Superman: The Golden Age Omnibus Vol. 2- A Review

DC continues their well-received run of Omnibuses using periods in comic book history as themes, and Superman is once again the beneficiary of a great oversized hardcover book collecting his earliest adventures! Superman: The Golden Age Omnibus Vol. 2 is of a similar quality to its predecessor- nice paper, vibrant colors, sewn binding for flexibility and durability, a new cover by the late, great Darwyn Cooke and an introduction (albeit a recycled one) by noted entertainment critic Leonard Maltin. I can’t really speak about the reproduction method for these stories, as some backgrounds still seem like they’re taken from the DC Archives with ‘90s effects on some of the coloring, but rest assured, the panels are all crystal clear, not faded or blurry at all as some other reprints of this era.

I picked up this book after immensely enjoying the first volume of this series, as much for the sake of history and looking at a pop culture artifact as anything else. Volume 2 did not disappoint, either. I have always espoused my love for the Golden Age, especially when it comes to characters like Superman, in that the genre we know as superheroes was birthed in these very pages. It had a completely different feel and energy than the Silver Age, which I’ve never really cared for, at least when it comes to the Man of Steel. Blasphemy for some, I know, but I just find the Golden Age much more fascinating for some reason. It might have been the Fleischer cartoons, who knows (a blog topic for another day!).

If you’re interested in my general thoughts on Superman in the Golden Age, you can read my review of Volume 1 here, or my review of the Superman Dailies of the same period here. No need to retread that path, at least in its entirety, anyway.

An early Superman “flying” motion
To get back to Volume 2, this opus picks up around early 1941 and goes through mid-1942. That may sound like a small window for content for an omnibus, but believe me, by this point in the character’s history, Superman’s popularity was exploding everywhere. In addition to his usual 13-page feature in Action, he had also received his own quarterly book (the first ever character to claim that honor), consisting of no less than four 13-pagers per issue, as well as World’s Finest Comics, as it was renamed after first starting as World’s Fair Comics. That amounted to roughly 30 issues per year which are collected in this tome, and that’s not including his now regular appearances in the newspaper dailies and Sundays. With at least one new adventure every day, America was now smack in the middle of the Superman phenomenon.

Because of the large quantity of pages to be drawn, by this time in the book’s history the workload was far too much for Joe Shuster, as one can imagine, which also contributed to his weakening eyesight. As such, at least 90% of the art in this book was done by the Shuster Studio boys, artists that Jerry and Joe hired, out of their own pocket, to help them complete the art assignments. All the scripts in this volume and across the board were written by Jerry Siegel, who never employed a ghost writer (at least, that anyone knows of).  As such, the stories in this volume are very similar to the earlier years of the book, with Superman often battling crime and societal injustices, with the occasional sci-fi story or super villain. The art, however, varies in quality, and that is the only weakness I’d attribute to the book.

 

A Paul Cassidy panel, one of my favorite Superman artists
Shuster supervised a stable of artists- pencillers and inkers- that included (in this volume) Jack Burnley, Paul Cassidy, Wayne Boring, Jon Sikela, and Leo Nowak, among others.  Some inked Joe’s pencils, but by this time Joe was hardly drawing full pages anymore, other than touching up Clark/Superman and Lois’ faces, and making sure that everyone worked within the established “house style,” not unlike John Romita did at Marvel in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  All the artists hired worked either from Cleveland or elsewhere, and were educated in artwork to some degree or another.  Even so, there is a wide range of art by this time, even within the parameters that Jerry and Joe established.
  
For me, the best of the bunch was easily Paul Cassidy, who worked both on the newspaper strip and the comic itself, but only for what I counted to be about ten books.  His more realistic and less cartoony style evoked a little bit of Raymond, or another prominent artist of the time, mixed with Shuster.  His Superman fights bad guys who look gritty, almost out of a Cagney movie, and his Lois looks like a Hollywood actress, much the same way she was depicted in the Fleischer Studio cartoons of the same time.  After reading the first issue Cassidy pencilled, I went immediately to the table of contents to find which others he drew so I could remember to read those next.  A fascinating artist and really interesting story, as he didn’t do much in the comic book world other than this and went into freelance design and advertising for the rest of his life.  I’d love to do an artist featurette on just him sometime.

A Jack Burnley page, almost invoking shades of Raymond or even Foster

Of the others who worked on the book that are included in this volume, Burnley and Sikela were very good, albeit not quite as good as Cassidy, and Wayne Boring’s work, both as an inker or a penciller, looked almost indistinguishable from Shuster, a testament to him as a professional.  I’d be interested in reading any Golden Age Superman stories drawn by any of the above artists.

  
The weakest artist of this volume, and it’s not close, is Leo Nowak.  Nowak’s style is completely different from anyone else drawing Superman at the time, and nowhere near as good, unfortunately.  His male figures are gigantic, similar to Bruce Timm levels, and seem to have one main pose in every other panel for Every.  Issue.  He.  Draws.  When his Superman leaps, he tends to look clunky and awkward, almost as if he’s falling in some strange, contorted fashion.  His art really doesn’t work for me much, and unfortunately he draws the bulk of the book, the only volume in which he does (volume 1 is almost entirely Shuster and new artists have emerged by volume 3).  Others may not mind his work as much as I did, but if you do, get ready for a bit of a slog, as Leo Nowak draws much of this omnibus.

An awkward Leo Nowak Superman pose. there are a million of these

Overall though, the stories are good and this volume is still a collection of a great period in Superman’s history.  It’s exciting to see new artists take a crack at the character for the first time under his co-creator’s guidance, and in some cases, even surpassing Shuster, arguably.  What’s also great is seeing Superman’s evolution as a character by this point, in that he is not quite flying yet but still getting close with more and more “flying” poses, and very little use of made-up-for-just-that-issue Superman powers.  Jimmy Olsen also makes a few appearances in this volume, by name, as he had emerged as a character on the radio show by this point, as well.  Clearly, the mold was still soft, but hardening, and nearly crystallized.
 

Complete with Jimmy Olsen sighting!
 

All in all, this is a fantastic book that was lovingly compiled and worthy of any Superman collector.  The fluctuation in art quality does knock a few points off for me, but the excitement of the evolution makes up for that, as we begin seeing new aspects of Superman that we’ve now known for years.  As I’ve said in past reviews, the Golden Age does take some patience and getting used to, but once you do it’s worth it, just like any fine wine or great movie classic.

Not quite the tip of the top, but still HIGHLY recommended.

Capage Meter: 9 out of 10

  

 

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