March 29, 2009

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Superman Chronicles Volume 1

Written by Jerry Siegel
Illustrated by Joe Shuster
DC

Before we actually talk about this one--doesn't that cover, with no external frame of reference, make you think Superman is surfing? Perhaps he's riding a wave of the timestream back to these early adventures?

At any rate, while I've read and re-read some early Batman work, this is my first time actually sitting down and reading the first appearance (and follow up adventures) of the Man of Steel. I tend to find Supes a bit lame and overpowered as a rule, so my first take at this slightly less powerful version was a positive one. Here he's more like Iron Man or something rather than neigh omnipotent being and I like the idea better.

In these stories, Superman, while still Clark Kent, tends to shed his identity as often as Bruce does for Batman and far more than I'm used to, even going so far as to disguise himself as other characters (again, ala Batman). The whole human-yet-not-human thing that tends to get flogged a lot in more modern comics is really absent here as Superman revels in his powers, often being rampantly destructive for his own pleasure (like when he decides to wage a one-man war on traffic menaces).

This is also a Clark who has no fear of the law. While Superman is shown now as being possibly the most law-abiding of all the DC heroes, here the police dislike his actions so much at one point they bring in an expert from out of town to try and remove him! (Of course, this is apparently Ohio we're talking about, not Metropolis, so that explains it. Cops in Ohio just don't like the competition.) Superman's actions lean heavily on the side of justice and not nearly as much on the law as they do today.

Other oddities are Superman railing against a person who might entangle the United States into "european wars" and getting involved against protection rackets and corrupt prison chain gangs. Again, the frame of reference I want to use here is Batman--these are the types of things you'd expect him doing, right down to the many many many times Superman threatens to kill those who oppose him. (And sometimes, they do die--heroes and their non-killing codes are still a ways off.)

DC themselves even note this on the back cover blurb, saying Superman "...took no prisoners, made his own laws and gleefully delivered his own brand of justice--even if it meant dangling a crook by the ankle from alove the city or giving a wife-beater a taste of his own medicine." I think gleefully is the perfect adverb to use in this case.

Superman's origin is given pretty short shrift, and we learn of his various powers as we go along. He's just sort of vaguely powerful to start, and I don't think they knew quite how powerful until we start getting him holding up entire bridges and other tricks. X-ray vision just pops out of nowhere, with no explaination other than needing it for a plot device, for instance. It's kinda neat not having the entire life's story spread before you on the opening pages and "discovering" his powers along with the original readers. (Heck, we don't get the first "full" origin till the last story in the book!)

Interestingly enough, two things hold true even all this way back--Clark pretends to be a wuss (though it's often to lure an enemy off base, not to protect his identity) and Lois is a strong female presense, willing to do whatever it takes to get the story. Naturally, she gets in trouble a lot doing so, but I find it kinda neat that her characterization has never faltered. In fact, one might argue that she is the only character in comics to be so well--and consistently--defined over the past 70 years. Not even Batman can say that!

I do have to note that the art here is atroscious. No offense to Shuster, who definitely did well for the time, but the art level (as with Kane's Batman, who gets an advertisment at the end of one of the stories) is definitely a product of its time. This is not like looking at the 1950s horror comics, or even the 1940s work of Eisner, where you can see the art form building into what we come to think of as superheroic work. This is definitely designed to look like old newspaper strips (since, after all, that's what they originally planned it to be). It will be interesting to see how that changes over the years.

Props to DC for these editions, and I'd kill for them to do it with Plastic Man, even if he's not one of the most popular current heroes. Even further props for doing things like including original covers (guess who pops up? Zatanna's dad, Zatara!) and also oddball appearances, like Superman's World's Fair story, that otherwise might never see the light of day.

Comics historians totally need to read this. Superman fans probably already did. But those of you who are generally dismissive of Superman should give this a look. Ironically, it's a lot more human than a lot of those human-side stories made today.