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Action Comics by the 50s

Action Comics by the 50s

By Alex Jaffe Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

Since 1938, Action Comics has stood as one of DC’s central pillars, giving us the greatest hero in comic book history and building his legend through five generations. Today, Action Comics changes the status quo of an ever-changing Superman once more with Action Comics #1051, bringing a new anthology approach to Superman’s world. It’s surely appropriate, as Action Comics began as an anthology title. It’s also not the first time there have been big changes for Superman and the title. To examine the entire history of Action Comics—a comic that debuted in 1938—would be an exercise in exhaustion. So instead, let’s take a series of snapshots…by checking in on the title and seeing what it’s up to every fifty issues.


Action Comics #50 (1942)

Action Comics began with Superman lifting a car above his head on the cover, but the issue itself featured co-stars from Pep Morgan to Sticky-Mitt Stimson. From the beginning, Action Comics was designed as an anthology meant to showcase a wide variety of stories. This was still the case by issue #50, where Action Comics #1 star Zatara was still going strong alongside Superman. Congo Bill, Mr. America, Vigilante and a group of WWI veteran mercenaries called the “Three Aces” featured in the comic this time as well. This issue’s “Three Aces” story, “The Island Where Time Stood Still,” introduces the concept of “The War That Time Forgot” in DC history nearly two decades before its nominative debut in Star-Spangled War Stories.


Action Comics #100 (1946)

Zatara, Congo Bill and Vigilante are still going strong as co-features by the time we get to Action Comics #100, but the Three Aces fell from the roster in Action Comics #63. In issue #100’s lead story, Inspector Hawkins, a detective from Scotland Yard arrives in Metropolis to deduce the true identity of Superman. Strongly suspecting mild-mannered Clark Kent, the inspector nearly gets his man before Kent diverts him from the trail with a phony will that leaves everything Clark owns to Superman in the event of his death. I don’t think that would have fooled me, but I’m not the detective here.


Action Comics #150 (1950)

Congo Bill and Vigilante are still holding on in Action Comics #150. The Zatara feature, ongoing in nearly every issue since Action Comics #1, took its last curtain call in issue #141. It’s replaced here by the “thrills of the 21st century with Tommy Tomorrow,” a space-traveling adventure story which gives Action Comics a more cosmic flavor. Clearly a sign of America’s burgeoning interest in the coming space age. In the lead feature, Superman investigates six mysterious statues of himself which appear scattered around the world.


Action Comics #200 (1954)

Action Comics #200 is a surprisingly lean issue. Vigilante and his sidekick Stuff, the Chinatown Kid have ridden off into the sunset as of Action Comics #198, and Superman here is accompanied only by Congo Bill and Tommy Tomorrow. The lead story is a woefully culturally insensitive one, where Superman and the Daily Planet get unnecessarily involved in a leadership struggle within a Native American community—all leading up to a bad gag where Jimmy Olsen gets to call Perry White “Chief.” In retrospect a pretty disappointing story for Action Comics’ 200th issue, and one we should only recall as a historical document for how not to approach this subject in the future.


Action Comics #250 (1959)

Action Comics is still a three-feature book when we reach issue #250, and still co-starring Tommy Tomorrow and Congo Bill. It’s really hard to impress how ubiquitous Congo Bill used to be, even before he got the power to swap bodies with a golden gorilla—something which first happened just two issues before this milestone. The lead story gives us another identity scare, with Clark Kent appearing on a talk show to promote the Daily Planet news team only to find the host intends to grill him on his double life. Clark gets out of it by stopping the needle on the show’s lie detector test with his freeze breath.


Action Comics #300 (1963)

By issue #300, Action Comics is finally an all-Superman Family comic, with a Superman lead and a Supergirl back-up feature. The changeover took hold in Action Comics #262, when long-standing support feature Congo Bill finally withered off the vine. By now, Action Comics is making overtures at more serious storytelling, with a lead story where the Superman Revenge Squad has projected their Kryptonian nemesis a million years into the future, to a desolate Earth under a red sun. Forty years later, this story would be adapted into the two-part Justice League animated series episode “Hereafter.”


Action Comics #350 (1967)

Still an all-Super book, with Superman in the lead and Supergirl behind him. Superman is stranded under a red sun once again in Action Comics #350, but this time it’s one million years back, in an entirely ahistorical depiction of Earth’s past. Meanwhile, Supergirl investigates rock band sensation “The Supers” where each member dresses up as an established superhero while secretly committing robberies wherever they play.


Action Comics #400 (1971)

Action Comics #400’s freaky Neal Adams cover clearly marks that we’ve entered the ’70s. By this point, Supergirl’s backup feature had been supplanted by a wildcard Superman story. Sometimes Supergirl, but sometimes a story of ancient Krypton, or Kandor, or the Fortress of Solitude, or even a young Clark Kent as Superbaby. In the lead story, Superman is appointed the legal guardian of Gregor, the shapeshifting creation of a departed scientist, who’s got this situation you see on the cover here going on. Although Gregor holds Superman responsible for his condition by interrupting his father’s experiments, he sacrifices his life to follow in the heroic footsteps of his new father and dies in Superman’s arms. Meanwhile, two Kandorians fight over whether Superman or Supergirl is cooler. Me, I like them both.


Action Comics #450 (1975)

No, Superman hasn’t been Jokerfied. In this story, laughter turns out to be the only way to defeat a comedian mutated into a horrible monster, as a reminder of his purpose and humanity. At this point in Action Comics’ life, the backup story featured rotating guest stars from throughout the DC Universe like the Atom and Human Target. Green Arrow and Black Canary land the supporting feature for Action Comics #450.


