Reviews of Action Comics (1938) and related work

Action Comics (1938)

Joe Shuster (artist), Jerry Siegel (writer).

Read in 2020.

This review refers to part of the first issue, specifically the 13 pages introducing Superman as “the most sensational strip character of all time”. This is a tiny fraction of the comic’s run, hence no rating.

Superman breaks into a governor’s mansion to stop an execution, not because it’s an execution but because the inmate was wrongfully convicted. After being tasked, as reporter Clark Kent, with investigating himself, he beats up a wife beater, then takes co-worker Lois Lane out on a date where he plays a coward so that other men abduct her. Finally, he starts to unravel the plot of a corrupt US senator who’s getting the USA “embroiled with Europe”, i.e. engaged against fascism.

In his first appearance, Superman has the following properties:

No Smallville, no Metropolis, no heat-ray vision, no X-ray vision, no hurricane-strength cold breath, no ability to hold his breath indefinitely, no flight, no ability to reverse time by spinning Earth backwards, no kryptonite, no Fortress of Solitude, no ventriloquism, no hypnotism, no memory-wiping kisses, etc., etc. Superman’s original powers are strictly racial in origin and athletic in nature, with an explicit rationalization: They are likened to those of bugs in a possibly deliberate misunderstanding of basic biophysics. The epithet “man of steel” (Swedish “Stålmannen”) is fitting, in this first outing. However, even here, the premises are internally contradictory.

In the episode with the governor, Superman is callous. “Make yourself comfortable! I haven’t time to attend to it”, he says to a scantily clad and tied-up woman he dumps on the ground. When the governor’s butler threatens to have him arrested and shows a locked door, Superman breaks the door and says, gloating, “It was your idea”, thus blaming the ordinary man for Superman’s criminal actions. There is no attempt to plausibly explain why Superman is alternately so hurried and so unhurried in this episode that he can do both. The only reason is extradiegetic: It’s a fantasy narrative for children to feel a vicarious sense of smug superiority.

Though he does not express empathy, there is a moral excuse for Superman’s asshole behaviour. He is fighting for innocent people against cartoon evil, for no known reason. This doesn’t explain why he tortures a lobbyist or why so much attention is paid to his masochistic courtship of Lois, but it does explain why he has a stable secret identity: As a reporter, he apparently hears of crimes in progress before the police arrive.

The plot makes sense only in its reading as wish fulfillment, including that of the authors. Joe Shuster based the weaker identity, Clark, on his time at the (Toronto) Daily Star (retconned as the Daily Planet when the character became an international hit). Clark represents the makers’ and the readers’ real weakness and anguish, while Superman represents the dream of fitness and revenge. This correspondence is expected to provide both thrills and comfort. That’s about it. As in Völsunga Saga (ca. 1250–1300), there is no meaningful heroic ideal here to admire, just a love of innate superiority. The only other source of pleasure on offer in the first issue is a sense of whimsy, and that’s just the costume, along with the internal contradictions.

While Siegel and Shuster never really succeeded in other pursuits, Superman got popular, perhaps because the fantasy is so simple: An apparently ordinary guy has fun secretly being implausibly strong and important by fiat. The way the franchise evolved reminds me of Santa Claus: It became so implausible and so self-serving as a narrative that it must be intended to provoke disbelief and rejection as the reader ages.

References here: Batman (1940).

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Superman (1941) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

I saw most of the entries in this series in modern releases, apparently based on a censored 1998 restoration where some of the sexism was cut out without comment or replacement.

The premises are those of Shuster and Siegel, but not as they were in the character’s first appearance. There’s been power creep since 1938. Superman now flies under his own power. He can see through plate steel. He is impervious even to science-fictional weaponry of much greater power than a bursting shell and is never injured. This is roughly the mature form of the character in his pre-Code “Golden Age” continuities.

