Analyzing Superman – Action Comics #1

Superman

There is a reason that the expression "leaps tall buildings in a single bound" lacks the word "fly" in it anywhere.

Warning! This blog contains copious philososauce pertaining to a dude who fights crime in his underpants.

Last time we were together, I spoke about Superman’s triple identity as an alien, human, and the inevitable mishmash of the two when he became a public figure. Today…let’s deal with how various writers of the comic have utilized this to make statements about immigration, integration, and the like.

ACTION COMICS #1 (June 1938): This was Superman’s first appearance, and arguably the most recognizable comic in the world. Like I said previously, Shuster and Siegel, the character’s creators, created Superman to be a positive immigrant role model – that despite his foreign origins, he still represents truth, justice, and the American way. And they accomplish this goal in Action Comics #1, albeit too well.

The plot is thus: we are introduced to Superman in a page briefly outlining his origins and a “scientific” – their words, not mine – explanation for his strength and incredible leaping powers. We are then thrown into the thick of the story as Superman bursts into the governor’s house in the middle of the night, roughly shoves his way past an angry body guard and steel door, and wakes the governor up to demand that he pardon a woman on Death Row. Apparently Superman has found the real culprit of the murder this woman is accused of, wrestled a confession out of the murderess, and left her tied-up outside. Huh. The governor makes the call, and later states that “He’s not human – but he apparently fights on the side of law and order!”

Meanwhile, Clark Kent, Superman’s mild-mannered alter-ego, is glad that Superman was not mentioned in the news reporting the event, and shyly asks the brash Lois Lane out to dinner. An aggressive thug breaks up their dance, demanding he get a go at the girl, and Lois Lane, upset that Kent won’t defend her honor “like a man” leaves the party. As she is driving home, the same thug kidnaps her, but Superman saves the day by lifting the car, and shaking them out of it. Wow. Lois Lane is rendered speechless by this act of manliness and brags about the event to the Chief the next day while pointedly ignoring the hapless Clark Kent.

We then cut to D.C. where Superman is now investigating corruption within the government. He discovers that a congressman has been bribed to – gasp! – have the United States become embroiled with the conflict in Europe! (see date). Well, Superman won’t have it, and swoops in to terrify the loving poo-poo out of the would-be briber, threatening him with great heights and near electrocution. Thus the first issue ends.

Geez, Superman has changed quite a bit, hasn’t he? He almost reminds me of Batman, in a way – definitely more vigilante than by-the-books Boy Scout. But what the governor said about him being on the side of “law and order” is as much a mainstay of the superhero as his iconic red and blue suit; both, until fairly recently, have had very few alterations over the course of seventy years. What we see here is a Superman not only concerned about crime, but also about making sure that the criminals do not cheat the system. That is why he doesn’t just simply catch a murderess, but also proving that another person the lady apparently incriminated was proven innocent.  And while I’m sure maintaining the United State’s neutrality was important to him, what was more important was getting the man who was trying to cheat the legislative system by obtaining undue influence over a congressman than any of his constituents. And that’s very…American, in the way that immigrants to America are found to exercise the right to vote more or know their Constitution better than the natives.

I won’t tackle the middle scene too much, since it is more about how the ideal male, as opposed to the ideal American should act, but it presents an interesting dichotomy that I think interferes with what Siegel and Shuster were trying to go at. All this effort at trying to present Superman as separate – think the costume, the superpowers, when the governor says “He’s definitely not human!” – but also quintessentially representative of who and what the United States stands for rather alienates his identity as Clark Kent, the everyman. Now, I know this alter-ego is supposed to represent the reality everyone lives, while Superman is the identity everyone aspires to be – but if you take the symbolism out of it entirely, you are left with a weird dichotomy where the born-and-raised-in-Smallville Clark Kent is “less” American than this last son of Krypton.

It also doesn’t help that, while the monikers that identify Superman as an alien are always present, they are really easy to ignore. The one scene we see in the comic of his home world does little to differentiate it from Earth other than the rocket in the distance – heck, even one of the buildings in the scene is reused in a different panel on the same page taking place on Earth. And, while the idea of a costumed being with powers was much newer back in 1938, and could be used potentially to designate someone as different, even alien from society-at-large, today we are flooded with Earth-ian look-a-likes like the X-Men that take away from that effect today. Simply put – Superman is so iconic, and has been with us so long that he’s practically been naturalized as an American citizen, and people who want to present him and his “alien” side really have to work at it to get us, the audience, to bat an eye. But more on that later.

If you guys want to read Action Comics #1 for yourselves, here’s a link: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/yeung/actioncomics/cover.html
Just read from page 1-13. Back then, it was common for a comic book to contain multiple stories on different topics. It’s still a common format elsewhere *cough* JAPAN *cough*.

DEVICES USED:
Just a quick list of what Shuster and Siegel did in this issue that I analyzed, but may not have talked about simply because I can’t format pictures properly in this blog post.
The Plot
Text boxes – yellow “narrative” boxes versus dialog balloons and thought bubbles
Imagery – how Superman is drawn in comparison to Clark Kent; comparisons between the “alien world” of Superman’s home planet and our own.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    This is interesting! You are right that Superman is such an American figure now; I didn’t realize he was intended to be a clear outsider and symbolize American immigrants! Showing how superheroes reflect the cultural thoughts of the time sounds fun!

  2. Yeah – part of the reason early Superman is cool is because you can still see a lot of the influences that went into creating the character. For example, the reason Superman is invulnerable to bullets was because the father of one of the authors (Shuster I think) had been shot and killed. His weakness to Kryptonite reflects the fears of radiation so prevalent in the early Nuclear Age.