16 Instances in Which Comic Artists (and a Fanboy Movie Director) Pay Homage to Action Comics #1
In any discussion about the history of comic books, it’s almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. Before this issue, comics either featured reprints of newspaper comic strips or cheap knock-offs of characters found in the popular newspaper strips of the day. Superman was the fledgling medium’s first superstar (pun intended), and it didn’t take long for other publishers to get in the game and churn out hundreds of new superhero characters for the enjoyment of a rapidly growing audience. Because of its historical significance and its immense value to collectors, the cover for Action Comics #1 is famous among fans and non-fans alike, which helps explain why modern-day artists keep coming back to it for inspiration, again and again:
1. Secret Origins #1 (04/86)
This one is a gimme — as the first issue in a series that looked back at how DC’s heroes started their careers, it was only natural that Superman would lead the charge, and what better image to lead with than an homage to the cover that started it all? Curiously, DC chose to profile the Golden Age Superman in this issue, and not the modern-day Superman who was more familiar to fans of the day. (For the uninitiated, there are subtle differences between the Superman of the 1930s and ’40s and the one most of us grew up with in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; the Golden Age Superman, for instance, started out leaping instead of flying and worked at the Daily Star.) It’s likely this choice was made because an all-new Superman was slated to debut later that year (in John Byrne’s Man of Steelmini-series), and DC probably felt this issue would serve as a proper farewell to the Superman who was phased out of official continuity in the company’s recently completed Crisis on Infinite Earths.
2. Fantastic Four #291 (06/86)
Speaking of Byrne. This issue was one of the last in Byrne’s acclaimed Fantastic Four run; in it, the FF and Nick Fury find themselves travelling back in time to 1936, where Fury, the grizzled WWII vet, decides the best use of his time is to go kill Hitler before the whole Second World War thing gets off the ground. This cover image, employing a slightly different vantage point than Action #1, could be seen as a shout-out to the historical era in which the FF find themselves in… or, given Byrne’s then-imminent departure to DC to revamp the Superman franchise (the aforementioned Man of Steel mini-series had a cover date four months after this issue), this cover could also be seen as Byrne subtly announcing his glee at the prospect of taking creative control of the granddaddy of superheroes.
3. Amazing Spider-Man #306 (10/88)
A lot can be said (and has been) about whether Todd McFarlane and his Image Comics cohorts rescued or nearly ruined the comic industry in the 1990s, but back in the late ’80s all the fans cared about is how well that guy could draw. His intricate, gnarly-knuckled style worked well in Amazing Spider-Man, where his depictions of Spidey’s poses and weblines put the emphasis on the “spider” in Spider-Man. This issue placed Peter Parker in a familiar milieu, fighting a “crisis on campus” perpetrated by yet another university professor on a rampage. In other words, there was no real reason for the cover homage other than to have fun with an iconic image… although, given Spider-Man’s rocketing popularity at the time, it’s not entirely unlikely that McFarlane and Marvel were tweaking DC’s nose by hinting at comicdom’s new top dog, saleswise.
4. Action Comics #685 (01/93)
Ah, “The Death of Superman” — life seemed so innocent back then. No comic fan seriously believed Superman was actually gone, but an apparently slow news week meant the story got major coverage in the mainstream media, with a lot of commentators castigating DC for using cheap stunts like killing off their flagship character to sell a few more books. And… yeah, that just about covers it, but at least readers got a story that suggested the editors and writers weren’t making it up as they went along. Giving both the supporting characters and real-life fans time to mourn their fallen hero was essential, and so the “Funeral for a Friend” story arc saw DC’s heroes gather in Metropolis for a final farewell (while darker forces also reacted to the news in their own way). This cover, featuring Supergirl in the iconic pose, is an obvious allusion to the fact that Superman wasn’t around anymore to trash cars and send well-dressed guys running in terror… but (spoiler!) have no fear, he would be soon enough.
