Action Comics 1
|Action Comics No. 1|
|Publication date||June 1938 (cover date) and September 2011 (cover date)|
Action Comics No. 1 (June 1938) is the first issue of the original run of the comic book series Action Comics. It features the first appearance of several comic book heroes—most notably the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creation, Superman. For this reason it is widely considered both the beginning of the superhero genre and the most valuable comic book of all time.
On August 24, 2014, a copy graded 9.0 by CGC was sold on eBay for US$3,207,852. It is the only comic book to have sold for more than $3 million for a single original copy. Action Comics would go on to run for 904 numbered issues (plus additional out-of-sequence special issues) before it restarted its numbering in the fall of 2011. It returned to its original numbering with issue #957, published on June 8, 2016 (cover-dated August).
Action Comics #1 was an anthology, and contained eleven features:
- "Superman" (pp. 1–13) by Siegel and Shuster.
- "Chuck Dawson" (pp. 14–19) by H. Fleming.
- "Zatara Master Magician" (pp. 20–31) by Fred Guardineer.
- "South Sea Strategy" (text feature, pp. 32–33) by Captain Frank Thomas.
- "Sticky-Mitt Stimson" (pp. 34–37) by Alger.
- "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (pp. 38–41) by Sven Elven.
- "'Pep' Morgan" (pp. 42–45) by Fred Guardineer.
- "Scoop Scanlon the Five Star Reporter" (pp. 46–51) by Will Ely.
- "Tex Thompson" (pp. 52–63) by Bernard Baily.
- "Stardust" (p. 64) by "The Star-Gazer".
- "Odds 'N Ends" (inside back cover) by "Moldoff" (Sheldon Moldoff).
Published on April 18, 1938 (cover-dated June), by National Allied Publications, a corporate predecessor of DC Comics, it is considered the first true superhero comic; and though today Action Comics is a monthly title devoted to Superman, it began, like many early comics, as an anthology.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's entire staff at Detective Comics Inc. consisted of Editor Vincent (Vin) Sullivan, assistant Editor Whitney Ellsworth, and Editor Tom McNamara. Late in 1937 Malcolm told his editors of a new book he had in mind tentatively named Action Funnies. His editors liked the idea of the new title, and using a cover lifted from Adventure Comics, and stories lifted from the first issue of Detective Comics, they put together an ashcan edition strictly for the purpose of registering the title for copyright. Once Action was copyrighted, Malcom presented publisher Harry Donenfeld with the ashcan edition explaining the book would be a youthful version of the action pulps Donenfeld already published. Harry genuinely liked the idea and without hesitation agreed to finance publication of the first issue. With Action now greenlighted for publication, Editors Sullivan, Ellsworth, and McNamara decided that to keep the book more in line with their other titles they’d change the word “Funnies” to “Comics”. They also knew if they wanted to generate sales, the book couldn’t be published as was; they needed fresh, new material. The book was then set aside and all three men began calling the various newspaper syndicates to see if any action/adventure strips had been submitted that the syndicates weren’t interested in.
Six years earlier Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and Joe Schuster had created and written a story called “the Superman of Metropolis” and published it in their fanzine publication Science Fiction. Getting a favorable response from their readers, they wrote and drew an entire episode of daily strips which they began submitting to newspaper syndicate after syndicate. So far no one was interested. Always hopeful, they now waited to hear from Bell McClure. “I think that Jerry and Joe had been to every newspaper syndicate in New York City to try to sell the feature.” Vin Sullivan said, “And finally mailed it to McClure after the other syndicates turned it down.” When Malcolm’s National Allied Publications folded a year earlier, Sheldon Mayer had finally received a check for his work – which bounced. Mayer finally had enough and went to work for Max Gaines at Bell McClure. He was there the day Jerry and Joe’s Superman strip came in and was first to review it. Liking it, Mayer then brought it in to Max.
“This stuff is great.” Sheldon recalled telling Max. “Let’s do something with it.”
