Monday, July 12, 2010

No love for old Superman?

In my post about 10 must read Superman comics I included only three comics from prior to 1986.  Since Superman was first published in 1938, that means that I focussed on one third of the publication history to the near-exclusion of the other two-thirds.  Why is that?  Do I think the most recent comics are simply better?  Even if I do, I said that what I was providing was a list of must-read Superman comics, not a list of the best.  How can I make that claim while skewing so heavily to the most recent comics?

There are a few good answers to these questions -- one of which is simply that there are, as Chuck pointed out in the comments of that post, thousands of back issues of Action Comics, Superman, Adventures of Superman, Man of Steel, Man of Tomorrow, JLA, Superman/Batman, World's Finest, etc.  I haven't read them all.  I'm working on it, but I'm not done yet.  So I speak only from my own experience, about books or stories I've read myself.

More importantly, for a long time the trend in Superman comics (and in DC comics in general) was for each issue to be essentially a stand-alone story.  There were continuing themes, recurring characters, and occasionally ongoing plots, but in general each issue stood alone.  This has two ramifications to a reader in 2010.  Firstly, the earlier comics didn't have the space or the time to develop an easily consumable story the way they do in the most memorable stories now -- the stories that get republished as trade paperbacks.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the stories then didn't have the pathos or narrative weight that more recent stories have, but it means that they are easier to think of as either smaller or larger units.  Many earlier comics are more like episodes than stories.  So I can say "read the original  Siegel and Shuster Superman" but even choosing Action Comics 1 seems like it is selling the story short.  Action Comics 1 ends on a cliffhanger.

The second ramification for a reader in 2010 is the result of the first.  The way early Superman comics were written and were originally published affects the way they are republished today.  If I want to read the first Superman comics -- the first stories, as written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster -- I have a few options.  I can read it online, by hunting for the comics one by one and hoping to find them all; or I can buy Greatest Superman Stories Ever ToldSuperman Archives, Volume 1Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1Superman in the Forties, and probably some others I don't know about.  Though any and all of these are worth buying, they're all anthologies rather than stories the way something like Superman for All Seasons is.  They're more like collections of short stories than they are like novels or short stories themselves.  And that is fine, but it means that for a 21st century reader comics from the late 80s and after are more likely to be packaged as a single easily digestible story.

All of that said, I think I did shortchange earlier comics in my previous list and I'll do my best to rectify that shortly.  Also coming up soon, and explanation of the "ages" (Golden, Silver, etc.) of comics, and a reflection on continuity in comics and its relation to Orality and Literacy.  Stay tuned.

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