DC Comics Classics Reviews

Where it all started, the birth of the Trinity: Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27 & All Star Comics #8

I thought I would kick off the DC Comics Classics Reviews with a much needed look at the first appearances of each of DC’s Big Three characters. Which surprisingly I have not read up to this point! The closest I have ever gotten is drooling over an actual copy of Action Comics #1 at Comic Con (do not worry it was behind protective glass!) a few years ago when I was lucky enough to go. I looked upon it like some sort of holy grail and did not think anything of actually reading it at some point. The same goes for Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 and Wonder Woman’s in All Star Comics #8.

Hell I had even picked up digital copies of these issues in the various 101 sales for each character that DC throw up on the Comics App from time to time. I felt like I had to have them, reading them or not was not the point, just owning them in some form was good enough. (I am a weird guy give me a break!) I have read the first appearance of many a comic book character, most notably Marvel ones but for some reason I put of reading the starting points for DC’s Trinity. Maybe it is because I am a lifelong Marvel reader and I only really got into DC in my late teens, so I have had less time and chances for these first appearances to drop into my lap. They are three characters I dearly love where my affection for them has grown initially through their use in other media which either defined them or used a well defined version of the character. (Most notably the DC Animated Universe versions of the characters) Maybe part of me did not want to see these early versions out of fear that it would somehow break them for me. Make the curtains fall down and shatter what thoughts and feelings I held for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman close to my heart. The more I think about it the weirder it seems that I had not read these three comics.

So they sat there for the longest time on my iPad unread and unloved…..

UNTIL NOW!

I am insanely glad I took the time to read this all important three single issues because not only it is interesting to see how different they are to their modern iterations but to see how everything started and what was there from the get go. Also these three comics have played a huge, sweeping and important part in both global pop culture history and Americana. It makes me ashamed that I put it off for this long.

Incidentally Action Comics #1 is $0.99 and Detective Comics/All Star Comics #27 & #8 are both free on the DC Digital front. So you really do not have a reason not to read them yourself if like me you have not already.

Action Comics #1 (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)

Out of all three first appearances and perhaps to little surprise the Superman seen in Action Comics #1 is vastly different that the Man of Steel we know and love today. The Superman presented here is very, very bare bones. His origin told via a single page and missing key elements such as Ma & Pa Kent and Smallville which were added further down the line. Instead this Superman was raised in an orphanage and works for the Daily Star (the Daily Planet another element yet to be added) and his amazing powers are explained to the reader by comparing them to equivalencies in insects. Which is both strange yet understandable at the same time!

The only longterm supporting character there from the start is of course Lois Lane. Her relationship with Clark is slightly different from what we are used to seeing. Rather than not paying attention to him because he intentionally blends into the background, she ignores him because of his perceived weakness and cowardice. This is not just Lois wanting a strong man to protect her more her wanting a man of equal strength and standing to her. There are hints of the strong, independent female reporter in this early version of the character which is very good to see wether is was intentional on the part of Jerry & Joe or not.

As with most early comic books the story is very incidental and stuff just kind of happens at the whims of the writer and artist team of Siegel and Shuster. It begins with Superman forcing his way into a Governor’s mansion to save the life of an innocent woman on death row. Instead of knocking on the door, demanding entry and fighting his case for delivering his evidence with words like a reasonable person. Supes just barges in, picks up the Governor’s attendent and then proceeds to rip the very odd locked metal door that leads to the Governor’s bedroom off its hinges. In a brief scuffle he gets shot then finally gets the Governor to see sense and look at the evidence. This is cool and all until you remember the woman from the first two panels of the story.

Dumped on the ground of the Governor’s estate with no explanation whatsoever. Who is she? Why is she tied up? Is she Friend or Foe? Obviously she is there to show Superman was doing things and saving lives prior to appearing on the page but the connotations it draws are quite amusing! I mean, come on! Just look at the dress she is wearing!

The rest of the issue deals with Superman dealing with a wife beater, a bunch of thugs who kidnap Lois (which is the reason behind the iconic cover image) and then ends with Supes starting to route out corruption in the capitol. A lot of stuff happens in this comic. It is a fast paced read and the art holds up quite well. Superman never seems to stop moving, he is always running or leaping somewhere. A man of action and justice fighting for what is right no matter who gets in his way. You really can see the elements that Grant Morrison has focused in on for his new version of the early days of Superman in the New 52 Action Comics. This is a Superman that does not pull his punches, as a result he ends up kicking a lot ass and taking a fair few names.

A great quick read and you can really see why it took off and inspired this whole superhero lark that is slowly but surely taking over the world.