“I don’t like it.” Max replied, after casually looking it over. “I really don’t see any future for a strip like that.” And with that it was set aside. Later that day Max’s phone rang; it was Vin Sullivan inquiring about any unwanted material. Thinking only it terms of another printing contract, Max told him about the submission he just turned down; Vin was interested. “So, Charlie sent it up to me” Vin recalled, “hoping that we could use it in the magazine. I thought it was good.” Even Malcolm liked Superman and gave his immediate approval to launch the story in Action Comics #1. This means (and this may come as a shock to those who think they know comic book history) that other than being the financier, Harry Donenfeld had nothing to do with putting together the first issue of Action Comics. (Also, Harry’s son Irwin, despite his life-long claims, was not the first kid to read Superman; it was, in fact, 15 year old Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson.)
“You know, this business of trying to cut out the old Beezer out of Action [#1] before Superman emerged is just a lot of baloney.” Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson said. “He was there. He was the one that published that originally, and they have absolutely wiped that out. I’m looking at [this] as a kind of setting-the-record-straight department.” “I do remember my father discussing the Superman concept. I had graduated from high school in 1939, so I must have been about 15 or 16. I remember very early on in the cartoons that he thought the concept of Superman in the comics as the figure of a hero type. He was very clear on that and I remember seeing the illustrations. They were probably at the house but it was early on. I think they were done on artist’s paper. I remember there was nothing else like it.”
However, it wasn’t quite ready for publication. Superman was still “in strip form, like a comic strip would appear in the newspaper.” Vin explained. “And I thought that if we’d cut it apart and make it up into pages, we could put it in the magazine that we were just starting, Action Comics, which we did. [Jerry and Joe] filled in certain areas of the story that were needed, and they came up with the first feature in Action Comics. I had it cut apart [by Joe] made into page form and matted. So, that was how it got in.” Created as an on-going daily newspaper strip, the origin story was twice as long as the typical eight to ten page stories of the day. Not wanting to chop it up Vin simply divided the story into two parts and continued it into Action #2. He also asked Joe to draw a new cover for the book (his second for the Superman character; the first being for their fanzine Science Fiction). By December of 1937, New Adventure, More Fun, and Detective Comics were steadily growing in sales; now Action Comics loomed on the horizon. Harry and Jack realized that if they didn’t act now, Malcolm had the potential of becoming a real competitor. The time had come to put their well laid plan into action. Harry called Malcolm into his office, and “in a gesture of appreciation” presented Malcolm and his wife, Elsa, tickets for a fully paid “cruise to Cuba.” Malcolm would leave Jack temporally in charge of Detective Comics, Inc. so he could relax for a couple of months and “work up new ideas.”
Malcolm needed the rest, and trusting Donenfeld, readily accepted the unexpected gift. Little did he or Elsa realize that as their ship was leaving port, Harry, with William J. Delaney, and the National Allied Newspaper Syndicate, orchestrated an enforced bankruptcy of the Nicholson Publishing Company on December 30, 1937, for outstanding debts of $63,380.
Through ties with Harry’s old Tammany Hall buddies, the lawsuit against Malcolm was placed in the hands of Judge Abe Mennen and the process fast forwarded. Mennen immediately appointed himself interim president of DC, under whose name New Adventure #25 and More Fun #30 and #31 were published. During the hearing Jack, as acting head of Detective Comics Inc., had provided a ton of paperwork proving Malcolm’s company was losing money and unable to pay the bills, making it appear the company’s only legal option was to file for bankruptcy and close the offices. To recoup the distributor’s losses, Judge Mennen saw to it that DC’s assets were sold to Paul Sampliner at Independent News. In return, Malcolm was to be given the next ten year’s royalties on the sales of More Fun Comics. (However, Jack’s clever (and legal) accounting made sure Malcolm never received a penny.) When Malcolm and his wife returned from their cruise, they found new locks being put on the doors of his now empty offices at 432 Fourth Avenue. Disheartened, but still determined to publish Action Comics, the base of operation now switched to the Major’s unheated garage. “I can remember [Malcolm] putting that thing together and freezing in the winter time.” Douglas recalled. Looking over the finished pages, Vin knew they had a hit. Harry Donenfeld hadn’t failed to notice the Superman strip was causing a considerable buzz around the office. Once the book had been “put to bed” Harry procured the galley proofs from the printers. After reading the material he was puzzled; he wasn’t particularly impressed, but of course he wasn’t a kid either. Wondering what Irwin would think of it, he took the proofs home with him. It wasn’t difficult to gauge the boy’s ecstatic reaction. Harry knew right then and there Superman was a hot property, meaning Jerry and Joe had to be signed with him, not with Malcolm.
