I’ve always had a fascination with the Golden Age. I think it might be because in it we see the very beginnings of science fiction and comics as we know them, and in a lot of ways get to see, in its raw form, the metal from which all other stories are fashioned. The genre may not be exactly the way we know it, stories and characters might look and feel different, but it’s fascinating to study nevertheless.
The same goes for comic strips as well. 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 the Superman story and how the character 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. Keep in mind that this was before the days of television, the internet, comic books, and even sci-fi movies to a large degree. Newspapers were “it.” Siegel ad Shuster must have thought they’d made it if Raymond, Falk, Foster, and all the rest could make a fortune being featured in major publications around the country. What they ended up doing was creating a multi-billion dollar industry through an entirely new medium on the side, but before they knew that had been accomplished, both boys labored tirelessly to land their new character in the funny papers.
They did just that in January of 1939, not a year removed from the premiere of Action Comics #1, when the Superman daily strips premiered, preceding the more glamorous Sunday strips which came out in November of that same year. The strips 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 daily strips have been collected in several places over the years, but I’d say most thoroughly in this gorgeous hardcover by Sterling Press in 2006. This book collects 966 daily strips and is a whopping 500 pages (give or take). This may not sound like a big deal in today’s omnibus crazed market, for comic strips, it is massive. The book also features commentary and interviews from historians and one surviving member of the Shuster studio 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 actually 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! His clean lines and sharp action work really well here, as opposed to trying to fill an entire page with 4-8 big panels. 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 this was a really nice change of pace and something really interesting 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 have to deal with plots by exclusively human bad guys- corruption, greed, war, etc. No super powered villains or fantastical plots here (unless you count an occasional electro ray gun or sci-fi gadget). These are great vehicles for Superman to use his powers to enact social change and reforms, 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, which ran for the better part of a month. It told the story of Krypton’s destruction and baby Kal-L leaving the planet in a rocket ship. 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 in the strips we meet Jor-L and Lora (later changed to “Jor-El” and “Lara”), get to know their daily life a bit on Krypton, the debate between Jor-L and Krypton’s science council, and all the rest of the now well-known legend. Now a cornerstone to Superman’s mythos, 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 as it screams Joe Shuster. In later years it becomes apparent that the Shuster studio boys were working more and more on this, which is still okay but becomes jarringly bad in some places (one stretch of strips from what would have been the second paperback volume, about 1941 I believe, was in particular pretty bad), before the art got better again before the end. Regardless if Joe himself or an assistant was drawing though, 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 Lois in Action and Superman was more of a background character, 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 trademark was used heavily in the Silver Age Superman books and even the “Adventures of Superman” TV show of the 50s, and I’d say the pattern began to emerge from here. In any event, Lois is far more at the forefront of these stories and it adds a very distinct mix to the Superman legend.
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 lack of censoring, which would come later in the Silver Age, the mix of crazy action and even kid friendly jokes makes 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!
Capage Meter: 10 out of 10