Detective Comics #27 (Bill Finger & Bob Kane)

Detective is perhaps the closest to the modern version of the character simply because the basics of Batman are easy to understand. Also instead of explaining the nitty gritty of who Batman is and why it is he does what he does instead we get a simple adventure to introduce us to him. As a result he is a blank slate that any version of the character (modern, retro, Adam West, etc.) can easily slide into. We get Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, then Bat-Man (as he is called in this original adventure) attacking and scaring the crap out of villains while uncovering a mystery. The only major difference is that Batman does not have much care for the lives of the villains he is hunting down. Best shown by his to the point and unemotional reaction to the story’s evil mastermind falling into an acid tank.

Today a quick grapple hook grab would save the villain and leave him dangling over the acid waiting for the police to cut him down. It is a moment that out of place by today’s interpretation of Batman but in context of the time it is just the bad guy getting his comeuppance. Other the weirdness of issue comes from Bruce Wayne just casually hanging out with Commissioner Gordon and being allowed to come to crime scenes like it is a regular thing. Wayne is described as Gordon’s “young socialite friend” so make of that what you will (wink, wink, nudge, nudge!). As ever the story just sort of happens with little rhyme or reason although some effort is made to make the murder-plot that runs throughout the issue understandable.

The other aspect I really liked of Batman’s first appearance has to be the art. It is very colourful. Lots of bright reds and greens and the line work reminds me of early Hergé Tintin comics. Scratchy and full of exaggeration. While there are some inconsistencies with it such as Bruce Wayne’s awesome suit changing from a greeny-yellow to a more orangey-brown on the next page or a wrench magically appearing in Batman’s hand to allow him to bash his way out of a death trap. It all ends up being part of the comic’s charm. A sort of a weird mix of the Adam West style Batman and the darker modern interpretations of the character. A mix that I would not mind being explored more in the current comics.

All Star Comics #8 (Charles Moulton & Harry G. Peter)

Wonder Woman’s first appearance is perhaps the most interesting out of the three because it is so full of contradictions in the character and it takes an interesting approach to laying out the comic and telling the story. The Wonder Woman present here is an odd character. Feminist and stronger than any man, as the opening description proudly says, and fiercely independent with Diana constantly defying her mother to prove her worth. This is all great and is the core of what makes Wonder Woman such a unique character. You can see why everyone attached themselves to these aspects of the character and in turn made Wonder Woman into a feminist icon. Moulton’s wish to provide a counterbalance to the mega-male characters of Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel (the Shazam! one not the Marvel Captain Marvel one) drove his creation of Wonder Woman and her ideals. This is all awesome but then we get things like Diana, in her own words, saying that she has fallen in love with a man, Steve Trevor.

You might be thinking that this is not really a big deal because Steve Trevor is Diana’s equivalent to Lois Lane. Yes that is fine and more recent versions of the character show that relationship to its strengths. What makes this original version of it broken to the point that it undermines Wonder Woman’s core is that Diana falls in love with him while he is unconscious after his plane crashes on Paradise Island. They have never exchanged words or even a moment of mutual physical contact. To the sleeping Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman pretty much does not exist. I do not know about you but relationships take time to develop and love comes about from getting to know each other. That Diana so readily falls in love with a man she has not even had a conversation with completely undermines her feminist ideals. He is the first man she has ever seen and almost instantaneously she is devoted to him. It is just plain weird!

Apart from this odd jarring subplot the rest of the comic is gold. Harry G. Peter’s art is top notch for the time and fits both the character and story really well. It shows how far things had moved on in such a relatively short space of time. (Action Comics #1 was published in 1938, Detective Comics #27 1939 and All Star Comics #8 in 1941) Also like I said we still see the strong and independent Wonder Woman we all know and love today in there. Diana secretly entering the tournament to win the opportunity to travel to man’s world and winning it is straight out of Greek Myth. Another great and often overlooked aspect is that right from the get go Paradise Island is established as a mix of Ancient Greek tradition and advanced technology. Out the three characters of the Trinity, Wonder Woman emerges the most fully formed and as such a lot of elements introduced in this single issue are still in play today. The structure of the book itself though is an odd mix of ideas. It has standard comic book panels and story flow then suddenly slap bang in the middle we get a story book like section.

Included for no other reason than to give the reader the backstory of the Amazons in an info dump. It breaks the flow somewhat but it is sort of understandable. Moulton had a limited amount of space to introduce Wonder Woman and her origin so some condensing of information was required to fit it all in. Although it could be argued that Steve Trevor’s lengthy flashback could have received the info dump treatment instead of the more important origins of the Amazons.

