FEATURE: Comics Archaeology

On the silver screen and in our world, people like Indiana Jones and Howard Carter have shown us that archaeologists often uncover the most amazing treasures. Inspired by these heroes of history I will be undertaking my own archaeological expeditions through the comics of the past to uncover lost classics, hidden gems, and to discover more about the creators of these treasures. So put on your fedora, grab your trowel and adjust your whip, it’s time to undertake an expedition in comics archaeology !

For our first expedition I thought we should travel back to the very beginning, and look at the very first superhero comic published. It is the year 1938, and a new character is about to change history by spawning a genre which has spanned the decades and taken over the cultural zeitgeist! Let’s dig into the deepest layers of the superhero comics strata to reveal…Action Comics #1

Published in April 1938 with a cover date of June 1938 (the cover date on comics generally being the date at which the newsagent could return that issue to the publisher and receive a refund) by Detective Comics Inc, Action Comics #1 was an anthology comic featuring 11 stories, including “Zatara Master Magician”, “Scoop Scanlon the Five Star Reporter” and “The Adventures of Marco Polo”.  However interesting these stories may have been, the one that was so popular it led to the first printing of 200,000 copies being sold out was the first one, produced by the writer/artist team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The story showcased a new character called Superman, whose like had not been seen before. The other stars of Action Comics #1 (and the publisher’s other title, Detective Comics) were ordinary men, who through intelligence, guile, strength and determination overcame the odds to reach their goal. Some, like Zatara, used magic to assist in their mission, but even this was treated like another skill which could be learnt by a regular person, so long as they worked hard to do so.

Superman, on the other hand, was not a regular man, and not really a man at all ! In a sequence now embedded in the collective consciousness, we learn that Superman is in fact an alien, sent to Earth by his father in a rocket to save him from their dying planet. The rocket is found by a passing motorist, and as the baby grows he astounds all who know him with amazing feats of strength. As he grows, Clark Kent discovers he can leap 1/8th of a mile, jump over 20 storey buildings, outrun a speeding train, lift tremendous weights and is so tough “that nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin”. Clark decides “he must turn his titanic strength into channels which would benefit mankind, and so was created Superman, champion of the oppressed”.

And a champion of the oppressed is exactly what this Superman is – in this first story Superman saves an innocent woman from being executed for a crime she didn’t commit, stops a man from beating his wife, rescues Lois Lane from an overzealous gangster and terrifies a corrupt senator into confessing his crime – which he does by grabbing the senator and taking him on a leaping tour around the city!

I think it’s interesting to note that while Superman, at his creation, is more powerful than any human, he is still not the almost god-like figure he later becomes. His enemies are those who seek to use their wealth, strength and/or status to dominate others, and powers are extrapolations of things a normal person can do – run, jump, leap high. It is only later that Superman gains the powers most people know him for: Flight, X-Ray vision, heat vision and cold breath, and starts to combat cosmic foes. What makes this observation even more interesting is that Jerry Siegel was an avid fan of science fiction, publishing sci-fi magazines in 1929 (Cosmic Stories ) and 1933 (Science Fiction). The latter contained a story by Siegel and Shuster titled “The Reign of the Superman”, though this Superman was a bald villain who used telepathic powers to control others.

There have been some interesting theories expounded to explain the reason for the focus the heroic Superman had to save the oppressed. The scholar Timothy Pevey argued the two were influenced by their childhood as the sons of Jewish immigrants, creating “an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American”. This would mean their character would need to be one with which the reader can identify, hence having powers which were impressive but not “miraculous”. Comics historian and author Gerard Jones pointed to a more visceral experience – 17 year-old Jerry Siegel saw his father die of a heart attack when the store was robbed by an armed criminal. In his excellent history of comics Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book he notes that Superman’s invulnerability to bullets, loss of family and destruction of his homeland all seem to overlap with Jerry Siegel’s personal experience. It makes sense to me that someone scarred by gun violence would create a character who is impervious to the damage guns can do, and fights those who use guns to bully others.

Regardless of why they created the character of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a superhero who was so popular he quickly moved to headline his own series, spawned a newspaper strip (appropriate as they had created Superman six years before Action #1 to sell as a newspaper strip), a radio show (then TV shows and movies) and enough merchandise to fill several doomed planets!

Superman is a character who has entered the cultural consciousness, standing as a beacon of hope for the oppressed to millions worldwide for more than 75 years.

Recommended Reading:

Superman: The Golden Age Vol 1 and Vol 2 (recently published trade paperbacks of early Action Comics and Superman).

Superman Archives vols 1-8 (beautiful though more expensive hardcover editions of these early stories)

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book –  Gerard Jones (a rollicking tale of the early years of the comic book industry. My favourite book on comics history).

Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – Brad Ricca (first and most fascinating biography of Superman’s creators).

G.S Writer: Brett Harris

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