Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Action #1 Retro review

The single most important event in the entire history of comic books is the publication of Action #1 in June of 1938. All of the millions and millions of comics printed since…the movies…TV Shows…radio programs…T-shirts…lunch boxes…video games….toys and countless other forms of merchandise…ALL of it sprung from a single ten cent comic with a new type of character created by two young boys from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published by a former soft core pornographer named Harry Donenfeld.
Think about that. Action #1 was the source…the well spring for a hobby that has just celebrated itself at the San Diego Comic Con with well over 100,000 attendees.
In just the past year two copies of Action #1 have sold for over one million dollars.
Most importantly, Action #1 gave us Superman. Nothing would ever be the same. It is safe to say that, without this watershed event, it is very likely that our hobby would be very different today…if it existed at all.
While many, if not most comic fans have read that first Superman story, very few are familiar with the entire issue. The 64 page wonder that IS Action #1. So right here, we are going to step into our time machine and go back to the newsstand that used to occupy the corner of 34th and Lexington Avenue, fork over a dime for a copy and read it (SLOWLY) while we sip on cold Chocolate Egg Creams!
Yes my friends …THIS is an Action #1 RETRO REVIEW!!!

Imagine being a 10 year old boy back in 1939. You have never seen Star Wars. You know nothing about “superheroes” because they don’ exist yet. The word “computer” means nothing to you. Out of nowhere the cover of Action #1 catches your eye! A powerful figure clad in blue, red and yellow, with a flowing cape carries a car over his head. Smashing it into a small hill, pieces of the car flying into the air. He scatters the crooks who run, literally, for their lives.
WOW! What a cover! This particular cover has been copied and paid homage to many times over the years. It remains THE iconic cover in all of comics.

Above Buffy the Vampire Slayer pays Homage to Action #1…and very stylishly to boot!
Inside that cover is a promotional contest that engages the reader to color in the splash page for the black and white Chuck Dawson feature. (Yes, early Golden Age comics often had features in black and white!) The ad promises a cash prize of ONE WHOLE DOLLAR for the 25 best entries!

The lead story is, of course the first appearance of SUPERMAN!

As a distant planet is destroyed by old age, a scientist places his infant son in a space capsule and launches it toward Earth. The capsule is found by a passing motorist, who brings the baby to an orphanage, where the child astounds the attendants with his superhuman powers. Young Clark Kent, can jump over buildings, lift enormous weights, and run faster than a freight train. His skin is impenetrable. Clark dedicates himself to serve humanity as Superman, the champion of the oppressed.

In his first adventure, Superman learns that an innocent woman named Evelyn Curry is to be executed for murder. He captures the real murderess, and delivers her, bound and gagged, to the governor's mansion. He breaks through the door to confront the governor, and convinces him to call off the execution at the last minute.

At the Daily Star, where Clark works as a reporter, he's given the assignment to cover the stories about a man with amazing strength named Superman. He hears a tip about a wife-beating, and rushes off to cover it -- then changes into Superman, and stops the man before he kills his wife.

Returning to the Daily Star, Superman asks fellow reporter Lois Lane out on a date; she accepts out of pity. A thug named Butch tries to cut in while Clark and Lois are dancing. To protect his secret identity, Clark pretends to be a cowardly weakling. Convinced that Clark is a spineless worm, Lois slaps Butch and walks out. Enraged, Butch and his friends leave the club and take Lois prisoner. Superman spots them and gives chase, smashing the car with his bare hands. He picks Lois up into his arms and carries her to safety. She's astonished, and the next morning, she tells her editor about her experience with Superman.

Clark is given an assignment to go to San Monte, a war-torn South American republic. First, he goes to Washington, D.C., where he spies a slick lobbyist, Alex Greer, trying to convince Senator Barrows to involve the US in a war with Europe. Superman grabs Greer, and demands to know who he's working for. Greer refuses to talk, so Superman jumps up to the top of the Capitol building, and threatens to smash Greer to the ground. To be continued

The story is frenetic…disjointed and illustrated in a minimalist style that borders on chicken scratch. Yet all of the elements of the modern superhero are there. The energy and the color are there. This first Superman tale reads like an old Warner’s Brothers Jimmy Cagney movie. The Man of Steel is not battling super powered foes, aliens from space or Dinosaurs. He is dealing with corruption, wife beaters, and hoods. It is the perfect Depression era power fantasy. Not only did it resonate with the youth of the time, the story actually remains fresh and fun to this day.
The next feature is Chuck Dawson (he of the coloring contest!). It is standard western fare written and illustrated by Homer Fleming. Chuck’s father had been killed by bad guys who then took over his ranch, The Circle D. After returning growing to maturity on his Uncle’s spread in Wyoming, Chuck returns to settle the score!! As I said this is standard western fare. However, the art work is first rate. In fact it is much better than Shuster’s work in the Superman feature. Perhaps the lack of color, which often obscured the fine lines of the artist, had something to do with it. None the less, Chuck Dawson is a very well drawn strip.

