bout

What is in a first issue?  A first appearance?  In the world of super hero comics, a character's first appearance does not necessarily typify their lasting significance, nor their quality.  Many a grand character had a small, unnoticed arrival, only to be picked up later for far better and more lasting use. Yet in the case of the two comic books facing off in this test of ink, we have the more common road to glory: an immediate recognition of the character's draw and staying power.

In this corner we have Action Comics #1, appearing on the newsstand in June 1938, featuring the first appearance of the mystery man known as Superman.  And in this corner we have Detective Comics #27, hitting customer's hands a year later in May 1939, we see The Bat-Man swinging onto the scene.

Ding ding

Let the oldest throw the first punch.

Action Comics #1



We say that hindsight is 20-20, but at times it is more invisibly tainted by the mysterious forces of nostalgia and forgetfulness.  When Action Comics #1 was first published in 1938, it became the fourth ongoing title by the company now known as Detective Comics, Inc.  While many can claim to have influenced Superman in this way or that, the moment marked a distinct shift in the general pulp sensibilities of the new-fangled comic book publishing world.  You can site a few others as perhaps the first (John Carter of Mars, Ōgon the Bat, Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, etc) but Superman grabbed it all like a car and smashed it into the reader, like he might against a rock.

The cover alone forced a passerby to ask a question or two: Who the...?  How does he do that?  Is he good? Bad?  Why the emblem on the chest?  This cover told you that something different had arrived.  What that something was... well we must read to find out.

Something to note, is Superman was not the only adventure in Action Comics #1.  All of the comics Detective Comics, Inc put out were in fact anthology comics that would show the reader several adventures.  If Comicbookdb.com is telling me true, there were nine total stories in Action Comics, The Big Red Cheese however received cover treatment as well as the first story in the collection.  (He would not always get the cover treatment, that is until Detective realized how big a thing they had)

Now what does this first story contain?  It is actually a frenzy of content.  We have a page of origin for Superman, some of which you might recognize, yet some might surprise you in absentia.  Distant unnamed planet, okay, no Krypton yet but we've got the scientist sending his son to survive in a far away world, earth: check.  Found by a passing motorist, hmm that seems singular and wait, what's this? He was give to an orphanage?  Now that doesn't sound right.  Advanced physical structure equates his super-strength, hmm, nothing about the yellow sun, but okay.  Alright, precise power descriptions, leap 1/8th a mile, or a 20-story building; raise tremendous weight; run faster than a train; and nothing short of a explosive shell could penetrate his skin... hey wait a minute, are you saying Superman could be hurt by some decent artillery?  Where's the flying? Where's the various vision powers?  Yup, those are all to come (a number of which are actually not introduced in the comics, more on that in later posts), presently what we have is a more refined, simple super man.  For now, as the origin concludes, we have a man-sized ant crossed with a grasshopper.  Superman, the original Ant-man.

And then the comic cuts straight to its name-sake: action.  We have Superman leaping through the air with a trussed-up damsel under arm.  He drops the gagged woman off upon landing and storms into the governor's house in the middle of the night, abusing the butler, ripping apart a steel door.  Hmm, the origin called him the Champion of the Oppressed.  He seems more of an oppressor, oh, he is seeking to save a woman from the death penalty.  Apparently the bound woman was in fact the guilty murderer and the government was to execute a guilty woman while the governor got his beauty sleep.  Adventure #1 complete.

Next we meet Superman with his hair down, or perhaps up... This is the Clark Kent you know, reporter for the Daily Star... hey wait, oh well close enough.  Apparently the Star tracks the police scanner because they hear of a husband beating his wife, they tell Kent to report on it, he appears as Superman, knocks the wife-beater around, changes back to Kent all before the police actually report to the crime.  Adventure #2 complete.

We don't even wait a page to get 'shy' Clark Kent asking a rather mean Lois Lane out from the work desk and they go a-dancing only to be roughly handled by some thugs.  Clark poses cowardly, Lois slaps a man, Lois storms off because Mr Kent is yellow, gets herself kidnapped in a car, and Superman pursues and proceeds to crush the car as seen on the cover.  Adventure #3 complete.  Love life takes a hit.

