Most people have a wholesome view of the first Superman comics, however, reading Action Comics #1 again, you’ll be surprised to find a much darker tale.
The Golden Age of comic book heroes was, without a doubt, a whole different world when it came to portraying superheroes. Some of the most iconic characters in pop culture barely resemble their original incarnations, back when comic books cost 10 cents a piece and were deemed even less valuable than cheap pulp novels.
Still, the 1930s saw the origin of many of today’s greatest heroes, including one that is still considered the ideal archetype of what a “Superhero” should be. Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938 forever changed the rules of the game for the comic book industry, beginning a worldwide phenomenon that is still alive and well almost a hundred years later.
When we think of these early superhero stories, we think of characters like Spider-Man or Captain America fighting against low-rank bank robbers or stopping some thieves from nabbing valuable diamonds from a museum – but Superman, even in his first foray into comic book heroism, was already an unstoppable menace for all sorts of crooks and miscreants.
Superman’s story in Action Comics #1 begins with the Kryptonian (who was still from an unnamed alien planet at the time) seemingly rescuing a damsel in distress in the opening pages of the comic. However, things suddenly take an unexpectedly dark turn a few pages later, when we learn that the Man of Steel was actually bringing a murderer to the Mayor’s residence, demanding that he spare an innocent woman that’s about to be executed by electric chair.
The implication that Supes just left a killer on the Mayor’s lawn in hopes that they fry the real killer this time is dark enough for a nineties comic book, but just imagine how it must have been for people in the 30s. Action Comics #1 paints a completely different picture of who Superman was going to be – but, don’t worry, it gets worse.
After his brief midnight stint at the Mayor’s house, Superman is then seen as his alter-ego, Clark Kent, working at the Daily Star. That’s right: in 1938, Clark was already working as a journalist, but the Daily Planet wasn’t mentioned in Superman’s first appearance. What was included was Clark/Superman’s iconic love interest, Lois Lane. There’s also a brief scene when Superman rescues a woman who is being beaten by her husband, only for her to pass away in shock after seeing Superman’s tough skin breaking a knife.
In Action Comics #1, Lane isn’t impressed by Clark’s meekness; on the contrary, she gives him a chance to take her out, only for her to be abducted by a group of thirties gangsters. Of course, Superman would not have any of it, and he quickly rescues Lois from the gangsters’ car, not before smashing said automobile against some rocks in one of the most iconic panels in comic book history.
Supes’ next adventure includes a corrupt politician and some tip-toeing over high-voltage power lines, but, by now, it seems like we’ve made it abundantly clear that Superman was as much of a madman as he was a superhero in Action Comics #1.
Maybe that was the reason why the Man of Steel proved to be a success so fast with the eager comic book readers of the time. Action Comics is an anthology publication, after all, and none of the stories published in Action Comics #1 rival Superman’s first appearance in terms of unbridled energy and the sense of superhero grandeur.
A year later, in 1939, the Bat-Man (his name was hyphenated in his first appearance) would make his debut in the pages of Detective Comics #27, laying the groundwork for what was to become DC Comics. If you thought that the Golden Age of comic books only featured goody-two-shoes as protagonists, then you should probably give the early run of Action Comics a read.
For the longest time, DC fans have argued that Zack Snyder’s vision for the character was too dark. Perhaps they think the same of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster‘s introduction to Superman in Action Comics #1.