5. Superman #124 (06/97)
The mid-’90s was a tough time to be Superman; after you’ve come back from the dead, where do you go from there? The sense of “What the hell do we do with him now?” was evident in the plethora of plot twists apparently designed to re-introduce every aspect of the Silver Age Superman stories into the book. (It also didn’t help that DC’s marketing department ordered a continuous storyline throughout Superman’s four — and occasionally five — titles every month, making it all but impossible for the writers to catch their breath.) This particular fellow is Ceritak, a citizen of the extra-dimensional City of Kandor whose arrival on Earth leads to an inevitable misunderstanding and brawl with Superman. They work things out, though, and “Scorn,” as he’s dubbed by Earth’s media, soon becomes a faithful ally, even wearing Superman’s classic costume when the latter goes electric blue (don’t ask). Being an alien like Superman himself, but more obviously so (with the blue skin and horns), Scorn could have had a nice career as a symbol of the “other” that is more obviously different and therefore harder for mainstream society to accept (see the cute subplot where he ends up dating the daughter of a conservative Daily Planet columnist)… but he was boring as hell, and no one mourned his sudden departure from the books.
6. Superboy & Risk Double-Shot #1 (02/98)
Never heard of this Risk fellow? Don’t feel deprived. He first showed up as member of the Teen Titans in the 1996 Teen Titans series (a.k.a. “the one not starring Raven, Cyborg, or anyone else halfway to interesting”). Quoth Wikipedia: “Risk is stronger and faster than the average human, and his senses are more acute. His strength, speed and senses are multiplied about six times the average human. He is hyper everything.” In other words, he has the combined strength of your average hockey team, and he somehow thought this gave him an edge in battle against a crazed Superboy (not the one you see here). Twice. You can ask his forcibly amputated limbs how well that turned out. Really, just rehashing his life story makes me depressed how far the Teen Titans franchise has sunk since the early ’80s, so I’m going to stop now. Though I must give kudos to the artist for featuring a terrified figure in the foreground who’s a little more pleasing to the eye than the average gangster. (Damn you, UPC symbol!)
7. Superman #136 (07/98)
“What, it’s been a whole year since we’ve done an Action #1 pose for the cover? Get on that, pronto!” Here we see another symptom of the lack of quality control that the Superman franchise seemed to suffer for most of the ’90s; just one year after Scorn struck a familiar pose (see above), we see the Real Deal himself smashing up a personal conveyance vehicle (or whatever that thing is called) in the year 2999. Why? Why not? It’s not a bad piece of art, just a little too close to the previous Action #1 homage in Superman #124. As for the rest of the book… trust me, the three-eyed Fleeing in Terror Guy (wearing green, natch) is more memorable than anything you’ll find inside.
8. Jupiter #7 (02/2000)
This is why I like making these lists; just as I hope you learn something new, I’m always finding out new and interesting things. For instance, before I went looking for Action #1 homages I had never heard of Jupiter or Jason Sandberg , and now I have. From a Comics Journal review: “This is a fairly unusual title, even by the standards of the alternative market. On the one hand, Jupiter recycles many of the reader-friendly hooks associated with mass market comics: bold, full-color covers, super-hero punch-ups, popular recurrent characters and easy-to-follow storylines. Rather than rejecting, deconstructing or parodying the protocols of genre… Sandberg plays with these protocols for his own idiosyncratic and deeply ideological purposes.” That “playing with protocols” certainly explains the homage cover, though I do miss Mr. Terrified in the corner. (Also: “$4.53 Canada”? Precise much?)
9. Tales of the Bizarro World (09/2000)
Oh, Bizarro. It am fun to hate you so. This collection of Bizarro tales features strips that originally appeared in Adventure Comics #285-295 (06/61-04/62) as a back-up series, and they star imperfect duplicates of Superman and his supporting cast back when they were really bizarre, even by Silver Age Superman standards. The cover by Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets) beautifully emulates the styles of Superman stalwarts Curt Swan and Wayne Boring, who helped create Superman’s definitive look in the 1950s and ’60s. And this being a Bizarro comic, the fleeing-in-terror guy in the corner is replaced by a Bizarro-Lois who seems smitten by Bizarro’s show of strength. Bliss.
10. Action Comics #800 (04/2003)
Well, of course the 800th anniversary issue of Action Comics would be an appropriate place to re-create the cover that started the series way back in ’38. We still have Mr. Terrified in the corner, and the perspective has been shifted to show us how Superman would look if we were standing under the car he’s lifting. Drew Struzan (the man behind such iconic movie posters as the Star Wars trilogy, Back to the Future, E.T., and the Indiana Jones series) painted an image that serves as a fitting cover for a milestone issue like this, and yes — that is his self-portrait in the lower left corner. Artist’s privilege, and all that.