And next we get Clark tasked with being a war reporter in a made-up South American country.  He smells corruption and goes to DC first, finding a Senator (speaking in Congress...) in cahoots with a dirty lobbyist.  The issue closes with the man in blue tights running along the tops of buildings and power lines with lobbyist in tow, torturing him with fear until he will confess as to who he works for. Adventure #4 to be continued.

In 13 pages, we are witness to a man who has the power to actually battle the social evils of the day.  False accusation, domestic abuse, thuggery and kidnapping, evil political apparatus.  One sees quickly what it is that captures the imagination of a still depression-weary America in the pages of this story.  Superman has always been a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and herein we see the wish fulfilled of being able to do something with the ills of this world, specifically here, this nation.  What would it be like to be able to stand up to the wife-beater with no fear.  To take the battle straight to the face of the dirty politician.  This is a man that can take a bullet to the chest (we see it here in the first issue) and not even blink.  He can fulfill the things we often desire.  He can fight for justice, immune to the darts of evil.

In the mad rush of adventures, we see a showcase of Superman's superiority.  And yet he does not use it as mastery (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original take on the Superman was one who used his powers for evil) but instead as the Champion of the Oppressed as we see.  As his legend would grow, the Last Son of Krypton would take on many messianic symbols and traits, but from the get-go we see a man who will save a people from the evils of the world.  Evils that America seemed very conscious of at this time.  I believe that this is what the character of Superman spoke to.  A boy reading it could feel that Superman would deal with the bully, and as one grew up, and the bully too, this was the promise of the bully of any kind to be dealt with.  It is the promise of justice that is inherent in us (yet can so dangerously be tainted).  And I believe it is a justice to come.  But for the time being we see a glimmer of that justice, however imperfectly, in a man who wears his underwear on the outside.

Detective Comics #27


Next we have the new kid.  Being released nearly a year later, The Bat-Man is an obvious attempt to jump on the burgeoning popularity of Superman.  However outside of the obvious costume and mystery man approach, his particulars show more foundation in the mystery pulp tradition than the one Superman was pioneering.

Tasked with creating another character to capitalize on the Super-trend, Bob Kane drew up The Bat-Man.  Then he was told, great, what's he do?  I don't know, said Bob Kane.  Well figure it out.  And so his friend Bill Finger got brought in to actually do the writing side of things, and a, dare I say, dynamic duo was formed.  The Bat-Man would draw a lot from the likes of The Shadow and The Green Hornet of radio fame.  He would not himself be super-powered and yet would battle crime with what abilities and gadgets he did have.

The cover image is again striking for a people now drawn to the costumed characters of comics.  Who was he? How was he going to get out of this one?  What in the world is he swinging from?  It promised adventure and danger, and if the title was correct, mystery.  Well let us see.

Detective Comics #27 opens with no origin.  You are only told that no one knows who this lone figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer is.  Even the police commissioner's most pressing case is, who is The Bat-Man.  The police commissioner? Oh he is Commissioner Gordon entertaining his socialite friend, a certain Bruce Wayne.  This Wayne fellow seems dashing, but a little lazy...  Wayne has nothing better to do so he accompanies his friend to a murder scene.  And the mystery begins!

A son claims he is falsely accused of murdering his father.  He points the blame at his father's business associates, thus giving the reader a 1 out of 3 option for the murderer.  Whodunit?!  However Mr. Ho Hum Wayne is bored and takes off.  Even murder doesn't excite the fellow.  The second page closes with suspect #1 getting shot (we are down to 2 if you are counting at home) yet on the following page we finally get to see the mysterious The Bat-Man (it gets awkward when you have a "the" in your name).  Bats gets to punching and throwing people off tall buildings... wait, is that guy okay?

Suspect 2 goes to see suspect 3 and gets promptly knocked out by the butler.  Death trap!  We have a glass container in which poison is going to be dispersed, but The Bat-Man rushes in.  And I do mean in, like into the glass container.  No concern for his well-being.  What a man?!  That socialite Wayne could learn a few things... (I'm sorry, I figure you've stopped reading by this point anyways)  The Bat breaks free and handles the Butler.  Suspect 3 appears and surprises everyone by trying to complete what his butler started.  The Bat-Man has other plans.  Like punching the guy over a railing into acid. (Because that will never come back to haunt you, Bats).  And scene.

Oh we have an epilogue.  Gordon is wrapping things up when that bum Wayne shows up.  Gordon asides his own concerns for his disinterested friend.  But the reader gets to witness a door hiding Ho Hum Wayne slowly open and it is... The Bat-Man.  Fin.