Action Comics #500 (1979)

While Superman’s pursuit of truth and justice never rests, 500 issues of Action Comics is a milestone not even the Man of Steel can ignore. Starting with issue #478, Action Comics had retired its backup feature to offer one full book-length Superman story per issue. In this issue, Superman recounts his life story at a festival thrown in his honor, while Lex Luthor plots to replace him with a Superman clone. As a foreword, long time writer and editor E. Nelson Bridwell writes a special feature about the magazine’s history. “What’s coming up for Action Comics?” Bridwell asks. “Will we one day celebrate our 1,000th issue? If we do (and right now, we don’t see why not), one thing is certain—it will still be starring Superman!”


Action Comics #550 (1983)

The last milestone issue of the Pre-Crisis era, and the second to see Superman flying solo. Superman saves the world from alien invaders who are wrecking the place on an interplanetary treasure hunt.


Action Comics #600 (1988)

For both Action’s 600th issue and 50th anniversary, this one pulls out the stops. In an anthology of Superman stories for the new Post-Crisis era featuring some of Superman’s greatest living talent at the time, Superman squares up with Darkseid, has a blind date with Wonder Woman, trades blows with a Batman villain, and even takes strides towards greater representation as Metropolis detective Maggie Sawyer makes her first allusions to her homosexuality. Action Comics makes a statement in stone here that even fifty years on, its stories are fresher than ever.


Action Comics #650 (1990)

You may have noticed that these past fifty issues seem to have gone by a lot more quickly. That’s because with Action Comics #601, the book switched to a weekly format for nearly a year, with a wide anthology of features like Black Canary, Green Lantern, Deadman and the Blackhawk Squadron. With issue #643, Action Comics returned to its monthly, single Superman story format. Action Comics #650 is a contemplative issue between major battles with Brainiac and Maxima about the difference Superman has made, with contributions by every creator working on a Superman book at the time.


Action Comics #700 (1994)

In the fifty issues since our last milestone, Superman made a big splash with his dramatic death and return, which can be a difficult trick to top. So, for the big issue #700, Action Comics lives up to its name with a very action-heavy issue featuring a battle between Superman and Lex Luthor for the fate of Metropolis. Meanwhile, in Smallville, Superman’s best childhood friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang get married.


Action Comics #750 (1998)

In Action Comics #750our final milestone issue of the ’90s—Superman battles a villain named Crazytop who attempts to trick him with fake Kryptonite. A relatively uneventful issue, but man, would you look at that cover?


Action Comics #800 (2003)

Like Action Comics #500 before it, this 800th spectacular takes us through Superman’s life. But it’s injected with the flavor of #600 and #650 and told in an anthology format with all the greatest Superman talent editorial could dial up. We also get a number of autobiographical comic vignettes in the real world, as writers and artists express what Superman and Action Comics have meant to them.


Action Comics #850 (2007)

Action Comics #850 is another oversized issue presented by the contemporary roster of Superman talent. Supergirl also returns for a time-bending team-up with her former Action Comics costar, narratively exploring key moments in Superman’s life.


Action Comics #900 (2011)

A star-studded cinematic spectacular featuring stories from Richard Donner, David S. Goyer and Damon Lindelof lending their film and television expertise to Superman’s comic book world. In Action Comics #900’s lead feature, Paul Cornell brings “The Black Ring Saga” to a conclusion, where Lex Luthor must choose between divine apotheosis and his grudge with Superman. Luthor is as ever who he is.


Action Comics #50 (2016)

No, that’s not a typo. In 2011, DC’s “New 52” initiative saw every single one of its comics renumbered from #1, including the venerable Action Comics. Featuring the collective talent of the New 52’s two Superman titles, DC’s second Action Comics #50 doesn’t skimp on the titular action, as Superman leads a climactic battle between all the world’s superheroes and Vandal Savage when the immortal villain seizes control of the Fortress of Solitude. After two more issues, Action Comics would return to its legacy numbering. (The entire run would ultimately be counted as 56 issues, due to the 2013 “Villains Month” specials featuring Cyborg Superman, Zod, Lex Luthor, and Metallo…so maybe we should count Action Comics #46 as issue #950? Whatever, let’s not overthink this.)


Action Comics #1000 (2018)

BENDIS IS HERE! Kicking off superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis’ game-changing runs on both Action Comics and Superman, Action Comics #1000 also features an anthology of stories from some of comics’ most celebrated creators for eighty years and a thousand issues, and a stunning array of variant covers marking each decade of Superman’s publication. Most importantly, it marks the return of Superman’s red trunks, formerly lost in the New 52.


Action Comics #1050 (2022)

Which brings us to now. The contemporary creative teams on the ongoing (and near-future) Superman books convene here once more in Action Comics #1050 for a traditional State-of-Superman statement. Discarded in Bendis’ Action Comics, Superman’s secret identity is restored once again…at a terrible price.


With a family-forward philosophy, it seems like the next fifty issues of Action Comics, starting with today’s issue #1051, will give us a wider focus once more. For the near-term at least, Action Comics is becoming a true anthology comic for the first time since the Silver Age and boasting an array of stories focusing on Superman’s closest allies. Time will tell how long this return to its roots remains. Could it be another fifty issues? We’ll see! Either way, we know one thing for certain—the action isn’t stopping any time soon.


Action Comics #1051 by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Rafa Sandoval, Dan Jurgens, Lee Weeks, Leah Williams, Marguerite Sauvage and more is now available in print and as a digital comic book.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.