Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Action Comics Hits #1000 and 80 Years of Superman

April 18 marks both the 80th Anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1 and the release of Action Comics #1000.

Short a few documents written by fellows in wigs and waistcoats, there are few things in Western culture, Pop or otherwise, with so profound an impact or as wide a legacy as this simple, brief story by a couple of young men from Cleveland.

Superman's first appearance was just one of several of different genres appearing in Action Comics #1 (this link is currently good and includes the first Superman story)   To revisit the story, every time I read it I find it shocking how much of Superman springs to life there in those first few pages - an assemblage of parts of other characters and science fiction concepts forged into something entirely new and its own.

Doomed planet.  Locomotives and bullets.  Lois Lane as a tough girl reporter.  The cape, the boots, the forelock.   A newspaper setting.  The dual-identities of Clark Kent and Superman, Lois' failure to recognize her co-worker.  Superman/ Clark's immediate attraction to Lois.  Righting wrongs.


Sure, in that first appearance the paper was The Daily Star, the editor wasn't yet named Perry White and Jimmy Olsen wouldn't really appear for a while, even if we see copy-boys we can say are Jimmy if we squint.  Superman can't fly - not yet.  He doesn't exhibit X-Ray vision, and he's not invulnerable, exactly.  It would be a while yet before he'd be out slugging candy-colored aliens or boxy robots.

In this first appearance he's a strange being among normal people.  He looks like them, but dresses like a circus performer, his physique the ideal from fitness magazines, his looks those of a matinee idol.  He isn't stopping errant meteors, he's taking on a broken justice system, forcing confessions out of murderers, shaking sedans full of crooks empty to save Lois from a kidnapping.  He's not America's Favorite Uncle, here.  He's got some Errol Flynn/ Robin Hood cockiness, mouthing off to "The Man" and mafiosos alike.

The fantasy here is simple: what if they couldn't stop me?  What if I could just wink at them when they pulled their .38's on me?

And what if - with that power - I was still the good guy?

It seems simple now, we're used to the idea of Superman.  But instinctively, we don't trust those in power.  It's ingrained in the fabric of America to see anyone who has more power than us as a despot and a threat.  But Superman came from the same fantasies that gave us Doc Savage, the Shadow, Zorro and Tarzan (and these guys all pre-date Superman, btw, as does The Scarlet Pimpernel.).  Sure, these guys had it all over the competition and would come out on top, but they were Good Guys.  But there were plenty of books where someone got some power and it all went wrong, not the least of which was the first Siegel and Shuster short story called "The Superman".

The first few years of Superman's existence, he was a sci-fi hero living in a recognizable world and less a strange visitor making his world stranger than a bullet-proof force for a certain kind of justice.  He fought slum lords and made leaders of small nations fight mono-e-mono instead of sending troops into battle.  Weirder stuff started drifting in, and by the 1950's we were getting giant apes with Kryptonite vision, super dogs, super cousins and Phantom Zone villains.

What we think of the Superman core legacy bits continued to show up in bits and spurts.  Luthor won't appear for almost two years.  Brainiac doesn't show up for a full additional 241 more issues.  Supergirl won't show up until 252.

You'll hear that Superman was developed by a pair of teenagers.  That's not exactly true.  While Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster came up with some ideas of what Superman might be, they were in their twenties by the time they sold the idea - which had gone through a lot of iterations and which was supposed to be a daily newspaper strip - to a nearly insolvent comic book publisher.

You'll also hear those teens only got $150 for Superman, and that's not... 100% true.  But there's a lot of litigation involved in the story.  A lot of heartbreak.

Action Comics may have printed 1000 issues and lasted 80 years, but there have been 10's of thousands of comics appearances of Superman in his own series, mini-series, related titles and DC and DC crossover series.  There have been decades of a radio show, multiple live-action shows (Adventures of Superman, Smallville, Superboy, Lois and Clark, Supergirl, Krypton) running for years at a time.  More cartoons than I can begin to think about, starting with the Fleischer's and in a constant stream of WB Animated features and shows.  Novels.  Non-fiction books.  Coloring books, puzzles and games.  Newspaper comic strips.  Movie serials.  Video games from the arcade to the latest home systems and massive multiplayer games.  Something like eight big-budget feature films.  Superman toys, clothing, costumes, office supplies and foods(!) have filled shelves as Superman became one of the great and most longstanding licenses in the world.