Now I doubt the mystery of who wore the tights was really a page-turner even back then, but this is still a pretty fun telling for a first appearance.  We have a mystery in a mystery and are still left with mystery at the close.  We have no idea why this man punches do badders in the face.  Only that he is good at it.  This is a little taste of something that seems promising, full of secrets to unravel.  You want, or I want... more.  We again have a fellow that is going to stand up for justice.  Even without the magnificent powers of a man-sized ant.  He will put his life on the line for others.  He does seem to be missing his predilection for not killing people though.  You could argue that they were incidental to his actions, but... We will go on to see that his no-killing mantra will take some developing.  Yet we are not here to judge him for what he will be, but what he is in May of 1939.  (Superman will not be so opposed to letting a fellow die in his early adventures as well, though that did not show up in Action1)

Ding Ding

Round 1:

We begin with Superman just decking The Bat-Man to the teeth with all of his ant-strength.  There is just an originality factor that the Dark Knight cannot overcome.  Even ignoring the Superman influences, Bob Kane's creation is a lot of pulp.  The story is a pulp mystery.  Superman is a lot of adventure that you might hear on the radio, but there is just also something different here.  The Bat-Man's one good jab this round is the reveal of his identity.  I cannot say it had never been done, I have no idea, but it added a fun freshness to the story.

Originality: Superman by a fair margin

Round 2:

The thing I love about reading the beginnings of long spanning comic book universes is seeing their legacy grow.  So in issue one, what do we have?  Superman is an ET, found as a child, limitedly strong, a mighty leaper but cannot fly, we see Clark Kent, Lois Lane, they are reporters.  There is of course a lot that is not here, but we see the groundwork laid.  How about his rival, what is he bringing to this round?  We see Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, Bat-gadgets, umm, a man falling into acid...  Alright, it seems like Superman is a little bit more established upon printing (which makes sense as Siegel and Shuster had been working on him for some time).  I would call this a moderate exchange of blows but red pants barely one-ups black.

Legacy: Superman

Round 3:

I cannot promise to be the best judge of Golden Age Comic art.  My experience skews more towards Silver Age and later.  However, this whole V scheme is merely a matter of opinion anyways.  I would say pitting Action Comics #1's Superman story against Detective Comics #27's Bat, Shuster v Kane, Shuster wins with a meaningful barrage of assaults.  I think at this stage, Shuster was just more polished (a few years prior, Siegel had broken with Shuster because he didn't think he was an established and good enough artist.  Thankfully they mended their ways)  Kane will quickly grow into his craft with Batman (his name changes in just the next few issues, so I can call him that as we look at progression), but for now Shuster wins the crown.

Art: Superman, convincingly

Round 4:

Well, this bout doesn't seem to be going too well for those who are powerless.  Can the Bat get a win in?  Howsabout story?  I think this is a test between the flurry of Action comics and the individual of Detective.  In more pages, Action Comics chose to showcase Superman across a broad spectrum.  Superman was something new and needed to be shown in many lights.  A curious choice in Action is the serial ending, pointing the reader on to the next issue for completion.  It is curiously placed alongside several adventures that wrap up internally.  It creates for a degree of awkward rhythm.  Still, this is a new form, and a newer character, Siegel is trying to see what will work.  In Detective we have a murder mystery with some action sets thrown in.  Original?  Perhaps not.  And yet there is something that draws you into the pulp world.  And of course the greater mystery of the identity of The Bat-Man.  I actually really love the final panel progression between opening door to The Bat-Man.  For that alone (and perhaps a sympathy vote), I am going to say

Story: Batman

Round 5:

We have a final round.  The most heavily weighted.  The most essentially important.  The most blatantly subjective.  Who is the best character upon first presentation?  Perhaps the deciding factor here is mystery v known.  At this stage the reader still knows very little about The Bat-Man while Superman has been fairly well laid out.  Okay, I am going to decide this based on perhaps a very controversial point.  The Bat-Man's penchant for killing people, even if incidentally, in this first issue is going to give Superman the edge for today.

Character: Superman, slimly

And thus our first bout ends with Superman winning 4 of 5 decisions.  Do not worry your pointy-little ears Bat-fans.  Gotham's knight will have his day.  Assuming I get around to writing more of these.  For now...


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