Superman’s Past


Comics:

Superman in the 40’s by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and various: For a very brief time (say, 1938-1940), Superman was a vaguely socialistic fighter of tyranny both domestic (corrupt mine owners!) and international (anyone starting a war!) thanks to the agit-prop sensibilities of his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster (cousin of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster fame). But the character’s meteoric success brought with it a corporatization of his sensibilities, so that over the course of the 1940’s Superman transformed into the paternalistic “Big Blue Boy Scout” image that he’s still sometimes viewed as today.

These 1940’s stories offer a pretty fair glimpse of that transformation, and of the growth of Superman’s supporting cast both in number and in depth (Lois Lane, for one, is a truly awful shrew for the first couple of years of the comic). Superman wasn’t the best superhero comic of the 1940’s (that would be Captain Marvel), but it had its charms, though Superman’s inflationary superpowers would ultimately see him opposed more by pests than challenges by the time the decade ended. Remember, Superman couldn’t fly when he started out (though he could jump an eighth of a mile), and while he was pretty tough, he could be hurt and even knocked unconscious by gas. Time would make him stronger and give him the plethora of powers he still enjoys today, at the cost of a certain measure of drama. Recommended.

Superman in the 50’s by Jerry Siegel, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Edmond Hamilton and various: Superhero comics took a nosedive in popularity as the 1940’s ended. By the early 1950’s, most titles other than the various Batman, Superman and Batman titles had folded as horror and war comics gained a brief prominence. Superman in the 1950’s was about as Establishment a figure as one could be, his powers now grown so great that only Kryptonite and the rays of a red sun could affect them (well, and magic). But this was also a time of Superman’s ascendance to television success as played by the ill-fated George Reeves.

The stories here depict a corporate Superman occasionally bedevilled by pests like The Prankster, the Toyman and Mr. Mxyzptlk (aka Mxyztplk early in the decade). The elements of the Superman mythology would expand with the creation of Krypto the Super-dog (young Superman’s Kryptonian pet), Supergirl, the Arctic Fortress of Solitude (lifted verbatim from the Doc Savage pulp novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s), assorted Kryptonian supercriminals who’d escaped the destruction of Krypton, space-criminal Brainiac, the Bottle City of Kandor, and various other elements. The Superman mythos was becoming a very crowded place!

The stories selected here are all quite interesting, though Superman comics in the 1950’s don’t represent a high point in the medium, even for the decade. It would take the Silver Age rebirth of heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern to start revitalizing the superhero genre which had somehow, in just ten years, become somewhat threadbare and worn. Recommended.

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