Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Must-Read Superman: Golden Age Edition

In an earlier post I gave a list of 10 must-read Superman stories. A commenter complained that my list was too heavily weighted toward the '80s and later, and I promised to make ammends. With that in mind, I have decided to make a list of must-read Golden Age Superman. For a more in-depth explanation of the "ages", see my post here, but for now let's suffice to say that "Golden Age Superman" means pre-1956.  In fact, the comics I'm talking about here are from an even more limited time frame -- all of them are from Superman's first year, in from June 1938 to June 1939, as Siegel and Shuster were still finding their feet and defining their character.  If you want to know Superman, it's good to know where he's come from.

1. Action Comics #1: "Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!"

Action Comics #1 (50th Anniversary Reprint Edition)

The first appearance of Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster.  This story would be mostly re-printed in the summer of 1939 in Superman #1, with slightly less abridgement of Siegel's original script (and therefore a slightly more comprehensible beginning).  The first appearance of Superman is almost frenetic in its energy, as Superman runs from one situation to another, rescuing a woman wrongly accused of murder, threatening a wife-beater ("you're not fighting a woman NOW!") rescuing Lois from a spurned suiter-turned-kidnapper, and exposing a corrupt senator, all within 10 pages of story.  This story sets the tone for Superman, and for superhero comics in general.  The Superman of Action Comics 1 is never in any personal danger, but instead races about protecting the weak.

2 and 3. Action Comics #3 and Action Comics #4: "The Blakely Mine Disaster" and "Superman Plays Football"

In addition to reprinting (and concluding) the story from Action Comics #1Superman #1 includes two other stories, originally printed as Action Comics #3 and Action Comics #4.  Though they are separate issues, I'm going to talk about them together because both are unusual for future Superman stories in that they feature Superman adopting a disguise other than Clark Kent -- and using his super powers while in disguise.  In the first story, Superman disguises himself as a miner to rescue some miner trapped by a cave-in, then strong-arms the mine owner into having a better safety and worker's compensation policy.  The second story features Superman in disguise as a football player, to even-up a rigged game.  These stories are wonderful firstly for their oddness, but secondly for establishing the character of the Golden Age Superman.  This Superman stands for the kind of justice that means mine owners pay to take care of their injured employees, and the kind of truth that means embarrassing a cheating football coach.

4. Action Comics #8: "Superman in the Slums"

Action Comics #8 represents an (impermanent) change in Superman's M.O.  Superman becomes convinced that a group of juvenile delinquents in Metropolis are the product of their environment, and proceeds to destroy the slum neighbourhoods so that the government will rebuild them.   Superman always was and always will be at least partly an exercise in wish-fulfilment, but in this issue those wishes are suddenly redirected from a wish for an invulnerability to a wish for a better society.  It is (as almost all of Jerry Siegel's early work is) fast-paced to the point of thoughtlessness, but filled with both pathos and energy.  The story would be followed immediately by several more stories in which Superman acts not as a grand upholder of the status-quo nor as a single vigilante but as a violent champion for social change.  In future stories he destroys cars to help the city's traffic problems and works for prison reform.  Whether you agree with Siegel and Shuster's politics or not, this comic is well worth reading as the beginning of a political Superman.

5. Action Comics #13: "Superman Vs. The Cab Protective League"
Superman The Action Comics Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions) (Archive Editions (Graphic Novels))
Action Comics 13, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster, features the first appearance of a supervillain for Superman -- the Ultra-Humanite, who is conceived as Superman's diametric opposite.  The Ultra-Humanite is a physically crippled genius bent on world-domination, and in retrospect is clearly a prototype for Lex Luthor, by whom he was soon replaced as Superman's arch-nemesis.  The appearance of the Ultra-Humanite in Action Comics 13 represents another impermanent shift in Superman comics, and Superman stories have continued to shift to and from a focus on supervillains.

If you're looking to read these comics, or other Golden Age Superman, the Superman Archives series or the Superman Chronicles series are good places to start.

1 comment:

  1. This post is exactly what I was looking for! I have been reading comics for 20 years now, but mostly Marvel. I wanted to get a better insight in the iconic character Superman and this seems the ideal start.