Action Comics #1 was not printed by Donny Press (which was mostly printing black & white pulps); as a matter of fact, the few four-color comic books Harry published at the time were actually being outsourced to other printers, usually to Max Gaines at Bell McClure, although Max’s old employer, Harry Wildenberg at Eastern Color Printing, still handled occasional comic book work. In February of 1938 Max Gaines and the Bell McClure Syndicate finally began the printing of 250,000 copies of Action Comics #1. A delivery boy was there for Donenfeld and given one of the first issues hot off the press. Book in hand, the boy raced back to Harry’s offices. Donenfeld, in his typical suit and tie, was lounging in his plush carpeted uptown office when young Sheldon Meyer, having taken delivery of the book, stepped inside, handing it to Harry. Casually glancing at the cover, Harry suddenly jumped to his feet. “That’s impossible!” He shouted at Meyer. “Who the hell can hold a car up in the air?!” Angrily waving the book in Meyer’s face, Harry’s ongoing tirade made it clear he wasn’t happy; this wasn’t the adventure magazine he agreed to publish. (Indeed, it was a far cry from the ashcan edition Malcolm had shown him.) Envisioning all 250,000 copies of this ridiculous comic book being returned, Harry slumped into his chair and sunk his face into his hands. “We’re going to be in trouble.” he moaned “We’re going to die with this.”
During that day and age New York City newsstands were unique. To maintain product for the heavy daily surge of foot traffic, vendors used “pick-up cards”. These were simply inventory cards filled out at the end of the day by each independent dealer for their next day’s delivery of newspapers, magazines, and comic books, recording how many issues of each the retailer started with and how many they sold. It allowed them to request additional copies to keep the newsstands fully stocked, and at the end of the month, return to the distributor for credit any outdated magazines when the new issues appeared. Typically, after the orders were filled, the cards were tossed onto a sorting table allowing publishers, trying to monitor the sales of any given periodical, to look through them. Ever since Sampliner had started the distribution out of the ground floor, Jack Liebowitz had gotten into the habit of stopping by every morning and sifting through the pick-up cards with other publishers, tracking the sales of the pulps and comics. (Harry, on the other hand, could have cared less). Following its publication that February, Jack discovered the sales of the first issue of Action Comics, while no means record breaking, was doing quite well, despite Harry’s dire predictions. It was then Jack instructed Sampliner play down the sales to Malcolm, if he asked, and to give him back any and all returns, making it appear the book was losing money.
“[Malcolm] did not ever investigate what the actual sales were of the comic books. That’s another huge mistake he made.” Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson admitted. “I remember a garage we had in one of our houses we lived in that was stacked with Superman comics; a garage full of the first printings of Superman which Harry Donenfeld had said weren’t selling.”
On March 1st, 1938, even as the sales of the first issue of Action were proving very promising and litigation against the Major proceeded, Jerry and Joe were unexpectedly asked to visit Harry’s office to pick up a $412 check for their latest submissions. Entering Harry’s plush office, the two young boys were immediately confronted by “a whole pack of lawyers.” The situation “scared the hell out of these…two kids from Cleveland...!” artist Wayne Boring explained, “Donenfeld and Liebowitz knew that Superman was a hit, so they called these kids in and told ‘em, ‘Here, sign this’ and they did and they signed away all their rights. Of course it was a swindle.” If Jerry and Joe wanted to be paid, they had to sign the contract, and for two young guys in 1938, $412. was a small fortune. However, they had to know what they were signing; the last line clearly reads “…The intent hereof is to give [DC] exclusive right to use, and acknowledge that [DC] own, said characters…” Needing the money, and having no idea Superman would be anything more than a two part story, they signed.
