Review by Frank Plowright
This bulky paperback series is DC’s most recent attempt at re-presenting the earliest Superman stories from 1938 to 1940. It’s their fourth if you’re keeping count, with these colections combining what was previously available in hardback as the first Action Comics Archives and Superman Archives, already gathered in the bulky hardcover Superman: The Golden Age Omnibus. As paperback collections they were previously available in Superman Chronicles Vols One and Two.
In any format these earliest stories of Superman have to be acknowledged as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating the superhero genre. Perhaps it was inevitable someone would eventually upgrade the costumed pulp adventurer with a touch of the exotic via an under-exploited alien origin, and the fantastic via super powers, but Siegel and Shuster were there first. It also has to be acknowledged that these earliest stories are only really of interest to historians. Time has moved on, and Siegel and Shuster were basically amateurs learning on the job, so their work is energetic, but crude, and so many creators have produced so many better superhero stories since.
Compared with the Superman of today, his powers are scaled back, but in 1938 it was fantastic enough that nothing less than a shell could penetrate Superman’s skin, that he could run faster than an express train, and leap over eight storey buildings. Yet despite that Siegel and Shuster go out of their way to portray Superman as human, emphasising his journalist alter-ego Clark Kent, having him address social problems, and corruption among elected representatives and businessmen. The sample page is the first from the first Superman story, displaying how this early Superman doesn’t care about social niceties, the strips often founded on bullies meeting someone more threatening than themselves, and he’ll wreck the production machinery of industrial swindlers. When one crook writhes free of him mid-leap and drops from the sky, Superman comments it’s what he deserved. The vigilante elements come as a surprise if you’re only used to the modern day Superman scrupulously operating within the law.
It’s wish fulfilment on the part of shy, bespectacled creators who had their own desire for justice and use Superman to ensure those who don’t play fair live to regret it. Wife-beaters, reckless drivers, sports cheats, and assorted swindlers are dealt with, and there’s a human element to many of the stories. Superman helps out a circus owner on the verge of bankruptcy, a mother whose crooked son is the victim of poverty and a child escaping from the cruelty of an orphanage. That idea has diminished by Volume Two.
Siegel improves with practice, and there are signs of him being both creative and able to construct a neat crime drama with human elements. His best here is ‘Superman and the Black Gold Swindle’, only Superman’s eleventh appearance, but smart, funny and unpredictable. We have to wait until the next collection for Lex Luthor, but we are introduced to Superman’s first recurring villain. The Ultra-Humanite appears in two stories, although his ape form is a 1980s modification.
Sadly, Shuster’s art never develops beyond energetic, yet very limited, although the inking of Paul Cassidy smooths some rough edges. With Volume Two the stories improve to something that can be read and enjoyed in small doses, but for all their historical importance, this collection is for academics only.