And made us all believe a man could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
With the celebrations and festivities filling the Geek world this year for the 75th birthday of Superman, I decided some time ago to finally read my accumulation of Golden Age volumes featuring the Man Of Steel. A journey to the beginning of it all, just to get a feel for the unknown decades to come.
Starting with The Superman Chronicles Volume One, than moving onto Superman Archives Volume One and Two, followed with Superman: The Dailies 1939-1942 and Superman: The Sunday Classics 1939-1943, I consumed the lion share of those early years.
And what an interesting time they were!
Siegel the writer and Shuster the artist created and recreated their Superman many times over the years, hoping to eventually make it into a newspaper strip, which at the time was considered the prized destination for all truly great comic strips. When, by luck and by chance they were rescued from the slush pile, history was changed. And as the character skyrocketed in popularity, small changes moved through the strip, bringing what could be called a proto-Superman more into the version so many of us know today.
They start off with the bare bones origins, rocketed from an unnamed planet, being found on Earth, growing up with great powers, and deciding to help mankind. So many of the other tropes, such as Ma and Pa Kent, their guidance of young Clark Kent, and their demise, are not introduced yet.
The story quickly jumps straight into the action, so to speak, with Superman making his very first public appearance stopping a lynching. They establish very fast that he is a man who believes in law and order and proper government. He will talk to you nice at first, but if you push the point, the fists will fly. The rest of the tale has Superman striving to clear the condemned man in time, and along the way he storms the Governor’s mansion. Shortly after, he teaches a wife beater a lesson, finally lands a date with Lois, and then smashes a car up just like they show on that famous cover.
It is quite a lot to take in, but it is amazing how much they establish right away.
The social justice themes become a hallmark of Siegel and Shuster’s work, with war profiteers, corrupt government officials, and nefarious conspiracies to destabilize the economy, being constant staples of their work. Also Lois Lane is immediately set-up, first slightly bitchy, then more compassionate over time. Any junior league psycho-analysis could have a field day figuring out these young men’s visions of women. And early on they introduce Lex Luther, making him a red haired super scientist master of crime. All this and the occasional emo moment from Supes, the kind of sentiment that Smallville would milk ten seasons out of.
One interesting facet, which so many other variations from John Byrne’s Man of Steel to Smallville to It’s Superman to the current Man Of Steel movie, all featured is the concept of Superman as an urban legend. Even with media reports of his exploits, you can quickly lose count of the amount of times some crook will exclaim “Superman! You’re Real!” This only abates after War World Two kicks into high gear and Superman becomes a good friend and ally of the army.
By that time many artists, who had already been ghosting for years for Shuster, who suffered from extremely bad eyesight, became a lot more noticeable. While Shuster had a somewhat rougher style, these other artists had a more refined look to them. Wayne Boring, who became one of the pre-eminent Superman artists years later, was one of these “helpers.” It is also obvious that Siegel improves his storytelling skills as the years go by. While little moments and some dialogue exchanges are well done, quite often the overall plots are filled with could best be described as wonky developments and logic leaps. Sometimes it is best to just read and not think.
Another constant over these volumes is the powers being increased quite abit, with the strength and speed becoming more extravagant very quickly. The leaping is pretty much flying by the 1940’s, but is still never called that. The super senses are present and accounted for right off the bat, and the X-ray vision slips into the story like it was there all along. Knowing all we know now, these powers just popping up seem anti-climatic at best.
But in so many ways, these lookbacks to 75 years ago helps us see how far these concepts and characters have come. And the nitpicks and critiques in the present, just like mine here, have to really remember the point of 1938 Superman.
He was made by Siegel and Shuster to entertain children. A man of great strength and passion and justice who would inspire people everywhere.
A man who will make you believe a leap can become flying.
…is currently reading In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood.
P.S. This post is one of several I hope to do this year to celebrate the 75th Birthday of Superman. Happy Birthday Kal-El! Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
P.P.S. Superman Man Of Steel opened last Friday, June 14th 2013. For an indepth look at the creation of this landmark movie, check out Jeffrey Taylor’s columns.