There is a lot of impressive animation in this series, not all of it rotoscoped. It looks like the original comic in motion with better lighting and a lot of wonderful simulated out-of-focus pans; visually it’s a lot of fun. I especially appreciate that the “funny” animals and other caricatures typical of US cartoons are absent, except for non-whites, Jimmy Olsen and one dinosaur who looks goofier than Gertie.

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‣‣ “The Mad Scientist” (1941) IMDb

References here: Man of Steel (2013).

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‣‣ “The Mechanical Monsters” (1941) IMDb

References here: “Aloha, Lupin” (1980).

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‣‣ “Billion Dollar Limited” (1942) IMDb

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‣‣ “The Arctic Giant” (1942) IMDb

References here: Godzilla (1954).

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‣‣ “The Bulleteers” (1942) IMDb

As usual, the evil criminals are both extremely well funded and interested only in even more money, but there are crowd scenes, power infrastructure, rocketry and military intervention.

References here: “Eleventh Hour” (1942).

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‣‣ “The Magnetic Telescope” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

For the first time in this series, the mad scientist seems to be interested in scientific discovery rather than crime. However, the writers had no such interest. In the opening scene, a horseshoe magnet atop an observatory (hence the title; adorably dumb idea) pulls a star out of the sky as a “flaming comet” that lands on Earth and does minor damage. It only gets worse after that, but Lois does kiss our hero on the lips.

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‣‣ “Electric Earthquake” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

A dignified native American mad scientist pressures the US into immediately restoring Manhattan for use by descendants of its pre-colonial settlers. He gives Lois Lane a tour of his doomsday device, controlling the earth he wants by shocking it with undersea cables.

A rich, ideologically ambiguous urban apocalypse, made after the London Blitz.

References here: Black Panther (2018).

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‣‣ “Volcano” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

There’s no monster, the scientists are all sane, and Superman gets knocked out by a falling rock. Relatively mature writing and design work, with less of the Gernsback continuum.

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‣‣ “Terror on the Midway” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Animal control at a circus midway, unrelated to the Battle of Midway fought two months before the film was released.

A welcome diversification of subject matter, with a beautiful shot from under the bleachers as panic erupts, but the angle on nature is pure spectacle. The animals are not apparently evil, but the giant ape represents an incongruent sexual threat to Lois as in King Kong (1933), and there is no sense that it may have been a bad idea to imprison the animals in the first place.

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‣‣ “Japoteurs” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Japanese renegades masquerading as US patriots steal a new giant bomber by hiding inside its bombs.

Competently executed racist propaganda for US concentration camps.

References here: “Albatross: Wings of Death” (1980).

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‣‣ “Showdown” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

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‣‣ “Eleventh Hour” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Superman destroys Japanese infrastructure and war ships etc.

Shots of animation are reused from “The Bulleteers” (1942) but now describe preparations to kill Superman, not to stop robbers. This is a sign of something having gone wrong at the writing stage. In this short, he acts as if on the orders of the US goverment to fight the ongoing war. There is no opposing force that can touch him. Surprisingly, he did not manage to end the war in the real world, nor even in subsequent entries of the series.

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‣‣ “Destruction Inc.” (1942) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Probably the least racist of the WW2 propaganda entries. The final scene is another twist on the unlikely pageantry of the franchise: Lois unmasks Superman, who’d been disguised as an old watchman at the munitions plant, but of course Lois thinks she’s unmasking Clark. Her evident gullibility is intended to be cute and probably sexy, in line with consistent references to her—a grown woman—as a “girl” throughout the series.

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‣‣ “The Mummy Strikes” (1943) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Supernatural fantasy, curiously high on exposition and low on action.

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‣‣ “Jungle Drums” (1943) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

A Nazi officer poses as a white-clad pagan priest in Africa.

Concentrated nonsense with relatively dull animation. Instead of the usual closing scene of Clark–Lois repartee, it’s Hitler listening to the radio and being sad.

