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Golden and Silver Age Comics - Read new comics, but keep the old!

Johnny Unusual

Action Comics #8
Written by Jerry Seigel Drawn by Joe Shuster

Hey, I’m back with these. Like, don’t expect too many too often but surely more than before, since I have SLIGHTLY more free time. Slightly.

Anyway, if you missed the old one’s I’m basically doing story by story breakdowns of classic Golden and Silver Age comics, mostly from DC Comics, though not exclusively. I did a bunch about the first seven Superman stories and this is number 8. If you never read them, you might be surprised to find what kind of hero Superman was then. Often he is often presented as practically Messianic but things are a lot more humble here. He’s a rough and tumble dude who can’t be beat, the wish fulfillment of people who would love to see justice done with their bare hands. He doesn’t just o after gangsters, he fights politicians and lobbyists and war profiteers. He specifically fights for the underclass and small things like helping orphans is not beneath him.

Of course, what it looks like to be a hero in the fiction of the late 30s might look a little questionable now. No, no, thankfully this issue doesn’t have him vilifying a minority (that’s for whatever story is going on in the cover). Instead, its Superman taking on a real world problem with his super powers and… the method kind of makes no sense. So lets hit skid row with “Superman in the Slums”.

Have buses ever looked like that? I’m not saying they haven’t, I just want visual evidence.

The story begins promisingly enough. A poor kid is going to jail and it looks like the systemic failures that lead to his trouble with the law isn’t going to be taken into consideration in his trial. The judge even says that his ruling is based on his tough way of talking rather than his actions (though his actions indicate he did mug a dude). Clark Kent, who is watching closely, knows that he’s going to have to be the one to do something.

The boy, Frankie, is given two years at reformatory school. Meanwhile, Kent notices the young boy’s fellow gang members and overhears them discussing someone named Gimpy and decides to investigate. I don’t know what gimpy meant back then but its less cool now.

Superman eavesdrops on the tough kids (nearly literally, as he is hanging from a tenement building) and overhears that they’ve been committing crimes for Gimpy with the promise he’d protect them if they get caught. Of course, they explain it with a tough wrong-side-of-the-tracks dialect. The kids come in and Gimpy gives them some feeble excuses and the kids threaten to beat him up.

You’d think this is the time Superman would swoop in but nope, Gimpy instead promises them one last job and they’ll be paid after. When they leave, Gimpy reveals he’s planning to call the cops on them and he already intentionally threw Frankie under the bus because the kids were getting “too tough.” Gimpy is about to rat them out but mid-rat, Superman shows up to give him a beat-down and a different sort of face palm.

Superman dumps Gimpy in tar…

And rushes off the rescue the kids. One kid nearly gets nabbed by the cops but is rescued by Superman by picking him up and running off with him while shouting “He’s mine!” Probably not the best thing to say, Superman. It’s a weird look for a good deed. Speaking of bad looks, one cop fires actual gun bullets at a minor for the heinous crime of trespassing and fleeing and America hasn’t gotten any better, has it?

Next Superman frees another kid from a paddy wagon because in these days Superman was less interested in the laws and more interested in justice.

I understand “Halp” is a dialect thing but I actually can’t bring to mind how that would sound in real life.

Superman then stops the other two kids from committing their crimes, noting that despite the crimes themselves, the kids actually have good qualities (one clever, the other diligent) that could be put to honest use. Superman then reveals to the kids that they are being used. The kids start talking about bringin’ the hurt to Gimpy but we find Gimpy has been eavesdropping and fires a gun at them.

The framing is weird here. Though not explicitly that, the skyline seems to imply, whether or not by intent, that Gimpy is standing on a building far away and then he’s instantly in an alley at relatively close range in the next panel. I mean, it isn’t as disturbing as Shuster’s occasional monstrous uncreatures that are people and goats, but it is weird.

Anyway, Superman uses his super speed to stop the bullet.

Superman chucks Gimpy away (credit to Gimpy for his strong core while being thrown into a river) and I guess his final fate is that he must swim away in defea—

DID SUPERMAN TWIST THAT MAN’S NECK 180 DEGREES BEFORE TOSSING HIM AWAY? I mean, he’s still alive-ish, but I don’t think he’ll be able to swim back to shore after that.

This doesn’t stop Nick from trying to bean Superman on the head with a wrench.

I mean, if it bent, that also means Nick has a shockingly strong wrist, right? Otherwise it would just bounce off of him.

Superman is slightly miffed at the youngster’s betrayal following saving them AGAIN, and decides to give them scare by carrying them across the city on telephone lines.

To Superman’s surprise, the kids LOVED the scare as if it were an amusement park ride. Superman is all “You kids are alright!” The feeling is reciprocated and Superman helps the kids turn over a new leaf. But Superman knows the real problem is the poor living conditions. What can he do? Perhaps use his power and fame to raise attention for the people in need? Or…

Oh, God no, Superman.

Superman decides to absolutely people destroy an entire neighborhood in the hopes of the government paying for a new neighborhood. Which is a bad solution, considering even if people move their stuff, these are people’s homes and its doesn’t fix the deep systemic problems that lead to the stuff and that a nicer neighborhood could lead to gentrification, making the homes too expensive for—


Its at this point that the army shows up to stop Superman from heroically destroying a city and inadvertently becomes an indictment of military intervention. At first, Superman is dodging American soldiers. And then the army goes straight from “bullets don’t work” to “lets bomb the fuck out of him.”

Superman thanks the bombers for doing his work for him and then the city rebuilds the slums as apartment buildings.

This is treated as a happy ending but even by the standards of a late 30s Golden Age comic, it seems that it’s a wildly naïve take on how to combat poverty and poor living situations. This really feels like it should have been an attack on slum lords and laws that enable them. Bomb the slums and everything is going to be OK is certainly a take.

The end.

But wait, the comic also gives you a tip on how to acquire SUPER-VISION.

I think whoever wrote this needed some… supervision.


I’m great.

Anyway, because I know very little about ocular science and how to improve vision on your own, but my first instinct was “this makes no sense and its 1930s nonsense.” But looking it up, it is apparently a thing. Based on what I am reading, the exercise should specify about “15 seconds” but as dumb as it sounds, it does keep your vision healthy (though “super” is a bit much to ask for from it.

But hey, I learned something from a comic I assumed was BS, so at least they did their due diligence on exercise more than political science and infrastructure.

The latter half is kind of sweetly yet worryingly naive but I did like Superman sticking up for those underclass toughs and them being mutually won over by each other. Its nice to see that Superman can be impressed and surprised by the kids he’s trying to teach a lesson to.

I will say there’s sort of a follow up to this. The next Superman adventure is about the police trying to catch Superman for his vigilante ways. But we’ll get to that. Next, we are getting to the Silver Age era where…

Next: Superman gets the head of a lion!

Until next time!

I think that panel where Superman races the bullet is the earliest example I've seen of "speed lines" used that way. I always figured it was a Japanese invention.

Johnny Unusual

Shuster's art is often very rough looking but there is an energy and joy to it to be sure. I would be completely interested in a series of columns that track the history of things like speedlines, splash pages (which I think is attributed to Eisner), et al.