With the recent release of the landmark one thousandth issue of Action Comics last week, the comics community is abuzz with Superman Fever. It’s a great time to celebrate the founding father of the comics industry and to be reminded why Superman is the most iconic and enduring figure in all of American pop culture.
Superman has transcended from one medium to become something that exists all on his own, with his lore ingrained in our culture. Lois and Clark are as accessible a reference for romance as Romeo and Juliet and there’s no stand-in for a person’s weakness used more frequently than being described as their “kryptonite.” Something like that only happens when the icon in question has widespread appeal, cultural relevance, and the ability to adapt to resonate with the time period.
You can relive that journey in fast-forward with DC’s recent release of Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman, The Deluxe Edition. The lovingly-assembled collection features reprints of 21 different stories, almost all of which come from the pages of Action Comics, with one notable exception that earns its place in the volume without any question. Focusing of course on Superman, the collection also branches out to other iconic characters born in the pages of Action, such as Supergirl and Zatara. Inevitably, telling this many Superman stories guarantees appearances from his extended list of iconic side characters, from Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to Krypto and the Legion of Superheroes.
These stories, ranging from fun and swashbuckling to emotional and heartfelt are periodically broken up by essays contributed by some of the industry’s best and brightest scholars and creators. These two-page discussions on the Man Of Steel are interesting and heartfelt across the board and serve to add a lot of depth and context to the stories surrounding them.
After an introduction by Paul Levitz, who has had just about every job at DC you could think of and served as the company’s president for 7 years, Laura Siegel Larson—the daughter of Jerry Siegel, and thus technically Superman’s step-sister—gives a touching foreword. She tells a story about her father as a young man, bursting with imagination and desperate to create something meaningful. After that is the first essay by comics historian Jules Feiffer. Feiffer focuses not on Superman, but on the rest of Action Comics #1, like what else appeared in that original publication and why almost none of it is even remembered, let alone as culturally significant as Superman.
Appropriately, the reprints begin at the beginning, starting with the groundbreaking first Superman story in Action Comics #1 by Siegel and Shuster. Like any good superhero story, that first Superman chapter ended with a cliffhanger and the collection even gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to wait for your next issue by including the first Zatara story, also from Action Comics #1 by Fred Guardineer, before providing the simple yet moral and exciting conclusion in Action Comics #2.
The second essay is by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Tom DeHaven, who writes about the comics he uses in his classroom and why Action Comics #1 is always one of them. He also helps to contextualize the Golden Age stories surrounding his essay by discussing the groundbreaking nature of those early works by Siegel and Schuster, why they were unique, and what they were doing that was unlike anyone before them. The collection of origin stories continues with a reprint of the first Vigilante story, the creation of Mort Weisenger and Mort Meskin, which is then followed up by the introduction of one of Superman’s most classic and humorous villains, The Toyman, really showcasing the colors and tone that would become inseparable from superheroes for decades.
The final story from the first few years needs a bit of an introduction, as it’s the aforementioned standout that didn’t originally appear in Action Comics. In fact, it didn’t originally appear in any comic. A 12-page story by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster themselves, the segment was almost thrown away, but was saved at the last minute by a young Marv Wolfman on a tour of DC’s offices the day it was to be sent to the incinerator.
The collection jumps forward from 1945 to the late 1950s with an essay by Professor David Hajdu from Columbia University that examines the moral virtue of Clark Kent over Superman and the value of a hero that not only fights for justice, but for truth as well, both in and out of costume. He also makes sure not to forget Lois Lane, who from day one has been as or more dedicated to truth than Superman. The early Silver Age reprints from Action Comics are still full of first appearances. Some of these are minor, like a fun story about Batman playing a prank on Superman that introduced that concept of the giant key to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (which is a lighthearted yet compelling story that spends a lot of time just showing off how cool the Fortress really is.) The next reprint introduces Superman’s smartest foe, the 12th level intellect known as Brainiac, another term that has become so ingrained in American culture that many people don’t even know it’s related to Superman. The hits keep coming with the first appearance of Supergirl, Superman’s cousin and frequent partner.
Another essay from journalist Larry Tye begins to consider the legacy of Superman, and his enduring nature. Tye examines what made Superman such a significant figure when he was first created and discusses how and why he has managed to remain significant as the cultural consciousness of America has shifted over the last 80 years. The essays become far less frequent as the stories move forward through time.The Silver Age entries showcase the fun nature of the era, including a two-part Supergirl story that features the Legion of Superheroes and an issue celebrating the Superman Family that includes everyone from Bizarro to Kandorains, Legion, and even President Kennedy! The collection takes a more serious turn as it enters the Bronze Age with Len Wein’s reimagination of Human Target, reprinting the first appearance of Christopher Chance.
The collection moves on from introductory appearances to landmark issues with one of the most anticipated moments in Superman’s ongoing story: the marriage of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, which starts a series of events leading to Lois discovering Clark’s secret and culminating in having a second Kryptonian wedding with him in the Fortress of Solitude. After such a happy story comes one that much more macabre and asks the question: “What if Superman didn’t exist?” five years before DC would regularly explore parallel stories in the Elseworlds line. The Post-Crisis era of stories appropriately begins with a reprint of a story by John Byrne of Man of Steel fame that features the Teen Titans trying to stop, understand, and eventually save a Superman gone bad!
The final and possibly most powerful essay in the collection is actually in comic format and is contributed by New Super-Man writer Gene Luen Yang. It depicts Yang standing next to Superman and talking to him about how “boring” he is, a play on the common critiques that Superman receivesmostly from people with limited knowledge and involvement with the character. He then turns the conversation on his head, examining what that word “boring” means, and how it relates to the fact that Superman is an alien immigrant, constantly hiding his origin from the American people. Before venturing into the Dark/Modern Age, the volume reprints Ma Kent’s Photo Album, a short insert full of photographs of Clark Kent’s early life, paired with a heartfelt voiceover by the incomparable Ma Kent. The only real entry from the ‘90s is a Roger Stern and Bob McLeod story featuring Silver Banshee and centering around the fallout of the death of Lex Luthor. The historical meaning of the issue becomes clear at the end when Clark Kent reveals himself as Superman to Lois Lane (the previous revelation and marriage having been ret-conned to another Universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths).
The final stories in the volume are all from their own landmark issues. The first is a reprint of the 800th issue of Action Comics, including many short stories from a plethora of creators celebrating many eras and styles of Superman, but still feeling very clearly like the time period in which it was published. The next reprint comes from the New 52 reboot: Action Comics #0 by the eccentric Grant Morrison and Ben Oliver, which barely includes Superman himself. Instead, it focuses on a young boy who “borrows” Superman’s cape for a day, really highlighting the manner in which Superman can inspire and make a hero of anyone. The final story comes from the recently released Action Comics #1000, the first and only Superhero comic to date to reach 1000 issues. The story chosen for this collection is the contribution by Paul Levits and Neal Adams featuring Superman and Lex Luthor playing chess on the roof of the LexCorp building, a scene that could have taken place at any point in the last 80 years and not feel out of place.
Condensing 80 years down to less than 400 pages is no easy feat, so the editors and publishers who assembled this celebration of Action Comics deserve to be commended. Not only does is include quintessential stories from all eras of Action Comics, the volume highlights characters that aren’t Superman without detracting from the real achievement being celebrated: the endurance of Superman. The essays are touching and interesting for any fan of Superman or ashcan covers fan, as the cover gallery at the end showcases significant covers throughout history are the cherry on top of the supersundae that this volume provides.