Today the comics are published on at least five continents, and Superman's "S" is one of the most recognized icons of the past century.

The relationship between the various forms of media has been a two-way street.  Kryptonite showed up on the radio show, just as radio made Jimmy Olsen a major supporting character.  The 1978 movie offered a cold and inhuman Krypton, ruled by bureaucracy, rather than a sci-fi fantasyland, which has endured in the comics despite multiple reboots since the idea's introduction to the comics in the 1980's.  The success of Jimmy Olsen and Lois on the 50's TV show gave each character their own long-running comic series.  The past decade or so, the imagery from the Donner films has finally made it's way into Superman comics, with crystals and a certain Kryptonian aesthetic.

I would expect what Superman is to drift over time, but instead Superman has always returned to the core factors that appeared in that first issue.  Even after New 52 Superman, electric Superman, etc... et al...  Superman is still an alien who escaped from a doomed world and who was saved by a kindly couple.  He still puts on a blue suit and red cape, and loves a reporter who is the gutsiest person he's ever met.  It's fascinating to me how we're still watching Lois and Superman's adventures (now married with a 10-year-old son, Jon - the current Superboy of the comics).  It's incredible that Superman still clocks in for work at a newspaper, still pushes the forelock into place as Clark, hides behind glasses, and Lois is still out there not taking any guff from anyone and borrowing trouble.  And even the costume, which they've tried to alter, returns to a look that's been more or less in place since 1940 or so, once they settled on what that S was supposed to look like.

In the past I've made mention of how part of my interest in Superman goes well beyond the stories (some simple, some incredibly complex).  The character as a license, as IP, and how he's appeared or been used to hock wares is of near equal interest to sorting out how Beppo the Supermonkey fits into the picture as a fan of Superman's world.  I love how interwoven the very idea of Superman became in the American identity within a decade of his first appearance - that comics featuring Superman were printed special to help soldiers in the field learn to read during WWII, that he's appeared on postage stamps and the idea of glasses loaning a dual identity is baked right into everyone's understanding of how things work/ do not work.  The now extinct "telephone booth" is all but synonymous with Superman - even if he almost never changed in one in the comics.

Action Comics hits issue 1000 a bit earlier than it would have had Action simply been released monthly since the 1930's.  It should be showing up a 1/3rd of the year into the 84th year of publication.  But the series had a sprint in the 1980's where DC turned the title into a weekly anthology, adding a handful of extra issues.  Over the years the title has experienced delays and not always been out 12 times per year, throwing the number off a bit, and since the summer of 2016, Action Comics and Superman have been published twice per month, making me a very happy Superman fan, indeed.  With a tweak and a bit of shifting, it all seems to have worked out and Action Comics #1000 arrives on the 80th Anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1

For those of you following along - in 2011, DC made a lot of changes to Superman in order to deal with a potential copyright problem with the Siegel Estate.  Costume changes, power changes, breaking up Superman and Lois - anything you could point to that was in Action Comics #1 was supposed to now belong to the Siegels.  Possibly even the forelock, which disappeared.

That drama has since been amicably resolved, but it's been slow work to get Superman back to the familiar status quo.  It's odd to say what a relief it is to see Superman back in red trunks, but it says a lot about what DC has done to make amends and set things right with the Siegels and recognize that their character will outlast trends in comics, design missteps, and the capriciousness of artists, editors and publishers.   I'm sorry it took so long.  I'm glad there's peace in Metropolis for the time being.

As of this writing, DC thinks it's got slam dunk as they've poached Brian Michael Bendis from Marvel and put him on both Superman titles, but a lot of us aren't quite sure how all of this will work.  Still, you have to have some hope and faith in what comes out next month - and the next - or you aren't going to last long following a serial comic that's been around since FDR was in office.

Over the years I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to explain "why Superman?" - but for the most part, people are just waiting for you to pause long enough to launch into their argument as to why you're wrong.  Don't worry -  I'm not here to make converts.

Yeah, I love diving into the history of the character as narrative, as pop icon, as a part of the global zeitgeist.  It's all fascinating.  But at the end of the day - I could do that with any number of other ideas or characters.  And sometimes I do.

