The Lightning Out of the Dark Cloud Man

Art by Fred Ray

The Superman Chronicles Volume 9: written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Leo Nowak, and Fred Ray (1942; collected 2011): Co-creator Joe Shuster’s rapidly failing eyesight and other factors saw him pushed to the margins of the Superman comic books as early as 1942, just four years after the Man of Steel forever altered American comic books. Thankfully, Shuster’s rough-hewn style was still considered the gold standard for depicting Superman, so these adventures still look a lot like Shuster’s work, though only one story actually was drawn by him.

Superman’s other co-creator, Jerry Siegel, was still writing the Man of Steel: his entry into World War Two (and into ever-expanding degrees of getting screwed over by what would eventually be re-named as DC Comics) was still in the (near) future. There are still some traces of that muscular, socialist, agit-prop Superman in evidence here, though very muted. For the most part, Superman fights either non-powered gangster-types (The Prankster, The Puzzler, Talon) or people who’ve somehow developed powers as great or greater than his (Luthor, Mister Sinister, Metalo).

The Luthor story is a wild one, mysteriously absent from most ‘Best of’ Superman collections. In it, having already harnessed electricity to make himself nearly as strong as Superman (guess what happens when the authorities give Luthor the electric chair!), Luthor gets control of a magical artifact that makes him nigh-omnipotent…and then he makes Superman into a normal human being!

I really like John Sikela’s art on many of the stories. He’s very Shusteresque, though much more polished than Shuster (and thus somehow also much less bursting with nearly uncontrolled energy). Fred Ray also does lovely, polished work on the various covers (Ray would only draw one interior Superman story in his career, but he drew dozens of covers for the Man of Steel, several of them often-imitated and iconic).

It’s actually fascinating to see how much reading the average comic-book consumer was expected to do in 1942. This volume takes about three to five times longer to read than a similar-sized volume of most superhero comics would take today. No wonder people were more literate. They actually had to READ comic books. Highly recommended.

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