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‣‣ “The Underground World” (1943) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

Like “The Mummy Strikes”, this hollow-earth adventure feels belated, simply combining Superman with some already-familiar motif drawn from the pulps, irrelevant to the core motif of smug superiority. Here, anthropomorphic animals also rear their ugly heads, and the final scene suggests a distastefully narcissistic grand conspiracy. As dumb as the core concepts of Superman are, dilution does not improve them.

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‣‣ “Secret Agent” (1943) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

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Superman: The Movie (1978) IMDb

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‣‣ Superman II (1980) IMDb

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‣‣ Superman III (1983) IMDb

Imagine if Mel Brooks decided to parody the franchise and the original actors signed up.

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‣‣ Superman Returns (2006) IMDb

Billed as an “homage sequel”. Terrible credits sequence.

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Man of Steel (2013) IMDb

Seen in 2020.

A version of the General Zod plot.

Snyder’s craftsmanship is good. The visual effects work is the best money could buy at the time, and worth a look, though the computer-animated fisticuffs are still dull. Representing a terminal stage in processing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the film is even prettier than Fleischer’s 1941 adaptation. The climax repeats a motif in “The Mad Scientist” (1941) where Superman flies head-first into a cataclysmic beam weapon.

Like most big-budget superhero movies, this is filmmaking by committee. Some features of the original are changed for plausibility, such as Lois knowing Superman’s secret identity when he first introduces himself as reporter Clark Kent at the very end. At the same time, some of the most whimsical elements of various earlier entries, such as the costume, the sun producing superpowers in Kryptonians, and the heat rays from the eyes, are all preserved, while going for the gritty look and atmosphere of The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The colour grading is even more bleak than Nolan’s. The villains and their technology are pretty much all in black, down to the plot-token USB keys.

Snyder’s too smart to let this anglerfish of a concept just flop around on the deck. He seizes upon the Jewish Siegel and Shuster’s heritage and the celebrated subtext of their immigrant experience. The name “Superman” is not spoken until two hours into the movie and the “S” on the chest of his costume is retconned as the sign of his Kryptonian house, “El”. In Hebrew, as in its parent Semitic, el meant “god”. It ends Superman’s birth name as it ends the name of many Abrahamic angels because Superman’s a religious figure, a saviour. This is why he debates the possibility of his being betrayed (as by Judas) and turning himself over to Zod (as Pontius Pilate and Satan), in a literal Christian church. This is why choirs feature prominently in the score, and why Superman’s heavenly father, Russell Crowe as Yahweh, says:

You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

That’s an Abrahamic sentiment, but especially a Christian sentiment. It makes sense on an extradiegetic level, as allegory. Like the heat-ray eyes, it does not make sense on an intradiegetic level. No reason is given for why Kryptonians and humans look identical, or why a member of another species, born with effectively magical racial powers, would “inspire” humans to follow his example. It’s like saying that the ants and grasshoppers, to whom similar superpowers are attributed in the original comic, should inspire humans to lift weights.

The Christian dimension rhymes with Superman in this version being brought up in Smallville, a 1949 invention that was apparently not canonized as Superman’s home town until the 1970s. Man of Steel’s Smallville is in Kansas, a safely Republican Bible-Belt state as of 2013. This choice, to have a secret Jesus from the rural US bursting through the pseudo-9/11 rubble, did not age with dignity past the 2016 election. There was some fan controversy over his decision to kill Zod, but even that detail is faithful to the orignal comics, to Christianity, and to rural US politics. It’s all about a vicarious sense of smug superiority.

It’s all too faithful to a broken franchise. It is as hard for me to buy into this as it is for an adult to believe in Santa Claus again. It feels very much as if some studio exec had ordered the guy who directed Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006) to make a blue-chip blockbuster where Santa and Rudolph slug it out and the old man, screaming out his anguish, leaves the red-nosed reindeer’s broken body in the snow to get back on his magical sleigh and deliver the last billion presents in the dark.

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