“I did suggest before they signed up with DC Comics that they consult an attorney.” Vin Sullivan revealed. “At that time I was trying to get some business for my brother Frank, who had just passed the bar, he was my attorney also. But they didn’t do it; they didn’t see anybody, and they- now these dealings I had nothing to do with, but I knew they were going on- they signed up with Liebowitz and Donenfeld, and in effect they signed their rights away; for everything!”
In June of 1938 Harry Donenfeld was finally granted full legal control over Malcom’s company. Upon the takeover, Jack Liebowitz merged Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s National Allied Publications with Harry Donenfeld’s Detective Comics Inc. forming National Comics. 
In January 1933, Jerry Siegel wrote a short prose story titled "The Reign of the Superman", which was illustrated by his friend Joe Shuster and self-published in a science fiction magazine. It told the story of a bald villain with telepathic powers. Trying to create a character they could sell to newspaper syndicates, Siegel re-conceived the "superman" character as a powerful hero, sent to our world from a more advanced society. He and Shuster developed the idea into a comic strip, which they pitched unsuccessfully.
The original panels were rewritten and redrawn to create the first page of Action Comics #1:
- Baby Superman is sent to Earth by his scientist father in a "hastily-devised space ship" from "a distant planet" which "was destroyed by old age".
- After the space ship lands on Earth, "a passing motorist, discovering the sleeping baby within, turned the child over to an orphanage".
- The baby Superman lifts a large chair overhead with one hand, astounding the orphanage attendants with "his feats of strength".
- When Superman (now named Clark Kent) reaches maturity, he discovers that he can leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle 20-story buildings, "raise tremendous weights", outrun a train, and "that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin".
- Clark decides that "he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind, and so was created 'Superman', champion of the oppressed...."
Two new panels offering a "scientific explanation of Clark Kent's amazing strength" were added. The panels do not identify Superman's home planet by name or explain how he was named Clark Kent.
The next twelve pages showed Superman attempting to save an innocent woman about to be executed while delivering the real murderess, bound and gagged, and leaving her on the lawn of the state Governor's mansion after breaking through the door into his house with a signed confession; coming to the aid of a woman being beaten up by her husband, who faints when his knife shatters on Superman's skin; rescuing Lois Lane (who also debuts in this issue) from a gangster who abducted her after she rebuffed him at a nightclub, which leads to the cover scene with the car; and going to Washington, D.C., instead of South America, to "stir up news" as his editor wants to investigate a Senator who he suspects is corrupt, and prompting a confession by leaping around high buildings with the terrified man, which leads into the next issue. All the while, Clark tries to keep Superman out of the papers.
Action Comics #1 has set several sales records for comic books. On February 22, 2010, a copy of Action Comics #1 CGC Grade 8.0 sold at auction for US$1 million, becoming the first million-dollar comic book. The sale, by an anonymous seller to an anonymous buyer, was through the Manhattan-based auction company ComicConnect.com. On March 29, 2010, ComicConnect.com sold another copy for US$1.5 million, making it the most expensive and most valuable comic book of all time. The copy sold is the third highest-graded copy from the CGC, which stands at 8.5 VF+ grade.
As of 2011, there were six known Comic Guaranty LLC (CGC)-graded copies with a grade above VG (CGC 4.0), with only one issue having the grade of VF/NM (CGC 9.0) at that time. EC and Mad publisher William Gaines, whose father was also a comic book publisher and had business dealings with DC Comics at the time Action Comics #1 was published, claimed in a Comics Journal interview that he at one point had dozens of copies of the issue around his house, but they were probably all thrown out. Another copy, rated CGC 5 ("Very Good/Fine"), was discovered in July 2010 by a family facing foreclosure on their home while packing their possessions. ComicConnect.com estimated the comic may sell as high as $250,000 once auctioned, saving the family's home.
