As of this month, it’s been 85 years since the publication of Action Comics #1. That means it’s a big anniversary for Superman, of course, but let’s not forget that it also marks the occasion for someone else. A character who has been by Superman’s side from the very beginning, before even Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. One whose awe for the Man of Steel has defined him from the moment of his debut, and who will be linked to his name forever.
Obviously, we’re talking about Butch Matson.
What? You’re saying you don’t know who Butch Matson is? Sure you do. He’s this guy.
No, not the circus strong man lifting the car. You already know who that is. We’re talking about him:
Yes, that panicked man with a granite block face, tie flapping in terror as his entire world is rocked by the impossibility of what he is witnessing, has a name and a role in the very first Superman story as one of the earliest people to ever mess with Jerry and Joe’s “Champion of the Oppressed.” That means he’s also one of the first to find out what happens when you do that. That’s his car Supes is smashing into a rock, you see.
For the first year of Superman stories in Action Comics, there were no super-villains. The idea hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, it was lowlifes like Butch and shady industrialists who earned Superman’s ire. The Ultra-Humanite would break that streak with his debut in Action Comics #13, but those first twelve before Superman would meet an equal and opposite force remain one of the most interesting periods of his eight and a half decades in the DC Universe. So, as we celebrate Superman’s milestone anniversary, let’s get to know his original foes.
Action Comics #1
Bea Carroll holds the distinction of being the first character Superman ever speaks to on panel. It’s a shocking introduction, as our supposed hero leaves the woman bound and gagged next to a tree. But as we soon learn, Ms. Carroll had it coming: Bea had murdered her husband and framed an innocent woman for the crime, leaving Superman with barely enough time to apprehend her while alerting the governor of Evelyn Curry’s innocence.
Action Comics #1
As an introduction to Superman, the very first Superman story isn’t so much one interconnected narrative as a series of vignettes meant to introduce each aspect of the character—what he can do and what he stands for. Butch Matson is a roughneck chauvinist who tries to manhandle Lois Lane while she’s out on the town with Clark Kent. Fearing public exposure of his identity, Clark establishes his meekness by failing to stand up for Lois, leaving her to tell off the goon herself. In revenge, Matson and his cronies kidnap Lois, giving Clark the space to change into his more colorful persona and handle them accordingly. Guys like Butch don’t mess with Lois Lane anymore.
Senator Barrows and Alex Greer
Action Comics #1
Anyone who’s ever said to keep politics out of comics better not read the first Superman story. Two of Superman’s very first enemies are the corrupt Senator Barrows and lobbyist Alex Greer, conspiring to launch the United States into war with Europe for personal gain. Superman puts the fear of god into them, forcing them to retract their insidious bill. It wouldn’t be the last time Superman dealt with warmongers. In fact, Superman would remain one of the most vocally anti-war characters in fiction up until the moment the United States officially joined World War II. It’s hard to get more political than that.
Action Comics #2
A private arms mogul, Emil Norvell used his wealth and influence to encourage unrest across the world to profit from the resulting warfare. With a sense of Old Testament justice, Superman forces Norvell to the front lines of one of his own wars so he can see firsthand the horrors that his business ventures unleash on the world. This trademark of ironic punishment and demonstration of the plight of the oppressed directly to the oppressor was a staple of early Superman stories, and one which writer Jerry Siegel would eventually transfer over to one of his other great creations, the Spectre.
Action Comics #3
The parade of self-serving capitalists with no regard for the common man continues into Superman’s third issue, with mining magnate Thornton Blakely. Blakely keeps his profit margins high by denying his workers the safe working conditions they need, putting his employees’ lives at risk every day to save pennies. In one of the best early Superman stories, Clark disguises himself as a Blakely miner and crashes one of his employer’s swanky upper crust parties, persuading them all to join him in the mine and continue the party there as a novelty. As Superman, Clark engineers a cave-in trapping them in Blakely’s mine as they suffer the consequences of his negligence towards the lives of his workers, forcing a revelation on Blakely to amend his ways.
Action Comics #4
In addition to preventing war and standing up for worker’s rights, Superman was all about fair play. When Superman overhears Dale University’s unscrupulous Coach Randall hiring two thugs to rough up their opponent’s star players in the upcoming football game, Superman swaps places with a lookalike on the opposing team to teach the cheaters what happens when you face an opponent who can’t be cheated.
