomes familiar hasn’t quite taken its final form yet: Krypton and Metropolis are both unnamed, The Daily Planet is The Daily Star.
Oh, and Superman is a total prick.
Want to take a look for yourself? This week, Certified Guaranteed Company (CGC), a company that specializes in grading comic book quality for collectors looking to appraise their collections, posted a high quality scan of a 9.0 (Very Fine/Near Mint on a 10-point scale) copy of Action Comics #1, the very first superhero comic book. It’s also the most valuable comic book in the world, having sold for $3,207,852.00.
Reading the book is absolutely fascinating—largely because the very first Superman story is barely coherent. Superman is racing to the Governor’s home, in order to prove that a woman scheduled to be executed in the morning is actually innocent. Afterwards, we meet Clark Kent, who bemoans the fact that Lois Lane doesn’t notice him, though he manages to score a date with her. However, Kent is summarily embarrassed by a bunch of goons who cut in—he has to maintain his cover, you see—and of course, Lois thinks he’s spineless. But then she’s taken hostage and Superman saves her. There’s a whole mess of Freudian undertones happening here.
Almost immediately after Superman takes care of the goons, the story cuts to The Daily Star, where Clark announces he has to go to Washington for some reason. Turns out Superman is very much against corrupt lobbyists, and pretty much takes one of them for a ride, leaping all over town to terrify the guy into changing his mind about pushing for a bill to go through. What the bill is about, we’re never told.
The story then ends on a bizarre cliffhanger: Superman is dragging this lobbyist all over our nation’s capitol, scaring him half to death, and abruptly announces that he missed his mark in the middle of one of his giant leaps. Superman’s last words: “Doggone it.”
It’s easy to write this off as all very silly—it might even be mind-boggling to think that this fluffy, strange, nonsensical story is in fact one of the most historic narratives of the last hundred years. What Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did in those first few pages of Action Comics #1 was the beginning of a brand new genre that wouldn’t just result in today’s superhero movie boom, but a wealth of stories inspired by comics, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The funny thing about Action Comics #1 is that it’s not just a Superman story. If you want to get a good sense of how different Superman was, just flip past those first few pages—you’ll find other stories featuring characters like Zatara, Master Magician, boxer Pep Morgan, and Scoop Scanlon, Five Star Reporter. Everything was about to change, and nobody had a clue.