Review: Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman: The Deluxe Edition hardcover (DC Comics)

In celebration of Action Comics #1000, DC Comics has released Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman, a deluxe commemorative hardcover collecting key issues of Action along with essays. It is an interesting and affecting book, worth reading before Action #1000 to contextualize and put one in the right mindset for that volume. A number of the essays, including by former DC executive Paul Levitz and writer Larry Tye, try to convey the enormity of a Superman comic having been published continuously every month for the past eighty years; the logistics are almost too much to fully comprehend, but reading multiple perspectives on the feat brings it home ahead of the issue itself.

After essays by Levitz, Jerry Siegel's daughter Laura Siegel Larson, and comics stalwart Jules Feiffer, the book opens fittingly with Superman's two-part debut in Action Comics #1 and #2. As one of only two two-part stories in the book, Superman's debut actually carries more heft and thematic weight in the book than I'd necessarily expected, especially with all the prose emphasis on Superman's long road to publication and then how these one or two comics essentially immediately solidified Superman's fame and the superhero genre for the next eighty years to come. Levitz and Larson specifically set the scene well for how every panel of what follows passed right away into legend.

It's been a while since I've read these issues, and perhaps the first time with a critically experienced eye. On one hand, the Golden Age leaps of logic and non sequiturs abound in the early Action Comics issues, like that the local governor sleeps behind a steel door or a bizarre sequence in which three men kidnap Lois Lane outside a club after she refuses one of their advances, an act with heinous implications that Siegel and Joe Shuster treat too matter-of-factly. Lois is arrested overseas on accusations of spying, tried, and sentenced to execution all in the span of about a page, a charmingly brief sequence we know would take six issues minimum to unfold now.

On the other hand, the narrative structure is often deceptively complex, as when the writers confound the readers' expectations for Superman at the beginning by having him arrive in medias res with a bound woman in tow, whom we don't understand until two pages later is a confessed murderer. This intentional ambiguity in Superman's first act of superheroics -- if he's a hero, why does he have this woman tied up? -- thematically represents the push-and-pull of Superman that would dog him for the next 80 years -- he seems nice but then again can we trust him with all these powers?

And though again plot holes abound, the first story ends with Superman forcing a weapons profiteer to fight in war until he recants his illegal sales, and also making two opposing generals talk out the reasons for their war. Despite that this Superman has a tendency to throw underlings out windows with no regard for their survival, what's demonstrated in these early issues is a Superman who ultimately triumphs by changing hearts and minds, not by fisticuffs. Despite appearances by Toyman and Brainiac in the story, we also get a sense -- at least as far as this book is concerned -- of Superman stories being concerned more often with terrestrial, even mundane matters: corrupt politicians, the dispensation of a conflicted will, how best to hide and later reveal the presence of Supergirl, often humorous matters of protecting Superman's identity, and the coming of age tribulations of a young Clark Kent. The whole lore of Superman might not hold this up, but this book presents Superman as a traditional superhero right off but then quickly ducks away toward stories other than just hero versus villain.

Aside from Superman, the other character who gets most emphasis in this volume is Supergirl, who indeed also debuted in Action and who receives a significant chunk of the middle of the book. References to Supergirl in the essays, however, do tend to decry her as an interloper, and Larson's is the only female voice in the book; I guess Kara will have to wait another couple decades for her own 80-year hardcover. There's also the Toyman, Brainiac, and the Fortress of Solitude, each of which is surprisingly not that far off from the broad strokes of their modern-era iterations. The stories in the book also give nods to Superman's then warm and fuzzy friendship with Batman, which is a nice touch.

All eighty years of Action Comics are represented here, but if anything gets short shrift, it seemed like it's the semi-modern era. The 1970s-1980s Bronze Age (post-Silver Age, pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths) isn't represented by more than a Human Target backup story, the Earth 2 story of Superman's marriage to Lois Lane for Action's 40th anniversary (issue #484), and a one-off riff on Siegel and Shuster creating Superman by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane. None of these are poor stories by any means, especially the latter two, but there's not much sense here of the day-to-day 1970s status quo of Clark Kent, TV news reporter, nor the Action Comics that ran parallel to the Dennis O'Neil stripped down version in Superman.

There's no overt mention of Crisis, either, and while the John Byrne issue here is apt -- Byrne's first Action Comics issue, with Superman vs. the Teen Titans -- it doesn't feel quite so representative of Byrne's Superman run as perhaps the Superman vs. Superboy issue would have been, or Byrne's Lois Lane/Lana Lang issue, or Silver Banshee's first debut to go with her later appearance in the volume. (We might could have also used a strip from Action Comics Weekly.) There's a lovely cover gallery in the back of the book, but it unfortunately dubs the entirety of Byrne through the end of the original Triangle Titles as "The Dark Age." This is for lack of a better moniker with "Bronze Age," "Modern Age," and "Now" all assigned, but images like a cover from "Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite" hardly deserve the suggestion of being "grim and gritty," and especially not as compared to the New 52 era.

I did as a matter of fact tear up reading the Tim Sale sequence in Action Comics #800 reprinted here, referencing obviously Jeph Loeb's son Sam before he passed away from cancer. Joe Kelly's framing story is also lovely, as is the art in the main sequences by Pascual Ferry and Duncan Rouleau, who gave the Superman comics at the time a wide expressiveness. The book also has a strong back-up and main feature by Roger Stern (the latter being where Clark Kent reveals his identity to Lois Lane in the modern era); I don't think Stern gets enough credit for the 1990s era of Superman comics but his name deserves mention in the same breath as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway. Drawing Stern's stories are Kerry Gammill and Bob McLeod, each of whose clear, straightforward style is some of the best of DC at the time; again I think it's often overlooked how a month of 1990s Superman titles in their heyday with art by some combination of Gammill, McLeod, Jurgens, and Ordway were each so similar and so well drafted as to really make one feel like they were reading a weekly title.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman: The Deluxe Edition

The "lost" Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story reprinted for the first time in Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman offers no new great revelations about the Man of Steel; it is a comedy story, another in this genre of Superman as the anti-superhero superhero, and the book is even cagey about whether it's really by Siegel and Shuster. What is more gripping here is Marv Wolfman's story of saving the pages during a trip to the DC offices in young adulthood and the sheer magnitude of how the comics industry has changed since then -- that DC Comics offered a weekly office tour, that moreover than handing out original pieces of comic book art, as late as the 1960s, said art might simple be taken to the office incinerator. What a far piece from that time until today, and from 1938 to today, that Siegel and Shuster's first Superman story should still be available to read, and available to be bought online by credit card and read on a handheld computer. What this book represents is improbable, nigh impossible, and yet Superman remains largely unchanged. I have doubted at times we would reach Action Comics #1000; I am confident now we'll be celebrating Superman's 100th anniversary in twenty years time.

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Reviewed Item
Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman: The Deluxe Edition
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4 (scale of 1 to 5)


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