Review by Frank Plowright
The volume follows the pattern of Superman Chronicles Volume Three by supplying five stories from Action Comics and all the Superman stories from two 64-page Superman comics. Everything dates from 1940.
It’s a transitional phase for Superman. Jerry Siegel has begun to expand on his powers and these stories feature greater use of his x-ray and telescopic vision, and on the scope of the villains he faces, with more fantastic elements intruding, largely via scientists with incredible inventions. His tale of Zolar and his disintegrating device could be a Flash Gordon plot. What these replace are the human stories, with Superman helping out individuals fallen on hard times or being reluctantly pressured into doing something. They aren’t entirely phased out, but stories about orphans or people swindled by crooked insurance agents now feature the individuals less and either Superman or Clark Kent more. What predominates is crime stories, with a parade of generic gangsters with hard names, in suits and hats causing trouble, and although the word count is high over nine panels per page, Siegel has become skilled at crime drama plots playing out over thirteen pages.
The art is also improving, but that’s because there’s far less involvement on the part of Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster. The likes of Wayne Boring and Paul Cassidy (sample left) maintain the look of Shuster while being better artists, and while credits can be muddy, a sure giveaway is that in the comics Shuster can never successfully draw the ‘S’ emblem on Superman’s chest, whereas other artists can. They’re also able to bring out the emotional strengths of the stories far better, with improved expressions on faces. The real star turn is Jack Burnley (sample right), his page layouts more imaginative, so providing a greater dynamism to the stories.
It’s interesting reading stories where police, crooks and ordinary members of the public are unaware of who Superman is, and where Lois Lane isn’t just an annoying victim to be rescued, but a resourceful, if sometimes acerbic, reporter. Previous Superman Chronicles may have featured Superman’s earliest stories, but it’s really only historians who could get anything from the contents. These stories can still be read and enjoyed, if in a primitive, pulpy way.
If you’d prefer a more durable format, these stories are included in the second volumes of both Action Comics Archives and Superman Archives, both in hardcover, or in the second Golden Age Superman volume in paperback. If money’s no object, the stories also featue presented in an oversized hardbound format in the first Superman: The Golden Age Omnibus.