This month, DC Entertainment will celebrate the 1000th issue of Action Comics—the comic book that introduced Superman to the world—with the release of Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman the Deluxe Edition, a commemorative hardcover collection of essays, tributes and reprints of classic Superman stories, edited by Paul Levitz, author, comics writer, historian and former president and publisher of DC Comics.
Although the first issue of Action Comics had a cover date of June, it was released on April 18, 1938. It featured the first appearance of Superman, in a story written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, a character that became so popular it launched the superhero genre and transformed American popular culture forever. The edition also includes Superman stories from throughout the history of Action Comics—which has been published uninterrupted for 80 years—including a previously unpublished 1940s story.
Essayists include (among others) Laura Seigel Larson (Jerry Seigel’s daughter), David Hajdu, author of the 10 Cent Plague, and legendary cartoonist and playwright, 89 year old Jules Feiffer, who got his first job in the comics industry in the 1940s. Levitz spoke with PW about organizing the deluxe tribute edition (he also contributes the book's introduction and a new Superman story) and described the historic impact of Action Comics #1—and Superman—on American comics publishing.
Can you describe the American comic book industry in 1938 when Action Comics #1 was released?
It really wasn’t much of an industry. In most months at the time, there were fewer than a dozen comic books published. The industry was in transition from reprints of newspaper comics strips in the [comic book periodical] format, to a handful of titles that were original material but heavily influenced by newspaper strips and other media. Newspaper strips were very popular in those years.
How was Action Comics and Superman received by the public?
Action Comics #1 is the singular most important comic book published in America. It created the comic book industry because its sales were so significant. It invited other publishers to come into both the industry, and the [comic book] format, but also the genre of superheroes, which it created as well. The name superhero doesn’t exist yet, but everyone said, that ‘Superman thing, it works, get me one of those. Hell, get me two or three.’
Most of the things that followed were imminently forgettable but the proximate characters of Batman and Wonder Woman on the DC side, and so-called lesser light heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern, are still around. Also Captain Marvel and the whole Marvel family from Fawcett Publishing, were an extraordinarily successful series of comics through the 1940s and 1950s. Even Will Eisner’s The Spirit, in the newspapers, was very much motivated by the success of the superhero and the comic book.
What was it about Superman that was so exciting to the public at that time?
All the elements of the superhero formula were already there in some prior work, The Scarlet Pimpernal, and Zorro novels had the secret identity; the [comics strip hero] The Phantom wore a skintight costume, of sorts. A variety of literary sources, John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, also had ordinary humans who had extraordinary powers. But it really all comes together in Superman which becomes the model for the superhero.
What made Superman resonate so powerfully, so distinctively? I’ve always thought a major part of it is the Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Superman triangle. I think it’s a very normal, human reaction that we want someone to see us for the magical person we really think we are, instead of the schlub we present to the world. That’s probably true of both genders and all forms of sexual orientation. But Jerry [Siegel] felt that way as a young man very clearly and powerfully and he was able to bring that in and that was kind of new.
What can you say about Joe Shuster, Siegel’s cocreator?
I think Joe’s contribution is to [use] the visual ideas he was influenced by: the circus strongman and he was a great fan of bodybuilding magazines. His Superman really looks like a guy who could lift a car. Every generation has a different masculine model of what’s great and powerful. Shuster’s Superman, a very simple cartoon image, became a very powerful part of the imagery for that period.
The commemorative anthology has a number of essays by other writers. What do they address?
The fun of putting this book together was getting people of different perspectives. Laura Siegel Larson is Jerry Siegel’s daughter so she can talk about her father’s dreams for Superman and watching them become real. Jules Feiffer, who is about as awarded a creative person as a human being can be—he was the first formal historian of comics with his book, The Great Comic Book Heroes—is able to give first person witness to what it was like when Action Comics #1 came out. David Hajdu is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and his book is the wonderful, The 10-cent Plague. He writes about Clark Kent, the reporter. And Gene Yang, who is one of the coolest literary cartoonists around today, has a comics conversation with Superman, asking him if he’s boring.
As a former publisher of Superman and Action Comics, do you have any reflections on the character in 2018?
I think Superman’s most amazing power is his longevity. There’s almost nothing from 1938 that we care about today. If you want to listen to a 1938 tune you have to go to an obscure channel on Sirius XM. The movies of 1938 are all on Turner Classic, and of course respected, but kids today? Ugh, it’s black and white.
But any day you walk down the street and you’ll see a kid wearing a Superman “S”. It still matters to people young and old; it’s still culturally relevant and powerful. And that’s a wonderful thing. Jerry and Joe fervently believed that would be true [when they created Superman]. But many creative people have believed that about their characters and most of them have been wrong. It’s really nice that they were right.