Action Comics 551

Action Comics 551 post thumbnail image

I’ve been steadily adding issues of the Superman and Action Comics lines to my collection and it’s not a surprise that DC decided to reboot the character in the eighties. They just didn’t know what to do with him. Superman was literally all over the place with creators constantly coming in and out. Some decided to have a more classical take while others, like Marv Wolfman, progressed him and made him more human and relevant. In fact, Wolfman made a conscious effort to make the book diverse. Something that I commented on in my post, Diversity in Comics.

Outside of Wolfman the stories became pretty silly and repetitive. One example of a common story element is that Superman comes up with a brilliant plan to catch the bad guy. He disguises himself by wearing a mask of…Clark Kent. Seriously. There are diamonds in the rough though and one of those diamonds is Action Comics 551. And boy, it sure is shiny. And thanks to who? You guessed it. Marv Wolfman.

If you read Action Comics from 1984 the stories from Wolfman and the others really reveal just how great Wolfman is as a writer. He stuff stands out because, as mentioned above, he really made an effort to include more diversity and inclusion in these titles. And when you compare that to what the other writers were doing in the same books at the same time, that difference is striking. Where Wolfman took the character seriously and used Superman as a voice to improve the world, the other writers simply wrote him as if it were still the 1960’s.

In fact, Action Comics 551 might just be the best pre-Infinite Crisis Superman comic in the 80’s. It’s a standalone issue, it perfectly represents everything Superman is, and Wolfman places him in the middle of current events. Most importantly, and perhaps sadly, it’s still very relevant today and gives us lessons, thirty-six years later.

So with that let’s take a deep dive into Action Comics 551.

Action Comics 551 Page 1
Beautiful splash page from Gil Kane

The set up: Pages 1 – 4

Right from the first page Wolfman sets up the action. A set of twins have a rare disease and scientists developed a cure…in the Soviet Union. The Soviets agree to give it to the Americans and put it on a plane to fly it to Metropolis. But there’s a problem. The medicine can only survive for eight hours and now terrorists have overrun the plane! Is this a job for Superman? You betcha!

The story continues the current thread in the series at the time of Vandal Savage trying to turn the public against Superman. He uses newspapers as an interesting example of how one can be against Superman and the other backing him. This is illustrated through a conversation between Jimmy Olsen and Justin Moore, where Justin quips:

Open your eyes Jimmy! Superman’s good, but he’s hardly perfect.

Justin Moore

I couldn’t help but think of today’s media and how polarizing it is. You have channels for specific political persuasions and regardless of where you are on that spectrum it is the capitalization of journalism. Yes newspapers were widely read then and people could still choose the one that agreed with them or vice versa, but I feel it’s even more so today, especially with social media. We don’t have that Jimmy and Justin debate but rather we ignore our Jimmy or Justins and listen to whomever we agree with.

And the irony of that is we’re even more connected than ever before. This is reaffirmed for me when Superman flies over the crowd and the crowd below does the same thing when one remarks he’s up to no good and the other says he’s still a hero. It’s a conversation happening in real space and time and guess what? In this case they’re both right regardless of what Savage is up to.

Race against the clock and super feats: Pages 5 -15

Notice that big clock on the cover? There’s a reason for that. Though Moscow is merely seconds away from Superman at super speed, he still has to deal with problems that he encounters. And with the clock literally ticking down he needs to do it fast. H.I.V.E. soldiers are breaking in around town, a ship gets shipwrecked on a piece of land dislodged from an earthquake, and a kid falls from climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The kid falling is great (figuritely of course) because here we get a nice nod from Wolfman of Superman II.

Haven’t been to the Eiffel Tower for awhile, not since that bomb problem.


Superman also saves a couple of skiers in Switzerland because of course the ski-lift cable snaps on his way to Moscow. Gil Kane is great here because he illustrates Superman with these extra dramatic, stretched out poses that gives more urgency to the situation. Kane gives us superb, classic Superman here and these super-feats put a smile on your face.

