Why 'Action Comics' Still Matters

Why Action Comics Still Matters - Cover
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

The 1,000th issue of Action Comics is coming this week. That’s an impressive feat marking 80 years of stories populated with innumerable creators, characters, and ideas. No other ongoing series in American comics has reached this milestone before, and that begs the question: Does it matter?

That may seem pedantic, but there’s a ring of honesty to it. Action Comics has been one of the flagship titles of DC Comic for almost the company’s entire existence and Superman has been their most significant superhero for all of that time as well. Even in a world where we have three Spider-Man franchises or nine (or more, depending on which ones you count) Batman movies, that seems like a lot of road for a single character. After all of that time, does Action Comics still serve a purpose?

It’s worth taking a look at the entirety of this series, from its humble beginnings in Cleveland, Ohio to the brief renumbering of the New 52 and beyond to understand this series legacy and future. After so many years of publication, it’s possible to look across entire eras of the series to see how they stack up against one another and whether there’s a coherent narrative embedded within it all. Our review suggests that Action Comics didn’t make it to issue #1000 based purely on inertia and that this is a series that still matters.

Why Action Comics Still Matters - Action Comics #105
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

The History of DC Comics

Before digging into the pages of this series, it’s worth considering the achievement at hand. Action Comics #1000 is a truly titanic achievement and it is well earned. Some modern comics numbering relies on counting mini-series and crossovers alongside other iffy installments to reach new anniversaries more quickly. That’s not the case here. Action Comics has been continually printed by DC Comics in one form or another since Superman made his debut in the very first issue, and it’s possible to track the complete series from its first issue to its thousandth. A handful of issues during the New 52 were renumbered, but that’s a reasonable anomaly considering just how many decades the series has gone on.

In many ways Action Comics provides the best lens to trace the entire history of its publisher. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave birth to the genre that made DC Comics a household name in Action Comics #1, establishing the core mythos of the modern superhero. Walking forward from the Golden Age into the Silver, Bronze, Modern, and beyond, it’s easy to see how the series continues to reflect the times it occupies. In each era, Action Comics produced classic issues that could be used in a classroom to understand the core tropes and style of the decade. Whether it’s Kurt Swan drawing some wacky antics in the '50s and '60s or sturm und drang of “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” at the turn of the century, this series is a reflection of where superhero comics were at the time. It represents a historical marker unlike any other for tracing the patterns and styles of superhero comics themselves.

Why Action Comics Still Matters - Grant Morrison
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

A Beacon for the Best Creators

That historical significance no doubt plays into the attractive nature of the title itself. Across the decades Action Comics has been the home of many of comics most talented artists, writers, and editors. Part of that stems from its ongoing nature. If you’re looking for a steady gig, then there’s nothing better than a comic that has been published since Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House.

The work is only part of it though. Any creator who contributes to Action Comics is signing their name to a long-running document that likely features many of those who inspired them to enter comics. It’s the rare example of a series with widespread recognition outside of comics readers. Action Comics #1 might be the most recognizable comics cover in the entire world. The stories that have populated the series have inspired seemingly infinite adaptations in superhero media and references in other works. If a creator can tell a truly great story in the pages of Action Comics, the odds are in their favor that it will never be forgotten. That sort of immortality is exceedingly rare in a medium where dozens of new issues are churned out every week.

There’s something else attractive to the best creators of the medium as well. Over the years true legends like Kurt Swan, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison have all crossed paths with the series. Each of them have left at least one canonical story in their wake. Creators often do some of their best work on Action Comics and that’s because the heart of the title is far more than it’s history; it’s really about a singular legend.

Why Action Comics Still Matters - 1000
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

The Greatest Superhero of All Time

Superman didn’t define the superhero genre by accident. In spite of their age, when Siegel and Shuster crafted his origin in Action Comics #1, they made pure magic. Superman would slowly gain an origin, supporting cast, and rogues gallery over the years to come, but the most important elements were all there from the very start. He was an aspirational hero. When given incredible power, he instantly decided to use it to do the right thing. Throughout the first issue he battles injustice in all of its forms, including freeing an innocent prisoner and sticking up for the defenseless.

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It has never been the incredible powers or overwhelming villains that made Superman the most popular superhero at DC Comics; it has always been his innate goodness. He is the best of humanity and his stories offer a look at a better world and higher standards. That can be a difficult concept to construct a story for, but when they work, they are timeless. That’s why the best Superman stories from creators like Moore, Morrison, Kurt Busiek, and others are all considered to be classics for the comics medium.

Action Comics has been a lot of different things over the years, but it has always been a book about Superman or, at the very least, what Superman represents. The ideals presented through both Superman’s speech and action are timeless. They inspire readers to speak out for what’s right, fight difficult battles because they’re worth fighting, and to help their fellow man at every turn. That’s why Action Comics still matters.