Like I said it was the most interesting read out of the three first appearances and is also the strongest comic out of all three too. It is just a bit of a shame that Charles Moulton undermines his creation to a certain degree in the process of creating her.

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7 thoughts on “DC Comics Classics Reviews

  1. It’s really fun to see some one starting out at the beginning. Especially when reading Grant Morrison’s stuff – because he channels so much of the original intent.

    The reason why Superman Action #1 is so broken is that it is a cut and paste job – ie the story has been chopped up from panels that were drawn to go into Newspaper funny pages. The whole story can be found in Superman #1 which was reprinted at length.

    Also Siegel had a very developed idea of Superman – his late 30’s efforts can be found in the reprints of the Newspaper strips, which deal with Krypton Jor-L and Lara as it was.

    In ’34 he had an alternative origin in a strip with Shuster, the Siegel-Keaton strip in which Superman is a time traveller. ‘Superboy’s’ problems are more comparable to the Smallville show than Superboy comics.

    The Bat-Man was gun toting killer, owing more to the Mystery-Men strips ( with the killing ) than Superman even if the character’s commission & the caped look was inspired by the formers success. This was later softened when Robin was introduced, Robin took the place of Bruce’s Fiance Julie Madison as his sidekick.

    Marston’s Wonder Woman is amazing of course; I guess his use of Steve Trevor must be seen as gary-stu ( of himself ) and for the reader – it worked because WW got her comic!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

      Action Comics is a weird one because like you say it is a reprint of multiple newspaper strips with added bits to make it one whole. I wouldn’t say it is completely broken. I still had fun reading it. I’ve looked into all the build up, failed attempts and iterations that lead to Action Comics #1 in the past and it is interesting reading. All the elements you mentioned were slowly re-worked and added to the character over time as a process of trial and error. Which is one of the reasons why I think Superman has one of the strongest origin stories out of any superhero because it developed over time.

      The Bat-Man as killer stuff to me is kind of mute. Everyone always makes a big deal of it but the evolution of Batman from pulp inspired vigilante to caped crusader with sidekick in toe took less than a year. The guns quickly gave way to batarangs and his utility belt. In the grand timeline of all things Batman him holding a gun is a small blip at the beginning. After Batman #1 it was decided that Batman would no longer kill people by editorial mandate. So while early Superman evolved gradually, Batman it seems had more of a business like approach taken to it. Robin came out from the need to humanise the character, make him more talkative and to give Batman a foil to bounce off of. MovieBob has a great video on Robin over on The Escapist: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/6191-Sidekicks that is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it already. (Also many of his over comic book related videos are well worth watching too!)

      Both Batman and Superman had a long way to go after these first appearances but like I said and I guess you agree, Wonder Woman came out the most fully formed or the three in her first appearance. Mainly because Moulton was fighting for her to get her own title so he needed to put everything in it from the get go.

      1. Of course every character has had their origin evolved and or reinterpreted for the times.
        What’s vital IMO is that this remains true to the spirit of the story, but not the letter, which is why Morrison’s Action works better for me than Byrne’s Man of Steel.

        I remember reading the argument that Superman was bare bones in the Golden Age and built up over time by E. Nelson Bridwell in Superman from the 30’s to the 70’s intro.

        I just don’t find that convincing any more. Superman’s origin was pretty much fleshed out by Siegel, what happens afterwards is tinkering at the edges – for example Kryptonite oft touted as invented by the Radio show, is only K-Metal renamed, and Smallvilles Meteor Rock Freaks are there in K-Metal story, with a character gaining tremendous strength when exposed to K-Metal.

        Sure there was evolution in the narrative – some at the hand of Siegel, some by the later writers, all good, but these tweaks aren’t any more radical than those made to Batman or Wonder Woman – or others.

        For example Alfred is a key part of the Bat Mythos now, but wasn’t there in the beginning, and was a funny character when first introduced.
        Batman’s gun usage isn’t remarkable in context, it was common place at the times. It was Superman who didn’t kill deliberately – something Siegel expanded on – that was remarkable – actually I heard this in contemporary radio piece praising Superman for not killing with guns – that changed the game – Batman’s evolution is reactionary, and shows how the Mystery Man character was redefined by the New Superhero idea that Siegel & Shuster created.

        Marston set out to create a feminine answer to Superman, which was driven by his own brand feminism. Which is very interesting given the time and place.

  2. My favourite Detective Comics story ever is “And Red All Over” (Detective Comics # 796, September 2004). It is a perfect combination of story and action, it pleasantly focuses on Bruce’s ethic and way of thinking, it has a very enjoyable atmosphere and, the icing on the cake, the cover is drawn by Tim Sale.

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