11. Superman #201 (03/2004)
“And Mr. Majestic will save the day…?” Oh, Lord, who cares? Mr. Majestic (and one hopes he didn’t come up with that sobriquet by himself) is a Superman archetype whose DC debut was in Action Comics #811 (the same month that this issue appeared), but his first actual appearance was in WildC.A.T.s. #11 (06/94), a book first published by Image but sold to DC in 1998 as part of Wildstorm Productions (Jim Lee’s studio). This is the storyline that brings Mr. Majestic into the DC universe, where it’s very quickly apparent just how bloody derivative he really is, to the point that Lois Lane, of all people, mistakes him for Superman in another outfit. Was he meant as a commentary on the Superman archetype? Was he introduced to provide an insight into the real Superman’s characterization? These are questions nobody really cared to ask. Gotta admit, though — it’s nice to see Jimmy Olsen screaming in terror. Punk.
12. Infinite Crisis #5 (04/2006)
This interior full-page shot from the Infinite Crisis mini-series is clearly an homage to Action #1, the vintage green car being the most obvious clue. It’s also an appropriate homage, given that’s the actual Golden Age Superman hoisting the car and using it to bludgeon his modern-day counterpart. There’s no need to rehash the entire Infinite Crisis plot (and boy, is there a lot of it), but suffice to say GA Superman is back from wherever he went and he’s none too pleased with the current state of the world. His attempt to literally create a better world doesn’t end well, as he loses his wife Lois in the process, and so he takes out his grief and anger on the “real” Superman until Wonder Woman breaks up the fight. Great image by Jerry Ordway; it’s just a shame it was in service of a story that manages to spit on just every everything Superman-related.
13. Superman Returns (2006)
Critics and fans found plenty of ways to describe the flaws in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (seriously, people — the kid? Really??), but “lack of reverence” was not a phrase that anyone is likely to find in connection to this film. In fact, the movie was almost too reverent in that it never seemed to go anywhere new (thematically, that is — the CGI’ed bullet-in-the-eye shot was still pretty cool), and Brendan Routh often seemed confused about what he was supposed to be doing in his scenes. Nonetheless, there are a few fun shout-outs to Superman fans, including this scene in which Superman stops an out-of-control car.
14. Fallen Angel #15 (04/2007)
Fallen Angel is one of the more fascinating series to appear in recent years, and not just because of the premise (the title character is Lee, a former guardian angel stripped of her wings and cast down into a city rife with corruption and crime after she got Biblical on a mortal who killed one of her young charges). As one of DC’s few mature-reader titles outside the Vertigo imprint, it had a hard time finding fans despite writer/co-creator Peter David’s track record, and DC cancelled the series after 20 issues (IDW then took up the torch and printed another 33 issues and a short sequel). This particular cover is interesting in that there was quite a bit of discussion among fans at the time about whether “Lee” and “Linda Lee Danvers” (a.k.a. Supergirl, whose adventures David had recently finished scripting) were one and the same.
15. Disney’s Hero Squad: Ultraheroes #1 (01/2010)
“Hey, Kids! COMICS!” It remains to be seen if today’s kids are ready to hear the clarion call of the old spinner rack, but that doesn’t keep comic publishers from trying. Boom! Studios, a new outfit on the comic scene, is the latest to try; it signed a deal with Disney/Pixar in 2008 to produce comics based on their properties. This comic, out earlier this year, is one of the books based on the classic Disney characters; longtime fans will recognize Super Goof, Goofy’s super alter-ego, who readies himself for battle by eating “super-goobers,” or irradiated peanuts that give him super-powers. Seriously.
16. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight #32 (02/2010)
By sheer coincidence, this book based on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show happened to come out with a cover that pays homage to Action #1 almost at the same time as the Disney issue seen above. And Buffy does Superman one better by lifting an entire locomotive as opposed to a mere sedan — “more powerful than” indeed. (Side note: can anyone confirm if the guy in the corner is supposed to be “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon?) I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up with the Buffyverse since the show ended, but based on this cover alone I’m tempted to check it out. And isn’t that what every good cover is supposed to do?