Welcome to Panel Review 101 with your professor**, Mr. Braccino! Using his hyper-intellectual power of literary analysis and uncanny knack for identifying metaphors from any distance, Mr. B will take you through significant single issues, graphic novels, and any other category of comic worthy of a keen eye and critical consideration!!! For all those that believe that comics should be, can be, and often are more than just tights and onomatopoeiac fisticuffs, well, this here’s just the column for you!!!! Welcome True Believers, and let’s hope our little seminar in comics studies goes on and on and on!!!
**Disclaimer: Joey Braccino is not an actual professor, unless you count being a really, really hard-working public high school teacher as “professorial.” If that is the case, well, thank you for your kind words!!!
Today’s Topic: Action Comics #1
Objective: SWBAT close-read the debut of Superman through a careful analysis of the post-human imagery, gendered representation, and performance metaphor. SW also consider Siegel & Shuster’s presentation of a new dynamism in scripting and aesthetic.
Do Now: (Optional) Read Action Comics #1!!! It’s available at comixology.com for less than $1!!! You don’t have to, but, hey—why not? It is, after all, the comic that kicked off the Golden Age of those cape-wearing, superpower-wielding, mask-sporting tights-aficionados we so happily call Superheroes!!!
- Cover-dated June, 1938, Action Comics #1 hit the stands for National Allied Publications in April 18th, 1938. Then, the world changed forever.
- Five years earlier, creators Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and Joe Shuster, both at the ripe old age of 19, developed the idea for a telepathic supervillain who used his powers for supervillainy instead of supergood. This character’s name? Bill Dunn. But with his powers? I suppose he’s the “Superman” in the ominous title, “The Reign of the Superman.”
- Siegel and Shuster shop their idea around for a few years, producing short strips here and there, but they don’t really gain any traction until National Allied Publications needs another sci-fi superhero story for a new comics digest called Action Comics (a parallel to the wildly successful Detective Comics.).
- Fun Fact: Action Comics #1 also featured a supernaturally gifted character named Zatara, who would sire a the popular future Justice Leaguer, Zatanna!!!
- So anyway, Siegel and Shuster cobbled together the strips from their Supermen pitch and reworked them along with new material to produce the debut tale of a brand new character named Clark “Superman” Kent.
- Hilarity, and HISTORY, ensued.
Let’s take a look:
Despite adopting the Detective Comics initials for its name, DC Comics owes much of its superheroic philosophy to this initial Superman story in Action Comics #1. Under Siegel and Shuster’s storytelling direction, Superman’s debut juxtaposes feelings of terror and awe in its presentation of this new brand of post-human morality play.
It starts with the cover. Without opening the book—without having any prior knowledge of the character of Superman, what exactly does Shuster’s cover suggest about the story inside? Let’s break it down. First, in the foreground, a nameless, non-descript civilian (?) is running toward us. Next in the plane is the incredibly kinetic, incredibly violent image of a caped individual slamming a car into a rock. Behind this figure is dual image of fear: first, a man cowering dangerously close to flying debris and, second, another character fleeing for his life. Back to the caped figure; there is nothing, aside from the cape and tights and primary colored costume, to suggest that this character is the hero of the story. The imagery is violent: pieces of car flying about the page—meaning, no, Superman is not lifting this car off of and thereby saving the cowering character—and the background features a yellow and red wash reminiscent not of a shining halo but an explosion. Furthermore, the fleeing citizens are not adorned in the more traditional images of ne’er-do-well: zoot suits, fedoras, Tommy guns. These fleeing citizens aren’t even illustrated with the more recognizable marks of ne’er-do-wells: scars, Neanderthal-esque brows, claws. There aren’t even any potato sacks with dollar-signs drawn on to suggest these individuals were driving away from a crime scene!!!
So again, what is Shuster doing here? In his first appearance, without any context at all, Superman is surrounded by terrifying, terrible images of destruction and fear. Granted, we find out later that these fleeing men are hoodlums who have kidnapped Lois Lane (more on that later), but at this point, before even reading the story, what exactly are we supposed to believe about this character?
I return to our thesis: Shuster wants us to feel a sense a dread about this Superman, because he is post-human. Also suggested by the cover is that this Superman is more powerful than the automobile. The automobile—the revolutionary transportation device that allowed the individual to control his or her movement requisites—is no match for this Superman. I reiterate: the way the cover is staged, Superman isn’t saving anyone by lifting this car; Superman is not preventing another accident; Superman is not shaking out bags of diamonds. Superman is messing up that dude’s car because he’s Superman.
Superman transcends the human by overcoming the vehicle for the human’s individuality. This motif continues onto the next page, in which Siegel stages a montage sequence showcasing this new Superman’s history and powers.
