Action Comics #12, DC, May 1939.

I’d like to thank guest Undervalued Spotlight writer Stephen for sending in another fantastic submission. Steven’s argument is sound and full of the passion and confidence that had me asking him if he had a copy for sale! I know he picked a tough book but let’s get behind the philosophy here, it’s a strong strong pick. Let’s turn things over to Steven:

Today I am submitting a very very expensive and hard to find book as my pick for Undervalued Spotlight. Although this isn’t a dollar bin find or even a $10,000 bin find, I felt that there was an injustice here. Any definitive work on under-appreciated books cannot be complete without what is, in my opinion, the single most undervalued comic book ever; Action Comics number 12.

Recently I met a collector who had a specific theme he was working on. He was buying up anything that had Superman breaking chains. He had amassed a surprisingly large amount of comics, action figures, lunchboxes, even iron-on patches from the ’40s. He had just purchased a beautiful copy of Superman 11 with the trademark yellow background and a full-length Superman breaking chains across his chest. The collector was very proud to tell me he had finally added the masterpiece of his collection; the first ever Superman chain break cover.

He was a rather eccentric man and the interaction stuck with me a while. About a month later I was flipping through my Golden Age DC collection and came across a copy of Action Comics 16. It was part of a time before Superman was on every cover of Action. I personally think those early non-Superman covers are amazing so I stopped to admire it. While doing so I noticed that Superman was indeed on the cover and actually breaking chains across his chest in a small circle in the upper left. Oh no. This book clearly had been published before Superman 11 but before I broke the collector’s heart into pieces like so many innocent chains had been before, I had to do some research. 

I started an internet search hoping it would lead me to a conclusive article stating chronologically when and where Superman perpetrated violence against chains. No such luck. I did, however, find an article about Superman 11. The author too claimed that this book was the first ever cover that had Superman breaking chains. I decided to reach out to the author as he clearly had a passion for the subject matter. When I asked him about Action 16 his reply was pretty dismissive. “Superman’s first chain break cover is Superman 11. Superman isn’t on the cover of Action 16.” Before I started my reply with ‘well technically…’ I had to finish my research. 

The first image of Superman breaking through chains was of course drawn by Joe Shuster and was to become the back cover pin-up for Superman number 1 published June 18th, 1939. Action Comics 16 went on sale July, 24 1939. Missed it by a month. But wait, why hadn’t I checked earlier Action Comics for the same circle? A quick search and there it was, Action Comics number 12. This book went on sale March 24, 1939, almost three full months before Superman 1. Although the image was likely already drawn by Shuster for the use of the pin-up for Superman 1, it appeared earlier on the Action title as a way to hint at a Superman story inside even though he was absent from the cover. This is the first time the world sees Superman breaking chains, and it was technically on the cover.

But being the first ever published imagine of Superman breaking chains alone wouldn’t make Action Comics 12 the most undervalued book of all time. As I do not own a copy of the book, I starting looking to see if someone might be sitting on a low grade one for sale. I found a shop that had one for sale in Arizona with multiple pictures on the listing. It had, of course, a picture of the cover and clearly present was the circle with Superman breaking chains. But as I scrolled through the several images of the interior I came across this:

Now I don’t know if this is common knowledge or not but I certainly never heard of an image of Batman being published before Detective Comics 27. ‘Tec 27 hit the shelves March 30, 1939. Meaning the world had seen Batman’s face one full week before his iconic first appearance. I’m clearly not a Golden Age guru but this seems to me like even a common collector with a passion for the history should know about this. Sure I’ve seen label indicators stating “full page ad for…” but this is different, more significant. Action 12 is the first-ever glimpse of arguably the most internationally recognized superhero of all time. 

Good or bad, we are in an age where preview fanzines are getting credit (and dollars) over in-canon first appearances. Dollar books are getting bumped way up because Eddie Brock’s forearm in a single panel can be (very, very loosely) called Venom’s first appearance. If the collector/spectator market is now digging deeper and deeper to pinpoint the first hint of beloved characters, then you must consider Action Comics number 12 to be the king of them all. 

Current Overstreet splits are 2600/5200/7800 for 2.0/4.0/6.0.

You can’t touch a CGC copy in any grade for less than 10k so if you see prices anywhere near these numbers do whatever you can to grab it. This book has real solid long-term legs. 

Strengths that make this comic a good long-term investment:

  • First ever published image of Batman
  • First ever published image of Superman breaking chains