Action Comics #6
Action Comics #6 is around the time that Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and everyone at National Comics began to realize just what a cultural sensation their Superman had become, so this story is about just that: a crooked huckster who claims to be Superman’s manager, using his name and likeness without consent to promote his own marketing ventures. Superman takes it in stride until Lois Lane investigates and ends up falling out a skyscraper window for her trouble—the first of many, many times she’ll find herself in that position over the next 85 years.
Action Comics #7
Years before the Flying Graysons would run afoul of Tony Zucco, Derek Niles was pulling a similar scheme in Action Comics. A loan shark extorting a struggling circus, Niles conspired to sabotage his debtor so he could acquire the circus for himself. Unfortunately for him, Superman is apparently a little more equipped than his chiropteran counterpart to rescue imperiled circus acts. Sorry, Dick. Should have booked Metropolis instead. (What, too soon?)
Action Comics #8
The villain of this issue is ostensibly a Faginesque character who manipulates the disenfranchised youth of Metropolis into working for his crime ring. But in what may be his most radical story yet, Superman quickly identifies the true culprit: neglected and mismanaged slums which foster criminal behavior for a poor young generation with nowhere else to turn. With these slums standing in the way of urban progress, Superman takes it upon himself to demolish this part of Metropolis himself, forcing the city’s hand to finally put forward the resources to save their most ignored citizens. The incident has lasting consequences for Superman, making him an enemy of the law for the first time.
Action Comics #9
Superman’s first enemy on the right side of the law, Detective Captain Reilly is called in from Chicago to apprehend the criminal Superman. So, what happens when the Man of Steel meets the cop who always gets his man? In short, Superman sends him packing. It’s here that Superman draws a moral distinction in his character—it’s not the law he stands for, but justice, and those two points aren’t always aligned.
Action Comics #10
This time, an increasingly radical Superman enlists his powers to stand up for one of America’s most oppressed groups to this day: the convicted felon. When Clark Kent learns of the cruel conditions that Prison Superintendent Wyman subjects his own inmates to, Superman arrives to give him the old Thornton Blakely Special by forcing him to experience the same conditions he foists on his charges. Wyman promises to amend his ways, which is good enough for Superman. After all, he can always come back.
Meek and Bronson, Oil Barons
Action Comics #11
By this point, you had to know it was just a matter of time before Superman took on big oil. Granted, in 1939, we weren’t having a conversation about environmental impact just yet. This issue is more concerned with how an unregulated free market takes advantage of desperate people by promising them riches where there’s none to be had. When Meek and Bronson find unexpected riches from a tapped-out oil well, they attempt to extort their buyers into abandoning their shares so they can enjoy the riches for themselves. Instead, Clark Kent gathers the shares from Meek and Bronson’s con victims, offering them back for a million dollars—an offer they accept, knowing they can make much more. That’s when Superman steps in to raze the site and their future profits, granting them the same fate as those they bilked out of their fortune, while Superman uses the million to repay their victims.
Action Comics #12
We’ve seen Superman get aggressive, stern and even mischievous until now. But Action Comics #12 is the first time we really see him get mad. What is it that sets him off so? Another corrupt industrialist? Some uncaring politician? No, it’s the national epidemic of reckless drivers. When Clark’s friend Charlie Martin is killed in a motor accident, Superman gets proactive about enforcing a safe driving policy in Metropolis: keep your eyes on the road or answer to Superman. What is it about reckless drivers in particular that pushes Superman’s buttons like this? Perhaps it’s that the issue hits so close to home. The rise of the automobile in America makes superhuman speed democratic, granting us all many times more power than a mortal man. Nothing could be more profane to Superman than to be granted these abilities only to use them carelessly.
A theme emerges when you look at all these stories together that what truly offends Superman the most is the abuse of power. From the very start, Superman has been a story about how we must do what we can to help others with the gifts we’ve been given. Anyone who would use their advantages without consideration, or for pure personal profit, is Superman’s enemy. It’s no wonder that Lex Luthor eventually rose to be his greatest rival of all—he was in the DNA of every original villain Superman faced during his first year in action. And as long as he wears the emblem on his chest, he’ll continue standing as Jerry Siegel dubbed him in Action Comics #1: not a Man of Steel, nor a Man of Tomorrow, but a Champion of the Oppressed.
The first twelve issues of Action Comics—plus hundreds that were release after that—can all be read on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.
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.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.