Action Comics: The 80-Year History of the First Superhero Comic

In addition to eight decades of Superman and Lois Lane, this week's release of Action Comics #1000 also celebrated the 80th anniversary (to the very day) of the release of the first issue of Action Comics. The character of Superman has gone through a number of changes in those 80 years and those changes are perhaps best realized simply by looking at the evolution of Action Comics itself.

In the past 80 years, Action Comics went from being an anthology (in which Superman was just one of many characters featured) to eventually being simply another Superman comic book. How he got to that point is all the fun. For the sake of this piece, we'll break our look into one hundred issue segments, just to give us some sort of boundaries to work with in describing the different eras of the series.

RELATED: Action Comics: The Greatest Covers From the First 1000 Issues


In 1938, National Allied Publications had three other ongoing series, a humor comic (More Fun Comics), an adventure comic (Adventure Comics) and a crime comic (Detective Comics) and wanted to do another new adventure series. There was a big drive behind this new comic, so all the various freelancers were trying out to get into this comic book. There was just something missing, though, something that would make it stand out. National felt that it had found that special something when they convinced Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to abandon their attempts to get Superman made into a newspaper strip and instead sell it to National so that it could be the lead feature in this new magazine. Siegel and Shuster ultimately agreed and their sample strips were quickly cut and pasted into a comic book story that ended up being the cover feature in the first issue of Action Comics. However, when Action Comics #1 sold very well, National did not know that it was necessarily Superman who was responsible, so they continued with their plan to rotate the cover between their various features. Ultimately, though, it was obvious that Superman was driving the sales of the comic and they began to feature Superman in little proto-"corner boxes" on the covers that he was not featured until ultimately he got the covers all to himself from Action Comics #19-on.

Still, though, the series continued to have regular features like the magician Zatara, the western hero, Tex Thomson, the cowboy, Chuck Dawson, the boxer, Pep Morgan, the repoter, Scoop Scanlan, plus a historical fiction starring Marco Polo.

As Superman became more and more popular, Joe Shuster pretty quickly had to turn to art assistants to keep up the demands for material, as there was soon a Superman newspaper strip and then, in 1939, an entire second comic book devoted to just Superman features. Paul Cassidy became the first regular artist on the series other than Shuster, but Shuster assistants, John Sikela and Leo Nowak soon began to draw most of the Superman features in Action Comics.

The first issue of Action Comics introduced Lois Lane, along with Clark Kent and Superman, but over the first two years of the feature, Jimmy Olsen would also appear (at least an early version of the character) as well as Superman's greatest foe, Lex Luthor (initially, Luthor was a redhead, but all of the new artists involved in the strip led to confusion and Leo Nowak accidentally thought that Luthor's assistant in an early Action Comics story was Luthor himself, so he drew Luthor as bald. The look stuck).

World War II saw most of Action Comics' creative team drafted, which led to some temporary creative changes in the series. More permanent changes occurred in 1947, when Siegel and Shuster sued National for the rights to Superman. They lost and National fired them. By this point in time, Wayne Boring had been doing the newspaper strip. He transferred over to the comic book title and became the main Superman artist, working with inker Stan Kaye, mostly. Don Cameron and Alvin Schwartz (both of whom had filled in for Siegel during the war) became the main writers on the Superman feature in Action.

Meanwhile, four notable new features had joined Action. There was the western hero known as the Vigilante, the jungle explorer, Congo Bill, the futuristic Tommy Tomorrow and the rhyming cop, Hayfoot Henry. Tex Thomson turned into a superhero (first as Mr. America and then as the Americommando).


As the years went by, the size of the comic book was reduced. As features left, the book became mostly just a Superman lead, plus Vigilante, Congo Bill, Hayfoot Henry and Tommy Tomorrow. Hayfoot Henry was a key feature because it added humor to the otherwise serious book. However, it ultimately became the next feature to lose a spot when the book shrunk in size again.

The key Superman creators during this period were Wayne Boring and Al Plastino on art and Alvin Schwartz, Don Cameron and William Woolfolk on the stories. By #100, Superman had already gained a few recurring foes (Luthor was not yet to the point of being a regular foe), such as Mister Mxyztplk (the spelling at the time) and the Prankster. The general type of Superman story in a given Action Comics story was beginning to come into focus, as well. Namely, either Lois Lane would try to find what Superman's secret identity was or some other scenario would put Superman's secret identity into jeopardy.


With The Adventures of Superman now a bona fide hit on TV, the editor of the Superman titles, Whitney Ellsworth, began to dedicate most of his time to TV series, so Mort Weisinger became the new editor of the series. Weisinger had the new regular writers of the Superman feature become Edmund Hamilton and Otto Binder, with Bill Finger chipping in the occasional story. Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye were the regular artists on the Superman feature, with Al Plastino working as an alternate artist (by this time, Superman had spun off two more titles, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane, so there was plenty of work to be found for artists on other Superman books. It was on the spinoffs that Curt Swan first started doing interior artwork, while soon contributing covers to Action Comics and Superman).

Congo Bill and Tommy Tomorrow were the remaining features, as Action Comics would continue to see its page count reduce throughout the 1950s (the idea was to shrink the comic book rather than raise the cover price. Comic book companies were scared over ever having to charge more than a dime for a comic book).

During the late 1950s, a number of major changes to the Superman mythos were introduced (most by Otto Binder). We discovered the Fortress of Solitude in Action Comics #241, Brainiac in Action Comics #242, Supergirl in Action Comics #252, the adult Bizarro in Action Comics #254 and the adult Krypto in Action Comics #258. After her introduction, Supergirl took over Tommy Tomorrow's back-up feature spot in Action Comics, with Congo Bill (now with the ability to switch bodies with a gorilla, so he was called Congorilla now) as the other feature.


Finally settling on a page count (the book couldn't get any smaller than 32 pages, so the price was finally raised to a shocking 12 cents!), Supergirl was the lone surviving back-up series, with Congorilla retired after a nearly 300 issue run in Action Comics.

Curt Swan had succeeded Wayne Boring as being the lead artist on the Superman feature in Action Comics, with Edmund Hamilton and Leo Dorfman writing most of the Superman stories in Action Comics at the start of the 1960s. Jim Mooney was the main artist on the Supergirl back-up feature.

As the series got closer to #400, Neal Adams began to draw more and more covers for Action Comics. Also, in Action Comics #377, the Legion of Super-Heroes took over from Supergirl as the lead back-up feature (with Supergirl moving over to Legion's old home in Adventure Comics).


The series soon settled into a remarkably consistent creative team, as Cary Bates wrote nearly every issue of Action for the next hundred issues and Curt Swan drew nearly every issue during that same period.

Early in the 1970s, DC expanded the page count of their comics, although Legion moved over to Superboy's comic book, leaving the back-ups in Action Comics to be now other Superman stories plus reprints of other DC Comics. Nick Cardy began a long (and impressive) string of Action Comics covers beginning with Action Comics #409 and ending with Action Comics #445 (Neal Adams had one memorable cover mixed into this run, with Action Comics #419's photo-collage cover).

Towards the end of the 400s, DC celebrated Superman's 40th Anniversary by having Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2 get married in Action Comics #484. By the end of the 400s, the book had officially become just a Superman comic book called Action Comics, as there was only one feature in the comic and that was Superman.

1 2
Arrow Finally Delivers a Proper Green Arrow/Black Canary Duo - With a Twist

More in CBR Exclusives