Friday, July 28, 2006

The Comics Page #3: The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1

Superman has been a recognized international pop culture icon for longer than most people have been alive. And for around that long, superheroes in various media have been numerous enough to form their own separate genre. So to read the very first stories of the character recognized as the first superhero, at the very start of what is called the Golden Age of comics, is an unusual experience. Before he was a corporate icon, a brand, a modern myth, he was an original, offbeat creation, the unique vision of two kids from Cleveland who came to New York to make comics. DC's SUPERMAN CHRONICLES Vol. 1 collects Superman's appearances in the first 13 issues of ACTION COMICS, a story from a New York World's Fair special, and material from the first issue of Superman's own magazine (including a two-page text story- these were present in every comics magazine to qualify for superior postage rates), all in color, spanning 1938-1939, and all written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster.

An infant boy is sent from the dying world of Krypton by rocket to Earth, where he is placed in an orphanage and raised as Clark Kent. He grows up to discover he has amazing strength, and as Superman, he fights for the oppressed and people in need. In his first adventure he bursts into a governor's mansion late at night to persuade him to pardon a woman about to be wrongly executed for murder (he's got the actual murderess trussed up outside), goes on to stop a group of thugs harassing Lois Lane, expose a corrupt Senator and get involved in a conflict in the South American country of San Monte. And that's in the course of 26 pages.

What almost everyone who comments on the early Superman stories notes, but that you still don't really "get" until you read it for yourself, is how far the character was from the law-abiding, establishment-serving boy scout he eventually became. He was a nigh-radical reformer, always on the side of the little guy, in the vein of classic 30s progressivism. He lures wealthy partygoers into a mine to expose poor safety conditions. He begins destroying a city slum to force the government to put up improved housing. He gets himself sent to prison to expose unfair treatment of prisoners. Nowadays he would be accused of class warfare and worse.

He's also much more cocky than one would expect. He brags about his powers and plays around with terrified criminals, jumping around town with a captive under his arm (Superman couldn't fly yet, merely leap tall buildings in a single bound.) He's presented as an extreme contrast to alter ego Clark Kent (who works for the Daily Star, not Daily Planet), a complete milksop who downright infuriates a decidedly frigid Lois Lane with his wimpiness. In fairness, he's a good reporter.

All of this is drawn by Joe Shuster in a crude but enjoyably direct manner. However sloppy some of the detail work may be, the art does a fine job of actually telling the story, and is very pleasing to look at in a way that some more detailed comics art isn't. DC's decision to reprint these stories in color was a wise one- though Golden Age art wasn't very color-sensitive (indeed, the coloring was often done out-of-house), it still benefitted from the bright, exaggerated hues used at the time to mask the effects of newsprint.

Crude but vivid might well describe the entire collection of material here. Siegel and Shuster had hit on something new, and were testing the waters, exploring the possibilities their concept opened up and trying to establish just what it was they were doing. (It's interesting to note that, according to official DC continuity, the stories in this volume aren't the adventures of the Superman being published today- they're the history of the "Earth-2" Superman, who recently died at the end of the INFINITE CRISIS mega-event.) If there's one sour note in this whole collection, it's the knowledge that while they were creating these stories, Siegel and Shuster were effectively being robbed blind by National Publications (later DC), being paid a modest per-page rate while signing away the monetary and creative rights. Both would have unhappy futures.

But the creation endures, and in these pages you can see the uncertain beginnings of a figure who has since come to be very firmly nailed down (I'm convinced the mixed reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS is at least partly attributable to people having very specific expectations of what a Superman movie would be- both on the positive and negative sides.) Of course, apart from being a great cheap slice of cultural history, it's also fun. After nearly seventy years, these Superman stories still seem fresh and vivid and exciting, an example of creative alchemy at its simplest. Whatever the period, there's something very appealing about seeing someone with almost limitless power just go and fix what needs fixing.

Grade: A-

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