Action Comics 1 was published in 1938. In 2011 Grant Morrison spoke about the cover image in his book Supergods.
The cover image that introduced the world to this remarkable character had a peculiar unrepeatable virtue: It showed something no one had ever seen before. It looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rouge car.
The Vivid yellow background with a jagged corona of red – Superman’s colours – suggested some explosive detonation of raw power illuminating the sky. Aside from the bold Deco whoosh of the Action Comics logo, the date (June 1938), the issue (no. 1), and the price (10 cents), there is no copy and not a mention of the name Superman. Additional words would have been superfluous. The message was succinct: Action was what mattered. What a hero did counted far more than the things he said, and from the beginning Superman was in constant motion.
Back to the cover: look at the black haired man dressed in a tight fitting blue and red outfit with a cape trailing behind him as he moves left to right across the drawings equator line. The bright shield design on his chest contained an S (gules on a field or, as they say down the heraldry society). Taking flight as he weightlessly hefts an olive green car above his head. Using both hands, he hammers the vehicle to fragments against a conveniently placed rocky outcrop in what appears to be a desert landscape. In the bottom left corner, a man with a blue business suit runs off the frame, clutching his head like Edvard Munch’s Screamer, his face a cartoon of gibbering existential terror, like a man driven to the city limits of sanity by what he has just witnessed. Above his head, another man, wearing a servative brown two-piece, can be seen racing north to the first man’s west. A third, equally terrified, character crouches on his hands and knees, jacketless, gaping at the feet of the superhuman vandal. His abject posture displays his whimpering submission to the ultimate alpha male. There is no fourth man: His place in the lower right corner is taken by a bouncing Whitehall tire torn from its axle. Like the bug-eyed bad guys, it too is trying its best to get away from the destructive muscleman.
In any other hands but Superman’s, the green roadster on that inaugural cover would boast proudly of America’s technological superiority and the wonders of mass manufacturing. Imagine the oozing add copy: ‘’luxurious Whitehall tire trim makes it seem like you’re driving on whipped cream,’’ and black-and-white newsreel cars in mind-boggling procession, rolling off the automated belts at Ford. But this was August 1938. Production lines were making laborers redundant across the entire developed world while Charlie Chaplin’s poignant film masterpiece Modern Times articulated in pantomime the silent crime of the little fellow, the authentic man, not to be forgotten above the relentless din of the factory floor.
Superman has made his position plain: He was a hero of the people. The original Superman was a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and the soulless industrialism. We would see this early incarnation wrestling giant trains to a standstill, overturning tanks, or bench-pressing construction cranes. Superman rewrote folk hero john Henry’s brave, futile battle with the steam hammer to have a happy ending. He made explicit the fantasies of power and the agency that kept the little fellow trudging along toward another sunset fade-out. He was Charlie’s tramp character, with the same burning hatred of injustice and bullies, but instead of guile and charm, Superman had the strength of fifty men, and nothing could hurt him. If the dystopian nightmare versions of the age foresaw a dehumanised, mechanised world, Superman offered another possibility: an image of a fiercely human tomorrow that delivered the spectacle of triumphant individualism exercising its sovereignty over the implacable forces of industrial oppression. It’s no surprise that he was a big hit with the oppressed. He was a resolutely lowbrow, as pro-poor, as any saviour born in a pigsty.
Returning to the cover again, notice how the composition is based around a barley hidden X shape, which gives the drawing its solid framework and graphic appeal. This subliminal X suggests the intriguing unknown, and that’s exactly what Superman was when Action Comics no. 1 was published: the caped enigma at the eye of a Pop Art storm. He stands at the centre of the compass, master of the four elements and the cardinal directions. In Haitian voodoo, the crossroads is the gateway to the loa (or spirit) Legba, another manifestation of the ‘’god’’ known variously as Mercury, Thoth, Ganesh, Odin or Ogma. Like these others, Legba is a gate keeper and guards the boundary where the human and divine worlds make contact. It makes perfect sense for Superman to inhabit the same nexus.
As a compositional crossbar, the X composition allowed Shuster to get a number of elements in a spinning motion that highlighted the central figure. There are moving people with expressions on their faces, car parts, and very bright colours, but layered over the firm brace of the X, they form a second, spiral arrangement that drags our eye up and around on a perceptual Ferris wheel, eliciting frantic questions as it compels our minds into motion:
Why is this running man so scared?
What’s the car doing up there?
Why is it being smashed against the rock?
What is the man on his knees looking at?
Knowing what we do of Superman today, we can assume that the fleeing, frightened men are gangsters of some kind. Readers in 1938 simply had no idea what was going on. Undoubtedly, action would be involved, but the first glimpse of Superman was deliberately ambiguous. The men were taken for granted as fleeing gangsters could as easily be ordinary passers-by running from grimacing power thug in some kind of Russian ballet dancer kit. There’s no stolen loot spilling from the swag bags, no blue five o’clock shadows, cheap suits, or even weapons to identify the fleeing men as anything other than innocent onlookers. Based on first appearances alone, this gaudy muscleman could be friend or foe, and the only way to answer a multitude of questions is to read on.
But there’s a further innovation to notice, another clever trick to lure us inside. The cover image is a snapshot from the climax of a story we’ve yet to see. By the time the world catches up to Superman, he’s concluding an adventure we’ve already missed! Only by reading the story inside can we put the image in context.