One copy was stolen from American actor Nicolas Cage, an avid comic book collector, in 2000. In March 2011, it was found in a storage locker in the San Fernando Valley and was verified by ComicConnect.com to be the copy sold to him previously. Cage had previously received an insurance payment for the item. A copy which sold for $2.16 million on November 30, 2011 through ComicConnect.com is believed to have been this same one, having been noted as stolen in 2000 and recovered in 2011. The Hollywood Reporter mentioned in its March 23, 2012 issue that a movie was in development based on the theft of Cage's copy of the comic book and would be titled Action No. 1. The screenplay was a spec script written by Reno 911! creators Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon and sold to Lionsgate. They will produce along with Peter Principato and Paul Young.
A CGC 9.0-graded comic, with white pages, was auctioned for sale on eBay in August 2014. The seller Darren Adams, a comic book store owner in Federal Way, Washington, had purchased the issue from the estate of a man who had originally bought the issue from a newsstand on its release in 1938. The original buyer lived in high altitudes in West Virginia and stored the comic in a stack with others, which provided the optimal "cool, dry and dark" conditions that lent well to a comic's age, according to Adams. The comic changed hands twice prior to the auction; first sold as part of an estate sale when the original purchaser died forty years after its publication, and then to a third person who held the comic for about thirty years. Some years prior to the auction, Adams was contacted by this third person, and seeing the pristine condition of the comic, purchased it for a "seven figure sum". He held onto the comic for a few years before deciding to sell it, keeping the existence of it otherwise a secret, even rejecting a $3 million offer to buy the comic outright. On his decision to sell, he opted to use eBay instead of other comic auction houses like Heritage House, believing the auction site would reach a wider audience and was a better fit for the pop culture nature of the piece. After discussions with the site, Adams and eBay also arranged to donate 1% of the sale to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, reflecting on Christopher Reeve's role as Superman in motion pictures. The auction ended on August 24, 2014 and sold for over $3.2 million. This was the highest value ever paid for a single issue of a comic book. The purchasers were Vincent Zurzolo and Stephen Fishler, the owners of Metropolis Collectibles; Zurzolo expected the value of the near-mint comic to continue to increase in time.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, DC reissued several of its most popular Golden Age comics as "Famous First Editions", including Action Comics #1, published in 1974. These reprints were oversized, roughly double the size of the original editions, and had a cardboard-like cover. The interior, however, was an exact reprint of the original comic, right down to the ads. As a result, the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has since the 1970s published a warning advising that attempts have been made to pass off the reprint, stripped of its Famous First Edition cardboard cover, as an actual #1. However, the Guide does not cite any actual instances of this.
DC reprinted Action Comics #1 in 1988 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of Superman that year. This edition reprinted only the Superman story, with a 50¢ U.S.A. cover price.
The complete issue was reprinted in 1998 with an additional half-cover featuring the Superman stamp from the U.S. Postal Service's "Celebrate the Century" commemorative stamp series along with a "First Day of Issue" cancellation. It was sold by the U.S. Postal Service, shrinkwrapped, for $7.95.
The complete issue, save for the inside front, inside back, and outside back cover, was reprinted in 2000 as part of DC Comics' Millennium Edition series of reprints of famous DC comics.
It should be noted that the 1988, 1998 and 2000 reprints were published to the page-size standard of the 1988-2000 period, and not the larger page size utilized by Action Comics in 1938.
The New 52
In the spring of 2011, DC Comics announced plans to reboot and reset 52 of its ongoing titles, dubbed The New 52. This included ending the original 73-year run of Action Comics with issue #904, October 2011 (on sale August 24, 2011). The first issue of Action Comics volume 2, with a cover date of November 2011, went on sale September 7, 2011.
The New 52 version of Action Comics #1 has gone through five printings. The fifth printing, which went on sale March 28, 2012, is cover-dated May 2012 in both the UPC box on the cover and the indicia, with no mention of its original November 2011 cover date.
- Lance Whitney (August 26, 2014). "Superman's Action Comics No. 1 sells for record $3.2 million on eBay". CNET.com. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
A "pristine" copy of Action Comics No. 1, the comic book that introduced the Man of Steel to the world in 1938, sold for $3,207,852 on an eBay auction Sunday night following a last-minute round of intense bidding. By far the highest price ever paid for a single comic book, the number flew up, up, and away past the $2,161,000 paid for a less pristine copy that was auctioned in 2011.
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