Friday, December 02, 2011

On the Importance of Action # 1

I never met Jerry Siegel but I almost did. I was 29 years old and Superman’s creator was supposed to be a guest at a comic book convention I was attending. I had naively brought along my earliest issue of SUPERMAN for him to sign, unbeknownst to me from the period where he and his co-creator, artist Joe Shuster, had been banned from DC for filing legal motions against them. I’ve never really been into autographs, though. I just wanted to thank the man in person. He wasn’t the best comics writer ever, on the Man of Steel or THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES or on FUNNYMAN or THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS or THE SPIDER or THE STARLING. He wasn’t the most original, he wasn’t the most literate, he wasn’t the most creative. What he WAS, though, was the man who created Superman…and you’re not. Neither Stan Lee, Al Feldstein, Robert Kanigher, Harvey Kurtzman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Mark Waid or even Carl Barks created Superman. Jerry Siegel did.

Contrary to what some folks think, Siegel and Shuster were already working regularly in comics by the time of ACTION COMICS # 1. They had appeared in a few Dell Comics issues a couple of years earlier in fact but the pair mainly held court at Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s National Allied. Their FEDERAL MEN was the most popular strip in NEW ADVENTURE COMICS. DOCTOR OCCULT by Jerry and Joe was getting the most fan letters in MORE FUN COMICS. SLAM BRADLEY and SPY were both running in DETECTIVE COMICS. In their other features, they sometimes snuck in names and concepts from the unsold, seemingly abandoned SUPERMAN feature they had created six years earlier.

But comic books weren’t doing all that well in general. In an era of sometimes literally cutthroat distribution, the Major just wasn’t able to make a go of it in spite of the success of the Siegel and Shuster strips he was running. In a much more complicated move than it sounds, his publishing company was taken over completely by his printer/distributors and renamed after the most successful comic book title to date, Detective Comics, Inc. They decided to expand the line with ACTION COMICS, yet another generic anthology title for a dime. In spite of the fact that they were perhaps already over-extended, it was probably a given that the new title would have to have a Jerome Siegel/Joe Shuster strip!

Somebody (variously verified to be Sheldon Mayer, Max Gaines, Vin Sullivan, Whitney Ellsworth or someone else) convinced the powers that be, most likely based as much on the pair’s popularity as anything else, to finally buy SUPERMAN as that new strip.

Had nothing changed, they were still being underpaid for as popular as their work was on ALL their strips. But since something DID change, quickly, they became the poster boys for victims, even as they thought they were enjoying success!

I doubt it’s really possible to overestimate the importance of that first issue of ACTION COMICS to the comic book industry and to 20th Century pop culture. But it wasn’t published in a vacuum and, quite frankly, other than SUPERMAN, there wasn’t anything the least bit memorable in it. It was pretty much the same mix of undistinguished TERRY & THE PIRATES ripoffs, dull and badly drawn cowboy stories and mildly amusing cartooning that featured in the other three titles published by the company.

It was the timing. The end of the Depression. The beginning of the War. And the fact that the distributors allowed ACTION COMICS # 1 on the stands now that the cagey, and somewhat shady, Harry Donenfeld was running things.  People actually saw Superman. Comics fans recognized the familiar, clean art style. Then they recognized some of their own wish-fulfillment. Like Superman, they wished they could stand up to the bullies, even as they shied away from girls. They showed it around to their friends and their older brothers. As the war moved closer, the older brothers unexpectedly became the market for comic books which sold a million copies a month with patriotism and good ol’ American propaganda!

Within a year after Superman’s debut, dozens of comic book companies had arisen, each with more specialized and more colorful costumed heroes, combining, just as Jerry Siegel had, elements of pulps and science-fiction and just plain personal fantasies. The thing is…none of them were Superman. There’s just something about being the first.

DC had the pair concentrated on new Superman stories, quickly providing the character with his own magazine in a totally unprecedented move. Shuster had had to take on assistants and set up a studio. They also were expected to pay any assistants themselves out of their DC checks. They were kept so busy that eventually DC started creating SUPERMAN stories without them. In spite of the realities of publishing and the fact they knew they had sold their character to the company, this didn’t sit well with the duo and would eventually lead to their taking legal action to regain some rights to the character.

While all this was going on, copies of ACTION # 1 were no doubt being donated to wartime paper drives along with much other ephemera of the day. Others ended up stuffed in drawers and cabinets or mixed in with stacks of other old comics to be tucked away in attics. A few were perhaps purposely kept as enjoyable memories of childhood.

Over the years, Superman cartoons and serials and radio shows and toys and TV shows and costumes and other merchandising added to the legend. Siegel and Shuster’s personal stories veered off into sadly unfair directions as their character took on a life of his own that was bigger than the boys from Cleveland but also bigger than DC Comics.

Superman still represents an ideal to many people in this world—an ideal of doing what’s right just because it IS what’s right and yet retaining both humility and humanity.

As a comics collector for 45 years I GET the collector mentality. I GET the “Gotta catch ‘em all,” Pokemon aspect of the hobby. Thus I understand why someone might WANT the debut of Superman in ACTION COMICS # 1. That said, the recent buyer for more than two million dollars will never see anything but the cover in its slab. He can’t open it or read it or smell it or in any way relive the feeling of discovering superhero fantasies for the very first time. It’s an important book. It’s THE most important and collectible book in the hobby of comic book collecting. Without ACTION COMICS # 1, there probably wouldn’t even have been a comic book industry for much longer.

That said, and with all due respect to the buyer who undoubtedly has more money than common sense, that is an outrageous and asinine amount to pay for ACTION COMICS # 1!! If you really cared about it for the right reasons—for Superman—and you had that much money to throw away, don’t you think that money might have been better spent on helping people in some way? You know…like Superman. Or did we all learn the wrong lessons from Jerry Siegel?


  1. Well put.

    When you read those earliest Superman stories, there's no doubt he'd be on the side of the 99%.

    Later on, not so much.

    Rip Off

  2. well said, that man. couldn't agree with you more. it's a very important distinction I draw between myself and almost everybody else I know who buys comics: I am NOT a comic collector, I am a comic READER. I have never, and I will never, bag & board a comic. don't care how much it's worth, don't care how old it is - if I can't just pick it up and flip through it whenever the mood takes me to, I'm not interested. I understand the mentality of collectors, and I'm cool with it, but two million plus for a comic is obscene.

  3. Absolutely brilliant piece of writing Steve, entertaining, informative and thought provoking.

    Many thanks!