DC Comics History: Superman

  

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By Deejay Dayton
Mar 1, 2015 – 9:13

super___sup1.png

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.

super___sup1_001.png

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.

super__act17.png

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.

super___act1.png

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 very much like 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.

sup__act2.png

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.

super___sup1_002.png

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.

sup___act18.png

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.

***image9***

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.

super__act1.png

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.  

super___act9.png

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.

super___act6.png

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.

super___act7.png

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. 

super___act7_001.png

Although Curly is not seen again, in the Bronze Age sportscaster Steve
Lombard would be introduced, with a similar relationship with Clark.

super___act18.png

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.

super___act1_001.png

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.

super___act3.png

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.

sup___act1.png

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.

super___act13.png

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.  He 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.

super___act19.png

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.

super__act5.png

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.  

super__act5_001.png

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.

super__act6.png

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.

super__nywf39.png

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
Pavilion, 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)

Last Updated: Mar 1, 2015 – 9:20

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