Comics Then: Action Comics #1
Comics wouldn't exist if it weren't for Action Comics #1.
This is not a bold or controversial statement; it's a fact. Action Comics #1 took a medium that was generally seen as light, frivolous entertainment and gave it legitimacy. Instead of simply being seen as "funnies" or publications for children, comic books took the burgeoning popularity of superheroes to become nothing less than modern American myth.
Were it not for superheroes, we likely would not have a comics industry.
Were it not for Superman, we likely wouldn't have superheroes.
Were it not for Action Comics, we likely would not have Superman.
It's easy, then, to forget just how great a story the first tale of Superman is. Written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster, the opener for the premiere issue of Action Comics is wisely chosen. I've personally only read one or two of the other yarns contained therein (the Zatara story is fun, though entirely derivative of Mandrake the Magician), yet it's hard to imagine anything else having the impact of Superman. Even after eighty years, the story is remarkably fresh.
A lot of it comes down to just how modern the story feels. Siegel and Shuster cram a lot into their 12 pages, yet it never feels bloated or bogged down in purple prose. They begin with a full page explanation of who Superman is, where he came from, and what he can do, down to a charmingly silly "scientific explanation" of how Superman's strength and prowess work.
Superman's origin, even in its infancy, has the broad strokes that would eventually become fine-tuned into the story we're familiar with: sent to Earth from a dying planet, young Clark Kent would eventually develop powers and abilities well beyond that of a normal man. No mention of the Kents, as of yet, and his strength, invulnerability, and flight would be better described as "enhanced" rather than "superhuman," but even still he looks fairly close to the Superman we know today.
I say close for a reason, of course: while the next few decades would see Superman evolve into the "Big Blue Boy Scout," his character and personality early on were a bit more rough around the edges. He fights for good and seeks justice above all, but Superman's treatment of criminals was a little more... tough than what we're accustomed to. While he won't go out of his way to hurt somebody unnecessarily, Superman in the Golden Age had less patience for criminals and wasn't afraid to rough them up. It's all to "teach them a lesson," of course, and they're lessons that are no doubt learned. Still, it's worth mentioning that Superman isn't yet the warm symbol of hope that we know today, but instead a true crusader for the "little guy"" out to exact justice and retribution.
Still, the very idea of Superman was so far ahead of its time, and the storytelling techniques Siegel and Shuster use parallel just how progressive this still young medium could be. After the opening page origin tale, the narrative proper begins in media res. That in itself was a risky move, as beyond the cover image and the previous page's breakdown the first readers knew nothing about Superman. It works, though, as we see the Man of Steel alighting through the night with a woman. She is bound and gagged, and Superman leaves her beside a tree while he attends to other business.
Who is this woman?
Why is this supposed hero so careless with her?
The pieces fall into place over the next few pages, as Superman rushes to the governor's mansion. As it turns out, this woman is the real perpetrator of a crime that caused an innocent woman to be framed and sent to the electric chair. With only minutes to spare before the wrong person is executed, Superman reveals the full breadth of his powers as he makes his way to the only person who can stay the execution. We see him flying through the air with great bounds, ripping a steel door off its hinges, and in a brilliant page turn reveal we find that he is impervious to bullets.
Right from the start the story is a gripping, well-paced yarn, using the ticking clock device to heighten the suspense and tension. It's even more remarkable that all of this is resolved in just three pages, yet it feels like a complete story in itself.
Over the rest of the story we get to know Superman's alter ego Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Star, and his co-worker and unrequited love Lois Lane. I love how Lois is here from the beginning, proving she's just as important to the enduring popularity of Action Comics as Superman himself. She's smart and tough, refusing to take guff from anybody, and even with limited screen time she makes a lasting impression.
Lois is, unfortunately, relegated to the damsel in distress role at one point, though it does lead to one of the most iconic moments in the entire story. We're all familiar with the classic cover image, where Superman is holding a car over his head as several people flee in terror. After Lois is kidnapped from a party, Superman makes chase and apprehends the assailants. Shuster's visual storytelling in this sequence is absolutely astounding, with a clear flow of action and great use of the limitations of early penciling and coloring techniques.
Fun side-note: this sequence gets a follow-up eighty years later in Action Comics #1000, as Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Olivier Coipel follow Butch there in the immediate aftermath of his run-in with Superman. It's one of the best stories in the book, so check it out if you haven't already.
From there, the story ends on a cliffhanger, as Superman apprehends a corrupt lobbyist and encounters a mishap on their way to Capitol Hill. While future installments would fall into a more streamlined one-and-done approach, ending with Superman possibly dooming both himself and his quarry no doubt hooked the already captive audience.
Like I said earlier, there's a lot going on here. Each plot thread could have easily been stretched to fill the allotted page count, yet Siegel and Shuster went for broke and threw everything they had into this one story. It was a bold, gutsy move that elevated their Superman above his contemporaries, and in doing so elevated comics in general. For because of Siegel and Shuster, we have Superman, and because we have Superman, we have comics.
Action Comics #1 can be purchased on Comixology, and has also recently been collected in Superman: The Golden Age Volume 1 and Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman Deluxe Edition.