DC’s ACTION COMICS #1: Its Cultural Significance, Iconic Characters, and Surprising History

DC Comics may have been named for the title Detective Comics, but the most important comic in the publisher’s library is Action Comics #1. Although DC (then called National Comics) had existed for some three years already, it was Action Comics, and its headlining hero Superman, that changed the publisher and comic books forever. But although Action Comics #1 famously introduced Superman to the world, it also introduced another DC hero, Zatara, whose child became an iconic DC universe mainstay. Here’s how a single comic book changed the world.

Header image for Action Comics #1 featuring the first appearance of Superman, seen here lifting a green car to save a citizen.
DC Comics

DC Comics Before the Man of Steel

Publisher DC Comics wasn’t always DC Comics. It began as National Publications, founded by entrepreneur and World War I vet Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934. Comic strips in newspapers were already wildly popular in America, and there were magazines already out there that collected known strips. But it was the Major who figured out that creating new original comic strips for the magazine format could work. The first issue of New Fun Comics #1 hit the stands in February 1935. But National still struggled until the creation of two young nerdy guys from Ohio saved the publisher and comics as a whole.

The cover for New Fun Comics #1, the very first DC Comic.
DC Comics

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two kids from Ohio who loved sci-fi stories and comic strips. While still in their teens, they came up with the concept of Superman, a powerful villain who was the mightiest man on Earth. He had mental powers and didn’t leap tall buildings. No bullets bounced off of his chest. And sadly, no one wanted this weird comic strip idea. Nevertheless, the pair were hired to contribute to New Fun Comics, where they worked steadily and created the supernatural detective Dr. Occult. He was kind of a Dick Tracy meets Lovecraftian horror hero.

Two Nerdy Guys from Ohio Change the Comic Book Genre

Despite the relative success of National’s Detective Comics, there just wasn’t a big enough hit to save them as a company. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson sold the company to pulp publisher Harry Donenfeld, who decided a bigger and bolder lead strip protagonist with a catchier title was needed to entice readers. In April of 1938, National launched the anthology Action Comics #1, and they agreed to print a reworked version of Siegel and Shuster’s rejected Superman character on the cover. And nothing was ever the same again for National, for Siegel and Shuster, or for pop culture in general.

Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster's original 1933 Reign of the Superman comic strip.
DC Comics

National paid Siegel and Shuster a measly amount for the rights to Superman, a character that would make them millions. DC would award the duo a large amount of money decades later, as the company recognized their mistreatment of them. But, they did get gainful employment at the time, writing Superman stories for the publisher for much of the following decade. Their new Superman was substantially different from their original teenage idea. No one wanted a bald villain with psychic powers, they wanted a good-hearted muscle man to save them.

Action Comics Makes Superman an Overnight Sensation

The cover for Action Comics #1, from April, 1938.
DC Comics

This new Superman was an alien, and wore a costume like a circus strongman. He now had physical powers and not mental ones. He graced the cover of Action Comics #1, lifting a car high over his head. And it sold out its 200,000 copy print run almost instantly. The next few Action Comics covers had different characters from the anthology, and didn’t sell nearly as well. Once National realized this, Superman held the covers exclusively. And within a year, Action Comics was selling over 1,000,000 copies a month.

It’s hard to overstate how quickly Superman went from one of many characters in a crowded anthology book to a pop culture icon. By 1939 he had his own self-titled comic book. He had a comic strip in the Sunday newspapers and made his first live-action appearance at the 1939 World’s Fair. By 1940, he had a radio show, a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and an animated serial in movie theaters. Everyone in America knew the headliner of Action Comics #1 in record time. Only Mickey Mouse, and later, Bart Simpson, became that famous and that merchandised overnight.

Superman’s success led to a horde of imitators, essentially launching the superhero genre. And now, this genre has been the backbone of Hollywood blockbusters for the better part of the last two decades. But what about the other legacy of Action Comics #1? The one that’s a bit more mystical in nature? Folks don’t talk about this one nearly as much as the Last Son of Krypton. But it’s an important part of overall DC Comics history. We’re talking about Zatara the Magician, father of future iconic heroine, Zatanna.

Zatara the Magician, who also debuted in Action Comics #1 alongside Suprman.
DC Comics

Aside from Superman, a metric ton of other characters debuted in Action Comics #1. Chances are you’ve never heard of characters like “Tex” Thompson or “Pep” Morgan. But Zatara the Magician? He ultimately led to the creation of one of the Justice League’s greatest magic users, Zatanna. At first, he seemed like just a ripoff of the popular comic strip character Mandrake the Magician. But unlike Mandrake, Zatara had actual magical powers, ones he could invoke by saying spells backward. He appeared in dozens of stories from 1938-1951, but the mystic hero faded away with the end of the Golden Age of comics. But while Zatara vanished, his legacy would not.

Legendary artist George Perez designs an all new costume for Zatanna in the '80s.
DC Comics

In 1964, DC Comics introduced Zatanna, the daughter of Zatara. She had the same powers and even a traditional magician’s costume just like her father did. However, her fame would prove to be much bigger than her dad’s. She became a Justice League member in the 1970s, and has been part of the team on and off ever since. Aside from perhaps Doctor Fate, she’s DC Comics’ most powerful heroic sorcerer. But she wouldn’t have happened had her father Zatara not been a success first, a character who few today know debuted alongside Superman in his first appearance.

No Action Comics, No Superhero Genre

Action Comics #1 is the single most important comic book at DC Comics and honestly comics in general. It might not have been the first comic printed by the New York publisher nor the one the company wound up taking its name from ultimately. But without it, there’s no Superman, and no superheroes, period. And we wouldn’t have an amazing superheroine wearing a tophat and fishnets who has become a fan-favorite Justice League member. Sometimes, the honor of “highest-selling single comic book” goes to other comics, often featuring Batman and Spider-Man. But inevitably, Action Comics #1 takes the top spot again. For this now-85-year-old comic, it’s good to be the king.

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