History was made this week with the release of the 1000th issue of Action Comics, the first non-weekly comic book series to reach that magical number. Naturally, when you have that many issues released over the years, you are bound to have a number of amazing comic book covers, as well. Interestingly, though, when it came to Superman covers, DC Comics (then called National) tended to put more of their cover efforts into Superman's solo title, Superman, then Action Comics. So most of what you think of in terms of the most iconic Superman covers appeared on that series. However, that left plenty of amazing covers for Action Comics, as well.
Due to there being an inordinate amount of great covers from certain eras, we felt that the fairest way to handle this list, to give you an accurate view of Superman's history, would be to limit each decade to five covers. Therefore, there might be certain eras (like the 1960s, in particular) who otherwise would have had more books on the list. Note that in terms of "greatness," we're taking into account not just how well-drawn the covers are, but how iconic and historic they were, as well. Essentially, which covers would show up if you were writing a history of Superman.
The first issue's cover (by Joe Shuster) gets its own spot on the list because it is such an important cover that it really isn't fair to compare it to the other books on the list. This is the comic book cover that changed the entire comic book industry, as it was the introduction of the first comic book superpowered hero (or "superhero," if you prefer) and right from the cover, you can see just how different Superman is from the other heroes appearing in comic books at the time.
Interestingly, the cover is essentially just a blown-up panel from inside the comic itself, and the comic itself was made by cutting up comic strips that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created to try to sell Superman as a newspaper comic strip. So it's a blow up of a cut up panel. Interesting journey to becoming one of the most familiar images in comic book history (and certainly one of the most homaged images).
ACTION COMICS #13
So much time has passed since the introduction of Superman that we sometimes lose track of just how different the character was at the time. Things that we now just take for granted were once seen as truly unusual events of the day. For instance, Superman's super strength is now just an accepted part of the character's status quo, but in the early years, it was still very novel. We hear "More powerful than a locomotive" and we just accept it as a matter of course. At the time, though, seeing Superman actually be more powerful than a locomotive, like this Joe Shuster comic book cover, was a thrilling sight.
ACTION COMICS #27
One of the first comic book artists to "ghost" draw Superman (that is, draw the character not only without credit, but while pretending to be a different artist) in place of Joe Shuster (who could not keep up with the deadlines of a character who was exploding in popularity and thus more and more content featuring the character was expected) was Paul Cassidy. Much of what we think of as the traditional Golden Age depiction of Superman was designed by Cassidy, who had been one of Shuster's earliest assistants. On this striking cover (Gary Frank would later homage this cover during Superman's 75th anniversary), Lois Lane was also featured for the first time, establishing the historic dynamic between Superman and his regular damsel-in-distress, Lois Lane.
ACTION COMICS #40
What's notable about this Fred Ray cover is that it was published in the Summer of 1941, half of a year before the United States would get involved in World War II. However, the rhetoric in superhero comics was decidedly anti-Nazi well before the United States actually declared war on Nazi Germany. This is the first major propaganda cover for Action Comics. There would be other, likely more notable covers (involving slapping the Japanese, for instance), but the casual racism that was involved in war propaganda led us to pick this earlier cover as the symbol for Superman's Action Comics war propaganda covers. It's a really strong drawing by Ray.
ACTION COMICS #52
Something that often gets overlooked when thinking of the history of Action Comics is that for roughly a decade, the book was primarily an anthology. Superman was clearly the most famous character in the series, but he was not the only hero in the book by any stretch of the imagination. This great 1942 Fred Ray propaganda cover shows the other heroes of the series, getting an extremely rare cover spotlight along with the Man of Steel. From left to right, you have the Americommando, Vigilante, Zatara and Congo Bill.
ACTION COMICS #112
After the war, the covers of Action Comics often used clever imagery on the cover. There's a really good one where Superman punches the keys on a giant cash register to knock some crooks out with the giant drawer of the cash register. However, the cover that we're going to spotlight is one of Superman's most popular villains of the 1940s, Mister Mxyztplk (the spelling of the time). Mister Mxyztplk led to some very creative cover designs, like this one by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye (the Superman art team of the era).
ACTION COMICS #171
One of the regular cover artists of the early 1950s for Superman was Win Mortimer, who combined two of the major cover themes of this era on this cover. One, Superman using then-modern technology (Superman making a film recording of himself revealing his secret identity) and two, Superman's secret identity being at risk. Most covers of this era involved Superman's identity seemingly being revealed.
ACTION COMICS #241
This stunning cover featuring the introduction of the Fortress of Solitude shows just why the concept of the Fortress is such a popular one with fans. The guy is carrying a giant key to open the door! How awesome is that? This cover was by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye. Swan would soon become the artists most associated with Superman (although he was not yet the regular interior artist by this point - Wayne Boring was still the regular artist).
ACTION COMICS #243
In many ways, the late 1950s/early 1960s are best remembered for being the "transformations" era of Superman (and especially Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen, who transformed just as many times as Superman). This bizarre cover by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye perfectly encapsulates this era of Superman stories (other examples of this era is when Superman is turned into a mummy-like version of himself or when Superman had to get a brand-new, odd-looking yellow and purple costume).
ACTION COMICS #252
The great Al Plastino designed the look for Supergirl in her debut comic book story, but Curt Swan was brought in to actually draw the awesome cover for her first appearance (with Plastino inking Swan, so that the cover still looks like Plastino's story within). How could you not want to check out this comic with a cover like that?
ACTION COMICS #255
Under the editorial direction of Mort Weisinger, Superman comics of the 1950s and 1960s were known for finding something popular and then driving it into the ground. One thing that they found that fans were interested in was Bizarro, Superman's dim-witted polar opposite. So there was suddenly a huge influx of Bizarro covers in the late 1950s, with this Curt Swan and Stan Kate cover being a standout.