I also love collecting Superman "stuff".  I'm more selective now than I used to be, but it's still a hobby and passion and it's where a lot of my dough goes.  I won't kid around about that - it's a whole thing, and I'm not embarrassed about it, but it's also not something I know how to talk about with people who aren't interested or find it a weird way to spend your pennies and time.

It's probably important to note:  I'm not a lifelong Superman fan.  When I got into comics, I shunned Big Blue.  The word was still out that Superman wasn't hip.  It was the 1980's and one read X-Men and Batman comics.  Maybe stuff like The Crow if you were feeling moody.  More than anything - I was coming into comics when Superman was getting the hell beaten out of him by Batman in Dark Knight Returns and we cheered to see this impossible feat occurring, see this naive dope get taken down a few pegs.

When you're a younger person, you want to feel edgy.  You understand how the dark heart of humanity works, and you aren't going to get played for a sucker - you're past all the niceties they play up in school and on TV.  You're too smart, too tuned into how things really work.  And you're ready to fight back with words and intellect.  You keep kindness in reserve for your few friends and keep everyone else at arms-length.

I get that.

But at some point, I don't know...

Superman is an escapist fantasy.  When real tragedies befall us, there's no Superman to swoop in and save lives.  There's no Superman to shrug off bullets in a crossfire and find peace between opposing forces or pull innocents from harms way.

But I like that fantasy.  I don't just like it because it's convenient, and it'd be nice.  Of the fantasies offered - it's the one with hope for a better tomorrow.  It's not about punishing the wicked (maybe stopping them, but...), it's about making a better planet.  The fantasy of Superman is the one of kindness and generosity despite the knowledge of how the world works.  It's not that the idea of trying to do right is naive or fails to see how the world operates; it's that Superman can see that side of things and doesn't tear the world apart apart or give up.  Instead, he puts on the cape and the tights and tries to make his adopted planet better than it would be if he didn't show up.

And, yes, it's a never-ending battle.

It's probably not coincidental that my fandom of Superman grew as I grew older, more comfortable in my own skin, and was finding that kindness, courtesy, helping...  trying to solve problems rather than blaming others...  those are the things that make your corner of the world better (I don't do this well, and I don't do it as often as I'd like.  We're all works in progress.).   I can't tell you how or when that notion solidified for me, but it took place between watching the Superman movies in high school and reading Grant Morrison's JLA and in what I was learning in school, in my hours out of school, working retail, working on collaborative projects... all the things you do as a young adult.

If people didn't like the red cape and trunks and found Superman maybe a little corny - it wasn't like he cared.  And there's something to that. I won't pretend like I don't care what people think of me - but worrying about "cool" is a pathway to regrettable haircuts and a wardrobe that dates poorly.  Bag on the red trunks, but in forty more years he'll still be in them and your wardrobe will look ridiculous.

Superman was also in love - and that I understood.  If he had a never-ending battle, and if Lois was the touchstone that ensured he pressed on, in many ways that are very hard to write about here, that - I also understood.  From his first appearance, Superman picked battles that others hadn't taken on, lifted that load willingly.  That's something I can get my head around, and as we age, we take on responsibilities (joyfully) of significant others, of children, of family and friends..  no, we're not saving the world, but we're saving each other.

We know power can corrupt.  We know the world can be a dark, grim place.  There are times when the world probably needs Superman less.  Times when we need Superman more.  Whether it's billionaires rigging the system (Luthor or the all too real kind), corruption in the halls of government or wars looming on the horizon - the idea of what one person can do, bullet proof or otherwise, as long as they know it's the good fight, that they use their own power to do what's right instead of rolling over or looking the other way...   That's an ideal I can hang onto.

For my dollar, I'll take the guy willing to shake hands, who starts by asking for those in the wrong to stop before he takes action, has a kind word for others, leaps into the path of bullets, and who still has time for friends, has time for love.  He's been imagined as the person who can stand up when others can't, who you can't stop as he steps in to do the right thing, who gives second chances and knows we're all here, and we're all we've got.

Sure, Superman is a good role model for kids.  There's nothing wrong with that.  I think most days I think us adults could try to be as good as we imagine Superman.  That might not be the worst thing in the world.

Here's to the superhero who started it all.  The model for our collective image of power used for good.  Here's to 1000 issues of Action Comics, 80 years of Superman, and all the decades and comics ahead!

This is a job for Superman!

Your humble blogger in his Fortress of Nerditude

No comments: