Panels of Future Past: Action Comics #1
True story: About ten years ago, I was spending a Saturday morning doing what I usually do if I’m actually awake on a Saturday morning: finding yard sales. I was living in central Florida at a time, and there was in an old garage/ barn and there I saw it, Action Comics #1. Price: $5.
(I had about $4 but I scraped the change from somewhere in the ashtray of my car and I was golden.)
It was perfect. I knew what it was as soon as I saw the iconic cover of an enraged Superman scaring a bunch of gangsters by lifting a car over his head and smashing it. And it said the date and number. I skimmed the issue. The Superman story was there, as well as a few other stories. And there old-timie adds that are quite amusing to read. There’s one ad that simply shows a few celebrity drawings with no particular purpose in mind. Maybe people in the Thirties needed such ads to know what the celebrities of the time looked like. Even the old-timie mail-in order offers were in there.
Like everything else I own, I really didn’t take care of this comic. I don’t have an extensive collection, just a few random of issues of this and that, nowhere near enough to put in a long box, so as I moved around, this comic got a bit beat up. The cover fell off, and the Zatara story, most of it anyway, got torn out of the rest of the issue.
Yes, we are talking about Action Comics #1. But I think it’s time I level with you all: the copy I had was certainly not worth the millions or even thousands that a decent copy of that issue would give me on the market, even if it was in good shape still.
My copy was a reprint. Unlike most reprints of this issue, there were no markings or newer dates indicating that it is a reprint, nor is the issue bigger than a normal comic book (the DC First Editions reprints were about about 13 inches long as opposed to the standard 1o ½). But I could tell even as I was in that strange barn buying the issue that I wasn’t buying the real thing, and it wasn’t just because my luck is never, ever that good. The paper: that’s how I could tell. Back then, they printed the inside pages on newsprint, but the paper in my issue was perfect white and very smooth to the touch. Still, I asked around, and talked to a few people knowledgeable in these things and they told me the thing wasn’t valuable before I even finished telling whatever story I was going to tell them (how would that kind of conversation look when illustrated with word bubbles?).
So, I half turned my attention to the stories themselves. First and foremost is the fact that this issue presents us with Superman’s debut appearance. His origin is told in one quick and rather amusing page (its pretty much origin as we all know it, save for the fact that he was raised in an orphanage and the Kents are not shown here) and the rest of the issue he puts away crooks, bad guys and gangsters. What’s funny is how different his approach is from the kind of boyscout that’s familiar to all of us. He kicks down doors, smashes cars into rocks (just like the scene on the cover) and ties up women, carries them without any dignity as he darts about, and leaves them outside. Sure, she might be a criminal but still…
It hardly matters. It’s here that Superman, the first and most iconic superhero, made his debut. Though different, he is just close enough. It’s certainly much closer than the original idea of the character, where he seemed like more of an evil Professor X bent on taking over the world.
No, this is Superman. This is what makes this issue so special and so valuable. Everything has to start somewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the other stories are a bit trite and dated.. at least they seemed to be. I “skimmed” them. Read them? I’m not getting paid enough to read them for this review. (Back off, that’s a joke).
Wait, just wait. I did read another story, the Mystery of the Freight Train Robberies. Our hero here is the magician Zatara, whose big contribution to the DC comics milieu was that he was the father of the popular character Zantanna. Zatara himself kind of vanished into obscurity, but in this story, he’s on the case of these freight train robberies (yes, as the title so helpfully suggests). His arch-enemy who’s behind these crimes: the Tigress.
Interestingly, the Tigress isn’t the same Tigress that became popular in comic books years later. No, she’s just a normal, beautiful femme fatale. The only reason she seems to be called the Tigress is that her sweater has orange and black stripes. I should point out that, for a beautiful woman, she has a poor fashion sense. Really: her “tiger” sweater doesn’t match her ankle-length denim skirt OR her yellow high heels. And by the way, she’s jumping freight trains and is first seen in the story on top of a moving train.. wearing the heels and this skirt. Yes. I don’t know a beautiful woman who would get on top of a freight train at all ever, even if she was wearing actual jeans and a raggedy old shirt. This lady is the most interesting character in the history of DC comics (yet I’ve never seen anyone cosplay as her. Hmm).
Anyone know where the sarcasm font is?
The most interesting aspect of the Tigress is that she seems to be in her early twenties, weighs barely a buck twenty, and yet she is physically more than a match for Zatara. This is made clear throughout this adventure. No less than three times in the story, she physically gets the better of the magician, and he never turns the tables on her. Remember that early scene I mentioned where the Tigress is walking along the top of a moving freight train? That’s her first appearance in this adventure, “and with a powerful lunge she shoves the magician off the speeding train.”
Wow. Later she pistol-whips him into unconsciousness, ties him up, and wakes him up by stepping on his chest. She does this with an air of superiority about her. And lastly, she gets the jump on him again near the end, holding him at gunpoint. Of course, one could say that in most (if not all) of these scenarios, she snuck up on him and caught him by surprise. Sure, I’ll buy that. Except he is supposed to be the smartest man ever. And he’s LOOKING for her. Maybe the creators of this comic consciously made more than one unusual choice. First they made a female villain, which is kind of rare. Secondly, they gave her no powers. And thirdly: despite both of the other factors, they wanted to make her physically superior to the male hero. A victory for feminism way back in the thirties? I can’t tell.
Or maybe she did take him by surprise (on three separate occasions, twice knocking him to the ground).
Lastly, as I mentioned before, he never gets the advantage over her, ever, in this story, and the only reason he survives his previous encounters with her at all is his ability to use magic.
I’m not kidding. When she shoves him off the train, his magic allows him to soft-land. When she ties him up, kicks him, and decides to burn the house he’s in, he uses his magic to loosen the ropes. Later, when she holds him at gunpoint, he turns the gun into a bullet.
At least that’s what the panel says. It looks more like banana. I won’t even comment on that one any further (gotta think about the families reading this).
So the adventure ends with him solving the case, I guess, but his female adversary escapes. His partner seems to be concerned for Zatara and says he shouldn’t attempt to go after the girl unless he gets the proper amount of rest first.
Yes, indeed, even When the Tigress is not even in a panel, she’s the most interesting character in the story. I wonder if Zatara fared better against her in their next encounter.
I don’t really care. Comic books of the this era were obviously different then they are today. Like the early Warner Brothers cartoon shorts, the creators of these things were really writing these adventures for themselves, because they didn’t really know what children identified with. This is why I believe that Superman was a bit more brutal in his debut, and it’s why the female villain was superior to the male hero. And its why, years later, that Wonder Woman was created by a man with certain motivations that will also go unspoken here.