Review: The Forgotten, Non-Superman Features Of ‘Action Comics’ #1 (1938)
If you're the kind of person who keeps up with news about people spending truly massive amounts of money on comic books, then you're probably aware that there was a copy of Action Comics #1 rated at 9.0 that sold for $3,000,000 earlier this year. On one level, that makes sense. It is, after all, an incredibly important historical artifact, featuring the first appearance of Superman and Lois Lane in a story that kickstarted the entire superhero genre. On the other hand, if you really want to read that comic, you don't need to spend three mil. You can get it for like fifteen bucks.
Either way, the CGC corporation put the entire issue online to read for free -- presumably to prove that these crisp, unblemished pages really are as good as they say they are -- and there's a lot more in there than just Superman, whose first appearance has naturally overshadowed the numerous other short features contained in this most coveted comic.
The most interesting thing about seeing the issue in its original form is that after the famous car-smashin' cover, we're treated to a reason for exactly why there are so few high-grade copies of Action #1 left in the world. It's this ad:
Hey kids! Take some crayons to the pages of the most valuable comic book in history and then tear them right out of the mag! We'll give you a whole dollar -- and that's in Depression money!
Speaking of, Homer Fleming's Chuck Dawson six-pager is the first thing after Superman, and it is not that great.
It does, however, contain the line "git in thar with the rest o'them cow nurses," which is a line that I think we should all make a concerted effort to bring back in our day-to-day lives.
Following that, we have the other notable debut of Action Comics #1: Fred Guardineer's Zatara the Magician, whose own mild Golden Age fame would be thoroughly eclipsed by a reboot in the form of the character's daughter, Zatanna, a quarter century later:
The storytelling is pretty typical of the Golden Age, full of stuff like Zatara claiming he is about to go take a look at something and then a medium shot of Zatara looking at something, but it does have that nifty backwards-talking gimmick that works so well in comics. All things considered, it's a relatively sophisticated trick for being there on day one of superheroes, and it's interesting that it's still around today.
Next up is a text piece thrown in to meet requirements and ensure that Action could be sent through the mail with second-class postage. It's sadly typical of the time, full of "savage native" stereotypes and heroic sailors rescuing their kidnapped girlfriends. It does have a pretty boss opening line though, so if you're paging through over at CGC's site, just stop as soon as you finish that first sentence and flip ahead to Pep Morgan.
In the meantime, Action Comics #1 offers up Russell Cole's Sticky Mitt Stimson, a strange experiment in making a slapstick comedy without using any actual humor...
... and Sven Elven's very beautifully drawn Adventures of Marco Polo, which has somewhat dubious historical accuracy and also seems to forget it's a comic every now and then and just goes into bullet-point list format:
Elven would later go on to found Buzzfeed, I believe.
Next up is the story of Pep Morgan, by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer, telling the story of a noble young boxer who defends the light heavyweight championship against -- hoo boy -- a crooked manager and disgraced doctor who has imported a "wild bushman" from Australia named Boomerang who attempts to win the fight by hiding a hypodermic needle in his glove so that he can win with DRUG PUNCHES.
As you might expect, "Boomerang the Wild Bushman" isn't exactly the most thoughtful portrayal of another culture, but other than the Superman strip, this is the story I'd recommend most highly, if only because it is completely bonkers.
Just to return the balance, we have the black-and-white Scoop Scanlon, and listen, Action Comics #1 editors, maybe you shouldn't put a second story about a heroic reporter in the same comic where Clark Kent makes his first appearance.
Finally, we have a Tex Thompson, a story of a rich oil man who gets framed for murder while wearing an increasingly ludicrous hat:
Seriously, son is about to take off in that thing.
And that about does it. There's a couple of one-page filler strips -- including a guide by "the Star-Gazer" to famous Hollywood personalities like the incredibly popular comedic duo of Wheeler and Woolsey -- but story-wise, that does it. Put in its proper context, it's easy to see why Superman was such a revelation. It's the standout strip on every level, from concept to execution, and while cowboy tales like Chuck Dawson would continue for a while, there's a good reason why the boom that hit comics right after this issue wasn't made up of people scrambling for new thrilling boxing tales and hat-based murder mysteries. It's a piece of the puzzle that you don't get from just reading the often-reprinted Superman story.
Still not sure it's worth $3,000,000, though.