Gil Kane excels at Superman’s poses that would be copied by artists in the years to come

Making it to Moscow: Pages 16 – 20

And he finally makes it to Moscow. And this is where it gets super interesting.

He makes it to the plane and confronts the terrorists. The terrorists think he’s there to save them and they have an interesting conversation after one confuses Superman for Red Star.

“It is not our red star, you fool. He is out of the country. It is the American Hero–Superman! He has come to help us!”

“Superman? What is he doing here?”

“He believes in freedom! He will help us fight the communists!”

The Cold War was at its full confrontation thanks in part to Regan and the threat of nuclear war was very real. And this dialogue happened in a Superman comic of all places. One’s terrorist is another’s patriot, and even if these terrorists are fighting communists they don’t get a pass. Especially when innocent lives are at stake. Superman is the true American hero at the time for some, but to others he’s a hero that happens to have been born in the States. And this is the approach Wolfman takes and he doesn’t back down from that. In fact, Wolfman doubles down.

Superman stops the terrorists and as a thank you Major Andanoff, of the Soviet Union, asks Superman if there’s anything he can do for him. Superman asks for the medicine and he agrees. Corporal Korschev is stunned and asks Anadanoff how could Superman possibly be working for the Americans if he’s so good, and the Major replies:

Our countries may differ politically corporal, but people are the same all over.

Major Andanoff

And if that’s not bold enough for you, he continues,

Do not believe all the propaganda, whatever our leaders say, Russian people and American people share the same selfless virtue of caring.

Major Andanoff

Wolfman uses a Soviet Officer to call out the propaganda happening on both sides. I can’ t help but wonder if our media outlets are failing us, should we embrace comics even more? Or scarier, when will the axe fall on the comics industry? Yes, the industry does seem to have more left leaning persuasions, but I still can’t help but feel the dialogue is more balanced and people from both the left and right can still enjoy the same comic, albeit have different interpretations of what it means. But isn’t that the fun whole fun of it?

Superman puts himself down: Pages 21 – 23

You always see that debate that Superman is hard to write. He’s invulnerable and an incredibly powerful character. So what can you do with that?

Well, guess what? The medicine Superman gets from Andanoff is no longer effective, because its herbal elements have lost their potency. So he needs to find some fresh ones. He makes his way to Africa where the earthquake that shipwrecked the ship has finally made its way there. There’s a mud slide that causes a house full of people to collapse and the mudslide is also making its way to…the rare herbs.

Superman has a choice to make. Save the house and its people, or the herbs that will save the twins back in Metropolis. And here Superman puts himself down.

Doesn’t matter how many lives I save…not when I fail in the task that was most important…If I had moved a bit faster here, saved those people there with a little bit more speed…those kids in Metropolis would still have a chance!

Wolfman writes Superman at his most vulnerable

Even Superman isn’t immune to self criticism and being a bit too hard on himself. Nonetheless, he has a choice to make and he chooses the house. He stops the fire that ensues and flies the family to safety.

But wait, what herbs are you looking for Superman? says one of the habitants. Why, I know just where those are. And he even draws Superman a map and the twins are saved. Superman chose wisely.

The End

Action Comics 551 is really the best Superman book. We didn’t need a multiple story-arc that encompassed many different titles. We just needed one. Where many have failed and struggled to tell us a Superman story in an hour or two, Wolfman does it in 23 pages. And in 23 pages Wolfman gives you what Superman is and also matures him. Wolfman shows us that Superman’s vulnerable and that makes him human. Wolfman also shows us that Superman shouldn’t shy away from current events nor should the readers be immune to them. Politics in our world can be scary and they usually are. And although we may use comic books to escape from our current time and lives, these same books also teach us lessons.

Don’t believe in the propaganda but believe in ourselves. Even if we may seem very different.

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