I’ve always had a fascination with the Golden Age. In it we see the very beginnings of science fiction and comics as we know them, and in a lot of ways, in its raw form, the metal from which all other stories are fashioned. It may be different from what we know, stories and characters might look and feel different, but it’s fascinating to study nevertheless.
The same goes for comic strips, the precursors to comic books. First appearing in newspapers around the late-19th century, comic strips were a large part of what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster grew up on. In recent accounts I’ve read of how Superman was first created, Jerry’s goal all along was to make it into the-at the time- very famous and often lucrative business of newspaper strips. Before going on to create a multi-billion dollar industry through an entirely new medium in comics, both boys labored tirelessly to land their character in the funny papers. Siegel and Shuster must have thought they’d made it when their work was finally featured alongside that of Raymond, Falk, Foster, and the rest in major publications around the country.
The Superman daily strips premiered in January of 1939- not a year removed from the premiere of Action Comics #1- preceding the more glamorous Sunday strips which came out in November of that same year. They ran continuously through 1966, an impressive achievement as it meant that Superman was being read for nearly thirty years on a DAILY BASIS!
I mean, that’s basically what I do in my life today anyway, but that’s beside the point. 😉
The first three years of the dailies have been collected in several places over the years, most thoroughly in this gorgeous hardcover by Sterling Press in 2006. This book collects 966 daily strips and is a whopping 500 pages (this may not sound like a big deal in today’s omnibus crazed market, but for comic strips, it is massive!). The book also features commentary and interviews from historians and one surviving member of the Shuster studio, Paul Cassidy, which are nicely put together and very informative. I found this beauty on eBay for a mere $20, well worth the price and a lot of bang for your buck.
The strips themselves are phenomenal. First and foremost, they look fantastic. I’ve never seen Joe Shuster’s art reprinted in black and white, but in this format it actually looks even better! Clearly, there’s something to be said about the evolution of strips to books, and how a lot of Golden Age artists may have trained themselves to do the former before the latter. Joe’s art works well in both formats, of course, but when looking at this versus filling a page with 4-8 full color panels, this was a really nice change of pace (especially after having just finished the Superman Golden Age Omnibus Vol.1). The panels look beautiful and crisp as well, which I read was because of being copied from original art as opposed to scans from later years.
The stories themselves are typical, Golden Age Superman. All of them are very grounded and deal with plots by exclusively human bad guys- corruption, greed, war, etc. No super powered villains or fantastical elements here, unless you count an occasional electro ray gun or sci-fi gadget. These are great vehicles that allow Superman to use his powers to enact social change and reforms in these stories, directly combating injustices that Jerry Siegel was likely reading in the headlines of his day.
The one big exception to this, of course, is the first sequence in the dailies. Superman’s origin was famously told in Action Comics #1 over barely half a page, and then later fleshed out in more detail in Superman #1 over four pages. In both cases, all we see is the planet Krypton exploding, the rocket leaving and landing on earth, followed in both books by an explanation of Superman’s powers. It seems Jerry saved something extra special just for the day that his character would arrive in the papers, as the strips tell the story in far more detail. It is here that we first meet Jor-L and Lora (later changed to “Jor-El” and “Lara”), get to know their daily life a bit on Krypton, see the debate between Jor-L and Krypton’s science council, and all the rest of the now well-known legend. Now a cornerstone, it is here that the legend gets its inception.
In other words, without the strips, we don’t have the character we know today.
The art of these strips is gorgeous in the first year or so. Regardless if Joe himself or an assistant was drawing, certain details are added for this to make the art pop in the smaller, black and white newspaper format. I’ve always been a fan of photorealism, which features realistic cityscapes and landscapes, as well as hatcheting and heavy shading (this style was perhaps featured most famously by Doug Wildey in the original Jonny Quest cartoon, but I digress). The Superman dailies feature all three. It was almost as if Joe, knowing that poorer paper and a mere four panels had limitations which the books did not, saved a few tricks and used them here. The result is gorgeous.
Lois is also featured in these stories, certainly far more than she was in the comic books of the time. While more of a background character in Action and Superman, here, she and Clark are often in competition as reporters, go on adventures together, and sometimes even begin to like each other (or at least, from Lois’ end, begins to like Clark). A few stories even involve love triangles between Lois, Clark, and another girl who notices Clark, which Lois cannot believe (could this be where Byrne got the idea for an attractive Clark Kent fifty years later?). Often the final panel of the dailies’ stories ends with Lois’ realization that she has been scooped by Clark, who was nowhere to be seen earlier but somehow caught most of the story. This signature device was used heavily in the Silver Age Superman books and even the “Adventures of Superman” TV show of course, and I’d say the pattern began to emerge from here.
If there are any weak points to these stories, they are the same for most, if not all, Golden Age stories. The plots can be corny (Superman makes a movie?) and some stories and dialogue clearly skew for a younger audience. The results are a bit clunky but even then, given the level of violence and absence of censoring which would come later in the Silver Age, the mix of crazy action and even kid friendly jokes makes for a very interesting concoction. If you can live with the “electricity and experimentation” of the Golden Age, as I’ve called it before, I think you’ll find it very enjoyable. The Shuster fill-in guys vary in terms of quality, so watch out for that too.
All in all, the positives of these stories far outweigh the aforementioned negatives, and personally, I’m willing to overlook the negatives altogether. Take it from a traditional comic book fan with little experience of comic strips, you’d do well to pick this up if you like Superman. My highest praise… again!
Capeage Meter: 10 out of 10