Superman’s First Appearance: Hero, Villain, or Something Else?

The thought of Superman being anything other than a hero is a strange one. But in 1938, when we don’t even know  who he is, it’s certainly a possibility.

Try and forget what you know about Superman, and imagine that this comic is fresh off the newsstands. That this is the first time you’ve seen Superman. It’s hard, isn’t it?  In this essay on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “Superman,” Action Comics #1, June 1938, page 2, I will endeavor to explain why within the second page of Superman’s origin, Shuster and Siegel would establish that this character is an unstoppable force, both within the comic, (and ultimately in the world at large) before they ever tell us whether this man is a force for good, or evil. I will show you how in the simple act of requesting an audience with the Governor, we see that nothing us mere mortals can do will be able to stop Superman.

The comic begins with our first look at Superman other than the front cover, a man racing through the air carrying a bound and gagged woman, the text threatening an innocent life. But whose life is at stake, and who threatens that life? Does Superman threaten the life of the woman, or has she been rescued by him? On this page alone, the question is never answered.

The next two panels emphasize that Superman is in a rush; by leaving the bound and gagged woman with a terse “Make yourself comfortable; I haven’t time to attend to it,”  we as readers see Superman has little time to assist her further, before we are rushed off to a pair of panels within the third and final block of the first tier. We don’t see Superman knocking at the door, nor do we wait for an answer. Indeed, we are taken right to the next obstacle in Superman’s way; the manservant. Here we see Superman try and explain that he needs to see the Governor; “it’s a matter of life and death!” Yet we still don’t know whose, nor do we know if this blue clad man is a hero or villain so one can excuse the manservant for his admittedly useless attempts to preserve decorum.

We see next the manservant shut the door on Superman, telling him to wait! Telling him to return in the morning! The sequence of the three shorter panels, indeed two of these panels on the first tier are separated by the thinnest of gutters, tell us that this happens in a swift amount of time, adding to our sense of urgency about this mans need to see the Governor, and the manservant’s attempts to prevent that from happening. He tries to use a door to stop Superman, who, in the next panel, simply bursts through the door, much to the astonishment of the manservant; indeed, for the reader the first time we see the door is when it has already been torn from its hinges. The next panel has Superman standing over the hapless manservant who, obviously terrified, has one last recourse in order to stop the future Man of Steel – the law! “This is illegal entry! I’ll have you arrested!” Superman doesn’t even acknowledge the threat – no, he instead just carries on with what he was doing, he doesn’t care whether he’s breaking the law  it simply doesn’t matter to him sp long as he is able to get where he was going in the first place.

“Answer my question! Are you going to take me to the Governor or not?” With this exchange we see that Superman can be viewed as above such trivial things as doors and law enforcement, and yet he seems to be trying to follow some kind of decorum; he tried knocking, and he tried asking. But when the results weren’t what he was expecting (or, even, waiting for), he simply bulls through both obstacles as if they were nothing.

Now the third, and final tier on the grid is one that I find most interesting – here we have two large panels, deviating slightly from the typical 3×3 grid, and what catches my eye most of all, when looking at the page with a more analytical set of eyes, is that, although the size of the panels slow down the pace of the story, the action depicted within occurs very quickly; the artist has slowed down the readers eye, yet sped up Superman’s movement – I see this as an early peek at Superman’s speed, and yet in relation to the poem on the page, the third tier shows us just how fast Superman reaches the end of his patience – he needs to see the Governor, and he has put up with the minor obstacles in his path for long enough. It is here we see just how pointless, even foolish, the manservant’s attempts to stop Superman have been; Superman simply lifts him above his head with one hand, ignoring the screaming pleas for help! Help! It’s at this point I want to reiterate that, in 1938, we don’t know if the character is a hero or villain yet as he carries the helpless manservant off to whatever fate awaits him, and the Governor, at the hands of this intruder.

On the page alone, it is the Manservant who is standing up for his principles, when a bigger, stronger man simply bullies his way past our night cap wearing hero.

This brings us back to my original point – Shuster and Siegel before they ever try and tell us who this man is, they tell us that he is a man with a purpose, a being that no man or door can stop, or slow down. He has a limited amount of patience, that ultimately runs out early in the page – the entire grid, each of the three tiers, and all nine panels show us this; but what we are never told, what we can only guess at, is whether this revolutionary new character is a hero or villain; whether we should cheer for him, or boo him. At the end of this page, we simply don’t know. But what we do know, with this opening page in the story of Superman, is that Shuster and Siegel have told us that you cannot hold him back. Superman is like nothing you have ever experienced; you cannot slow him down, and you cannot stop him. I wonder, when they were creating this comic and character, if they knew just how right they would be.

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One thought on “Superman’s First Appearance: Hero, Villain, or Something Else?

  1. Pingback: The More Comics Change… | Ramblings Of A Comics Fan

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