Superman, created by the writer Jerry Siegel and the artist Joe Shuster, was introduced on April 18, 1938, in Action Comics No. 1. The Man of Steel struck a chord with readers and, faster than a speeding bullet, he became a multimedia sensation, with his adventures chronicled on radio, stage, film and television, and his image on a kaleidoscope of merchandise and collectibles.
“If everybody doesn’t know by now who Clark Kent and who Lois Lane is, you’re not paying attention,” said Maggie Thompson, a senior editor of the Comic Buyer’s Guide, which covered the industry from 1971 to 2013.
On Wednesday, Superman turns 80 years old and — great Caesar’s ghost! — DC Entertainment will publish Action Comics No. 1,000. Here are some memorable issues on his journey to that milestone. Happy Birthday, Kal-El!
ACTION COMICS NO. 1 (APRIL 1938)
Superman’s 13-page adventure was just one of several stories featured in the first issue of Action Comics, which was conceived as an anthology. (A June cover date on the comic was to encourage vendors to keep comics on their shelves longer.) The hero’s breakout success took the company by surprise. “They honest-to-God did not know what they had,” said Michael E. Uslan, a comic book historian, writer and film producer. Superman did not grace another cover of Action until issue No. 7, and he took over cover duties consistently with No. 19. (Four issues later, the name of the newspaper Clark Kent works for is changed to The Daily Planet from The Daily Star.) Uslan said sales of Action jumped to 555,000 copies for issue No. 15 — from 130,000 copies of No. 1.
ACTION COMICS NO. 68 (NOVEMBER 1943)
“Superman was dead serious when Siegel and Shuster created him,” Uslan said. “He was a fighter of social injustice, taking on corrupt politicians and racketeers preying on the common man.” But there was a noticeable change in tone around this issue, which introduced Susie, the mischievous niece of Lois Lane. The shift came thanks to competition from the more lighthearted Captain Marvel — whose adventures were in books published by Fawcett Comics. “Captain Marvel was the only character who surpassed Superman in sales in the Golden Age,” or first era, of comics publishing, Uslan said. This goofier approach led to things like Lois dropping a hot pan on Superman’s foot and his hopping around in pain. A lawsuit claiming that Captain Marvel was a Superman copycat eventually put the Man of Steel back on top.
ACTION COMICS NO. 241 (APRIL 1958)
After a decline in sales after World War II, superhero comics began to rebound in the mid-1950s in the period of comics known as the Silver Age. The period’s exact start has been up for debate among fans and historians. For Uslan, this issue marks the start of Superman’s Silver Age evolution with the debut of his Fortress of Solitude. Just ahead are the first appearances of Brainiac, a revamped Lex Luthor, Supergirl, Bizarro and some super-pets (Krypto, Streaky and Comet among them). Brainiac, whose hobbies include shrinking alien cities for his private collection, also brings an unexpected gift: a part of Superman’s home world, Krypton. “Superman is the story of an immigrant writ large,” said Peter Sanderson, a comics historian. “Krypton was a lost paradise, a wonderland of vast science, firefalls and jewel mountains. Superman was always longing to return to his home world.”
ACTION COMICS NO. 270 (SEPTEMBER 1960)
Sanderson recalled “The Old Man of Metropolis” as one of Superman’s more sobering stories. Despite the fact that the comics’ primary readers were children, the Man of Steel gets an unhappy look at his future: He’s old and forgotten. And poor Lois! “I’m an old maid,” she says. “I wasted my life waiting for you.” Still, ever hopeful, she suggests they share their last years together. Oh, Lois. The issue struck a chord with Sanderson then, and it still does today. “It was disturbing when I was growing up to read about a character I cared about being reduced to physical frailty, being forgotten and abandoned, living in isolation, loneliness and apparent poverty,” he said. “Now that I’m in my 60s and looking back on that story about how awful old age can be, it seems even more disturbing.” (Spoiler alert: The bitter future turns out to be a bad dream.)
