Earlier this week Action Comics No. 1, which features the first appearance of Superman, sold online for a record-breaking $1m (£640,000).
This event marks an important cultural milestone in media for a few different reasons, all centered on some notion of populism.
1. Internet commerce. The comic was sold through one of the many successful but niche, mom’n pop auction websites borne by the internet age — ComicConnect.com. Unprepared for heavy traffic after news of the sale spread, the site was down yesterday, except for a press release.
From this perspective, Action Comics No. 1’s sale highlights how far internet e-commerce has come. Less than five years ago, making purchases on the internet was a scary thought to many, especially those 55 and older. And the notion that someone would spend up to a $1m on a less-than-secure-looking, website for a comic book would be laughable.
ComicConnect.com’s big sale is indicative of a broader trend toward trusting non-big brand e-commerce sites, a sentiment ushered in by trailblazers like eBay and innovated by upstarts like Threadless. As trust in online purchasing burgeons and apprehension dissolves, the internet’s democratization of information will have increasingly populist effects on e-commerce, providing a relatively level playing field for any who aim to sell their wares to the internet’s vast audience.
2. Comic books as high art. Long before recent ventures into new formats, comic books were one of the first popular forms of multimedia art, combining elements of literature and visual art in one medium. For much of their history, however, comic books have been regarded and treated as a low-brow form of children’s literature. But, with the conceptual treatment of mass-produced art in the pop art movement, some artists (like Roy Lichtenstein) took style elements from the medium’s early practitioners and elevated it through their own critically-acclaimed work.
Separately, as many who witnessed comic books’ maturation as a medium are now grown up, academia and other ‘elite’ cultural arbiters have started to treat comic books with some intellectual respect, instead referring to them as ‘graphic novels.’ Action Comics No. 1’s sale marks an important step in elevating a medium to high art: someone paying a boatload of money to acquire a piece of it. Roughly tripling the past highest paid sum for a comic book, the purchase puts comic books in the big league. Hell, auction house Christie’s online hub places the upper end of the price filter for paintings at $600k.
3. The story of Superman and his creators. After five years of failure and waiting, Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster published Action Comic’s No.1 through National Allied Publications. As two young Jewish men in the American midwest during the early stages of WWII, Siegel and Schuster aimed to create a just and powerful embodiment of their frustration with a world that they perceived as unjust and unlistening to the plights of the powerless. Each, too, had personal stories that contributed to Superman’s inception. Siegel’s father was killed in an armed robbery, and Schuster was refused from military service due to his horrible eyesight.
The rise of Superman’s importance in popular culture, evidenced by Action Comics No.1’s sale, is indicative of a broader ideological trend — the valorization of the outcast martyr. An alien stranded on earth, Superman was raised by human parents to desire the attainment of social justice. As some Superman scholars note:
Among the things that made Superman popular was his fight for social justice, rather than law and order. The Superman of late 1930’s had no qualms about doing all sorts of illegal things in order to right what he felt were wrongs. This included getting confessions out of crooked politicians by threatening to injure or kill them, kidnapping and forcing weapon makers into fighting on the front lines of a war and trapping a Mining Company owner and his rich friends in an unsafe mine that his employees worked in. Some people would criticize Superman and superheroes in general because of these types of stories, saying they taught “might makes right” and were fascist.
And further, as others note, Superman’s experience resembles, in some ways, the plight of unpopular teenagers in high school and Jewish people trying to adapt to an anti-Semitic society. Like their presentations of self to society at large, the character is Clark Kent, and Superman puts on a ‘mask’ (glasses & street clothes) as his disguise as a normal person.
To end, I’ll leave you with a favorite painting of Superman by Alex Ross, one of my favorite ‘graphic novel’ artists. As my vernacular would suggest, I’m a bit of a comic book geek (, which would also explain why I’d write this post…).
Note: This post was written days before the sale of Detective Comics No. 27, which features the first appearance of Batman. While Batman’s story is certainly less populist in content (given Bruce Wayne’s elite upbringing and place in life), points 1 and 2 of this post remain extremely relevant. Not only that, but many might posit that, like Superman, ‘Bruce Wayne’ is Batman’s disguise, and Batman is the true character.