Next up, and in color(!), is Zatara by Fred Guardineer
“Champion of Law and order. The World’s greatest Magician and his faithful assistant, Tong (you can’t make this stuff up!), have dedicated their lives to wiping out the forces of Outlawry(?) led by the beautiful woman criminal and Zarara’s arch-enemy, “the Tigress’. Now they are atempting to solve “The Mystery Of The Freight Train Robberies”
Like his daughter, the MUCH yummier Zatanna, Zatara conjures by speaking backwards. Which is about the only thing worth noting about this story. For some reason early comics were heavily populated by crime fighting magicians and Zatara is pretty much the standard spell casting do-gooder.

“South Sea Strategy” by “Captain Frank Thomas” is a two page prose filler about an island jungle, kidnapped beauty and the hero who plans to rescue her. Text pages were required in order for comics publishers to qualify for Fourth Class mailing rates. This practice continued into the 1960’s when I was starting to collect myself. I never read them. Neither did any kid I knew. Nuff said!

Sticky-Mitt Stimpson is a comedy strip featuring an inept thief who manages to get nearly the entire police force on his tail when he snatches an orange from a local street vendor. It has that Mutt and Jeff/Gasoline Alley sort of look and is a rather delightful diversion. I could easily see this as a Sunday Newspaper strip of the time.

The next feature is entitled “The Adventures Of Marco Polo” by Svel Elven and details the travels of the real life explorer as a young man in the year 1271. His party runs afoul of Babylonian Warships and his quest to deliver the Pope’s greetings and two Priests to the Khan Of Tartary to impart their knowledge of Europe. Think “Classics illustrated” and you have a pretty good idea about the look and how it reads. This strip is not bad for what it is, but seems out of place in Action. The artwork for this strip is more on the higher level of the newspaper strips of the time. (Comic book art was for the most part inferior to newspaper strip art. The best artists made much more money doing their work for the more prestigious news papers)
Next up is Fred Guardineer’s “Pep” Morgan, A Joe Palooka precursor about a boxer (Pep) and how he foils a crooked boxers attempt to cheat his way to victory. Boxing movies were very popular in Hollywood at that time so the inclusion of a boxing strip in an “Action” comic makes perfect sense. Guardineer actually does a much better job writing AND illustrating Pep Morgan than he did with Zatara. In fact it looks as if at least some of Pep Morgan was produced by a “ghost” artist as was common practice at the time.

Scoop Scanlon Five Star Reporter is another black and white effort, this time by Will Ely. As I mentioned earlier, early comics often had black and white features in with the color work. This was often done so that printing deadlines could be met. In the late 30’s the “crusading reporter” was extremely popular in films , pulps and novels. Said crusading reporters spent less time writing than they did beating up n the bad guys. So it went with “Scoop” in this standard actioner. Eli looks to have borrowed something of the look of Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy”. While his lines are softer than Gould’s, you can see the square jawed Tracy in the profile of Scoop Scanlon.

The final feature in Action #1 is “Tex Thompson” by Bernard Baily. Tex, having struck it rich in oil, travels the world in search of adventure. His first appearance here follows, Tex to England where he runs afoul of a beautiful murderess. Tex is notable because he would later take on the Identities of Mr. America and The Americommando!

Finally the inside back cover is Odds N ends by Moldoff which is a series of small sports oriented cartoons. It features Lou Gehrig who had not yet played his 2,000th consecutive game!

The rear outside cover features offerings from Johnson Smith & Company, purveyors of novelties! I love this stuff. You can buy all sorts of great novelties for a few sense. Want to learn to tap dance/ Want to throw your voice? Need Bulldog fish hooks? Johnson Smith is your man!!
So there it is. Action #1 cover to cover! Some of this book…well ALL of this book may seem simplistic and even amateurish by today’s standards but every comic that has been published since owes it’s existence to Action #1 and there is not a single superhero that does not borrow at least something from this first Superman strip.

That’s 30!


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