ACTION COMICS NO. 583 (JUNE 1986)
Sanderson described the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” as not only one of the greatest Superman stories, but one of the greatest stories in the superhero genre. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Curt Swan, George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger, the story delves into the hero’s last days, and virtually every major character from his mythos plays a role. “This is his Ragnarok,” Sanderson said. “It aims for an operatic pitch.” The story packs an emotional punch and is a demonstration of Superman’s strong morals. “If he feels he has violated his code, he cannot continue,” Sanderson explained. One of the soul-crushing moments? Lana Lang overhears Superman confessing his love for Lois, her rival. Undeterred, she gears up — along with Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s pal and a photographer at The Daily Planet — to help during an onslaught at the Fortress of Solitude. She declares: “Nobody loved him better than us. Nobody!” Despite the calamity, the story ends on a hopeful note.
ACTION COMICS NO. 584 (OCTOBER 1986)
In July 1986, DC began publishing the six-part series “Man of Steel,” by writer and artist John Byrne, which rebooted Superman, at least temporarily, as the sole survivor of Krypton. The theory was that the accumulated history of DC’s heroes had grown too convoluted to follow, which made it difficult for new readers to jump in. Whereas past writers had presented Clark Kent as the disguise and Superman as his true self, Byrne reversed that, making the hero the means to an end for Clark, Sanderson said: “He adopted the Superman persona to avoid the perils of publicity and celebrity.” Byrne also made clear that Clark was born on Earth. “It was no longer the story of the immigrant who comes to America and who is longing for the old country,” Sanderson said. “This is the immigrant who doesn’t care for the old country.” With this issue, Action becomes a team-up series, showing Superman’s adventures with other DC heroes. This format ends with No. 600, which includes a date with Wonder Woman.
ACTION COMICS NO. 601 (APRIL 1988)
As a monthly series, it would have taken Action more than 83 years to get to No. 1,000, but the series temporarily became a weekly publication. During this time, which lasted until issue No. 642, Action also reverted to an anthology format. Superman had a recurring two-page feature in each issue, which also included short stories featuring other heroes of the DC universe.
ACTION COMICS NO. 662 (JANUARY 1991)
John Byrne’s reimagining of Clark as a more confident person resulted in a momentous occasion: He proposed to Lois (in Superman 50, October 1990) and she accepted! But could he marry her without revealing his secret? The answer: No. “Lois, for the past few years, I’ve lived a double life,” he said in this issue. Understandably, Lois asks for time to process. “When you go, don’t forget to lock the door — or, um, the window,” she tells him, still reeling from the news. After breaking off the engagement, she eventually came around and married Clark in October 1996. The marriage coincided with the wedding episode of the TV show “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.”
ACTION COMICS NO. 1 (SEPTEMBER 2011)
In 2011, DC reset all its continuing series and reintroduced the heroes as if they were appearing for the first time. Written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rags Morales, this new Action Comics No. 1 retold the earliest days of this rebooted Superman, when the hero was raw: His personality was brash and his powers were developing. A companion series focused on his present-day adventures and introduced a new costume with a high collar, red piping and body armor. One of the elements missing from his classic look: no more red-shorts-over-blue-pants. Fans were torn on what chagrined them more: the wardrobe change or the erasing of Lois and Clark’s marriage. (In this new continuity, they were not even dating.)
ACTION COMICS NO. 1,000 (APRIL 2018)
DC’s reboot was initially a great sales success, but a few years in, fans were clamoring for the past. DC responded with Rebirth, a story written by Geoff Johns and drawn by several artists, with an aim to restoring some of what was lost, including a sense of optimism. Several series were restarted — again — with No. 1 issues, but Action and Detective Comics, where Batman made his debut, returned to their historical numbering, which added the issues of the reboot to the overall total, allowing Action to inch closer to 1,000. The marriage of Lois and Clark has been restored and they have a son. But one of the biggest returns was saved for this issue. DC proudly promoted “The Red Trunks Return” in its news release. The issue, which has multiple covers and midnight release parties, has topped 500,000 in preorders.