After a brief panel informing readers that this Superman is not of this Earth, we are shown the following sequence of panels:
- It is revealed that baby Superman was picked up by a passing motorist after crashlanding on this planet and sent to an orphanage. Yes, at least in Action Comics #1, Superman is not rescued and raised by the Kents.
- An adorable baby Superman lifts a chair over his little adorable head. The facial expressions and body language of the doctor and nurse in the panel? Shock. Awe. Disbelief.
- A triple-paneled frame in which Superman leaps over skyscrapers, lifts steel bars, and runs faster than an express train. Remember all that metaphoric stuff with the automobile from a few paragraphs ago? Same applies here. Superman is stronger, faster, and not-phased-by these pinnacles of mankind’s ingenuity.
- “A Scientific Explanation” of Superman’s strength linking his feats of post-human prowess to the natural abilities of insects like ants and grasshoppers. Again, considering most sci-fi/fantasy tropes, insect and multi-legged animalistic imagery isn’t often associated with the protagonist. Remember, this predates our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, so this comparison really puts the alien qualities of Superman at the forefront.
Of course, Siegel promises that Superman has vowed to “turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind” and be the “champion of the oppressed.” Nevertheless, after the first two pages, we’re getting a very new, very different perspective on just what sort of champion this Superman is.
The action of the comic then sees Superman embark on three different missions in his superheroic tights and one hapless evening in his oafish guise of Clark Kent.
Interestingly, Superman’s first act of justice begins with an image of him leaping through the air carrying a bound and gagged woman. Superman is attempting to halt an execution of an innocent woman on death row by bringing the real culprit to the Governor’s mansion. The Governor’s ornery butler refuses to admit Superman and eventually pulls a gun (most ineffectively) on our hero. Siegel and Shuster subvert gender roles here, centering this first bit of the issue on a female criminal.
The second sequence sees Superman—via a tip from Clark Kent’s cover at The Daily Star—confront a domestic abuse case. When Superman confronts the abusive husband (the wife has been knocked out), the husband first attempts to stab Superman with a knife and, after the knife breaks, passes out cold. By juxtaposing these two scenes, we see that Superman subscribes to a gender-neutral brand of justice that identifies men and women capable of both good and evil. Siegel and Shuster also complicate the notion of the savage, overpowering male by diminishing both the knife-wielding husband and the gun-toting butler as they fail to even scratch the Superman.
At this point, Siegel and Shuster have carefully toed the line between fear and awe in their presentation of Superman. All of the characters respond with expressions of shock and dread as Superman demonstrates his, for lack of a better term, superiority. Despite his very obvious posturing and insistence on exerting this dominance on those in his way (he forcibly lifts the butler over his head and brings him upstairs to the Governor’s room), Superman’s though, are heroic: saving an innocent from mistaken execution, bringing the real culprit to justice, confronting an abusive husband.
This cavalier superiority manifests itself most shockingly in the final sequence of the story. Superman denies Clark Kent’s assignment to go to South America for the Daily Star and instead takes the next train to Washington, DC. The choice is jarring because Superman is operating on a hunch that a US Senator might be corrupt, with little to no evidence or support earlier in the story suggesting this might be the case. Nevertheless, the senator is proven to be engaging in backroom deals, so Superman confronts a sketchy, mustachioed Mafioso character and runs along electrical wires in order to threaten the man into talking. This Superman has the ability to lift, carry, coerce men and women into physically dangerous situations in order to elicit the means to justice.
While Superman is busy wielding his superiority to both bring about and pursue his own avenues of justice, the alter-ego Clark Kent is a hapless reporter head-over-heels for Lois Lane. Back to the issue of gender roles, this short sequence, in which Lois finally agrees to a date with Clark only to have their dance cut short by zoot-suit wearing antagonists, sees Ms. Lane challenge Clark’s masculinity and walk out on our oafish hero. However, it is important to note that Siegel includes a caption that says that “reluctantly, Kent adheres to his role of a weakling” when he allows Butch to cut in on his dance with Lois. So, if anything, Kent’s performance continues the motif of human—in this case, male—weakness. Superman could (and ultimately does in the next sequence) wield his super-dominance and take care of Butch, but he must play the role of the human and maintain his cover.
By the end of Action Comics #1, what should we believe about this new hero? If we take the recurring imagery of human inferiority and the post-human ability to transcend the individual, Superman should evoke feelings of both dread and awe. And this ultimately is the foundation of the DC Universe. Whereas the Marvel U under Stan Lee’s bullpen of creators will ultimately ground the superheroes in the “real world” and ground his characters in the flaws of humanity, Superman would be the first in a series of heroes—human and non-human alike—that would become the Super Gods of the DCU.