As a kid, I wasn’t much of a Superman fan, and I certainly wasn’t a fan of any comic book that was published before 1990.
I was deprived, I know.
The older, wiser me has developed a new appreciation for Superman, the history of the comic book medium as well as the medium itself as an art form. Harlan Ellison once listed what he believed to be the seven uniquely American art forms. Comic books were one of them.
In this gorgeous hardcover book published by DC in 2013 (this being a second printing from 2016), we see the beginnings of the art form itself, in many ways, and the birth of superheroes as a genre. Although comic books were a result of the more popular pulp magazines and newspaper strips, at some point National Publications (now DC Comics) began dabbling in this new format and eventually took a gamble on two teens from Cleveland who had pitched a pretty silly idea a few years before. The rest, as they say, is history. Collecting Action Comics 1-31, Superman 1-7, and World’s Fair Comics 1-2, the book roughly covers the period of 1938-1940. All of the stories contained herein were written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, although it is a known fact that as Superman grew in popularity, so did the “Shuster Studio,” the collection of artists who helped draw for Joe so as to make his workload more manageable, though they are not credited by name in most places.
The stories in this volume are raw, high-octane and go a mile-a-minute. With the exception of Action Comics 1-2, reformatted from Jerry and Joe’s pitch for a newspaper strip according to Jim Steranko’s introduction, all of the stories included in this volume are a mere thirteen pages. But what thirteen pages! Superman battles everyone from gangsters to bank robbers to saboteurs to foreign spies to evil orphanages to crazy Flash Gordon ripoffs and everything in between! He dukes it out with reckless abandon, destroys property left and right and occasionally kills, or at least allows criminals to die. Vastly different and for me, more fun than the heavily censored books of the Silver Age, Golden Age Supes resided in an era of experimentation and electricity.
Much has been written about Jerry Siegel’s inspiration as a writer coming in large part to feeling bullied and brushed aside as a kid, and his stories certainly reflect this. Two years ago I interviewed author Larry Tye who called these early stories “Jerry vs. the bullies,” and I can absolutely see that (even though Brad Ricca says in his book there was no written evidence of Jerry ever having been bullied, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time). Superman’s tagline on the first panel of each story often reads as “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed,” clearly something audiences identified with in these Depression-era yarns. Superman as a character hadn’t crystallized yet and certain traits would be added later (flying) or removed (super-bendy face?), but anyone can see that the character we know was near fully formed right from the beginning. Jerry clearly had a lot of fun with these early stories, perhaps a product of the exhilaration he felt having finally been noticed as a creator.
His buddy Joe is equally to blame for all this great stuff as his art is clean, crisp, and light years ahead of many of his contemporaries. I love me some Joe Kubert, but man, his teenage years working on Golden Age books was rough, as was that of others. Not the case with Joe Shuster. Clearly inspired by his heroes Elsie Crisler Segar, Hal Foster, and others, Joe is the quintessential Golden Age comic book artist. His panels leap off the page as much as Superman himself does in these stories. The dynamism of the action sequences as well as the facial expressions and personal looks of the characters are maybe what I enjoy most about these early stories. So much can be stated in just a handful of panels that modern day comic books would take six months and/or four trades to explain. Joe had real talent for such a young man and one wonders why he and Jerry’s portfolio was not accepted earlier.
The book itself was the first of its kind released in 2013, when DC started collecting Omnibuses and TPBs in “era format” (i.e. Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age), and you can tell it was a labor of love for those who worked on compiling everything and putting this together. These stories were previously released as part of the DC Archives series which began in the ‘90s and just recently ceased publication to make way for this, the first time the stories have been collected in oversized hardcover format. The sewn binding makes for a great, sturdy book and the pages within are glossy, high-quality paper without too much glare. Although I read that each page of this book was painstakingly restored and not simply scanned from previous releases, some panels do have ’90s color enhancements for backgrounds which look really tacky by today’s standards. Also, the Superman stories seem blurrier than their Action Comics counterparts, but both of these are minor gripes and don’t ruin the quality of the experience by any stretch of the imagination.
As far as the stories themselves go, it’s hard to critique something that literally birthed the whole genre we love, so I won’t even try. I will only say that I look forward to the point in the books where Superman can actually fly, fight real supervillains and actually bring with him all the great characteristics others added throughout the years, such as kryptonite, the Phantom Zone, his supporting cast, etc. This however, is an adjustment I simply have to make when reading these stories, since we’re seeing the nearly completed sculpture here, not the finished product. Like old Hollywood movies that are still brilliant masterpieces today, it is an acquired taste that takes patience and some getting used to, but is ultimately well worth your time and effort.
The “comic book,” at first just a risky gamble on something new, eventually overtook the aforementioned pulps and strips that had inspired it so much, and reading this you can see why. In this book we see the birth of an American icon that completely revolutionized pop culture, lovingly restored and collected in a format that any fan can appreciate, even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It contains the beginnings of the superhero genre, exploding off the paper and out of the brilliant minds of two kids who would forever change the industry. If you are a Superman fan, or a comic book fan in general and consider yourself to be the real deal, you need to read this book. Its importance to the entire genre as we know it today cannot be overstated.
My highest praise!
Capeage Meter: 10 out of 10
Way too much good stuff in this one to fit everything into my text! Here are a few more!