I sit at my computer tonight, staring at the blank page in front of me, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
I’ve always fancied superhero lore. What kid didn’t grow up watching old Batman cartoons, or tie a towel around their neck and pretend to fly around their living room? We’ve all seen the shows, the movies. Even those who aren’t diehard fans know the basics about the characters. It’s a part of our culture. The stories always fascinated me, but comics, the original stories from which all of this other media sprung, eluded me. How do you just walk into a comic shop, pick up a random issue, and start reading? These characters have literally decades of back-stories tied to them. It seemed overwhelming to me, and so I stayed away.
Many years later…
I began dating a certain handsome comic enthusiast, henceforth to be referred to as “Mistah J” (His name starts with J and he has a certain penchant for the Joker, in case you’re wondering. Maniacal laugh pack sold separately.)
Now Mistah J has a lot of comics. And I do mean a LOT. Like 8-10 thousand, not to mention a massive collection of DC trades, all organized chronologically. He is very passionate about this collection, and is always adding to it. One day I made a joke that I was going to read every single trade on his bookcase so that I would finally have the full picture of these characters, and would be able to have lengthy discussions with him. He said that would be awesome, but probably didn’t take me too seriously.
Oh, if only he knew.
Once I get an idea in my head, it festers there until I act on it. It wasn’t long before I was repeatedly saying I was going to read “the shelf” (which is, in fact, four shelves, and ever-growing) on an almost daily basis.
Well, the time finally came to act. Which brings me back to my computer, wondering where on earth to begin.
I suppose the beginning is a pretty logical choice.
The first trade on Mistah J’s shelf is, fittingly, a collection of the very first superhero comics ever written, the original Action Comics Superman.
I admit, Superman is one of the few comics characters I already knew a bit about. Still, I felt a rush of anticipation as I opened the book and began reading. After all, this was where it all started, where a superhero comic was put on paper for the first time.
After reading the entire trade, I am slightly perplexed yet anxious to read more.
This was not the Superman I was expecting. Superman fights for justice and stands for all that is good in the world. I grew up imagining him as the “beacon of light for all humanity”. The Superman I found within these pages, while righteous and just, was also violent and at times a tad vindictive. Since when does Superman threaten people’s lives, or hurl them across a mountain, presumably to their deaths? Maybe I’m focusing too much on my memories of the cartoon series from my childhood, but this version of Superman, at least as far as his personality is concerned, felt less “super” and far more “fallible human”.
Another aspect I found odd was the rather mundane collection of “crimes” Superman fought. When I picture Superman I imagine super villains, epic fight scenes, life and death scenarios. Those were surprisingly lacking within the pages of these comics. Instead we see Superman bringing down the leader of a torturous chain gang, bond scam artists, and unionized taxi thugs. It was like asking Superman to rescue a kitten from a tree – sure, he’s doing something good, but for someone of his strength and power it’s not exactly nail-biting.
I fully admit that my knowledge of how the character developed over these past 70+ years gives me a certain bias. Even so, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the stories. The criminals in these early stories may be your average everyday crooks, but that surely had its appeal to a 1930’s audience, especially one unaware of what the character would become over time. I felt a certain nostalgia just from knowing that these were the first Superman stories ever written, that everything we know about the lore and mythos surrounding the character stemmed from these original stories. For that alone they serve a vital purpose.
As an aside, I have to step back and examine the way women are portrayed in these comics. I was warned ahead of time that the stories and depictions could represent now-defunct ideals, but as a woman I was eager to see just what exactly that would mean. In this comic, the only woman worth mentioning (and indeed, one of the only women ever mentioned period) is Lois Lane. Lois is portrayed as a deceptive, often unnecessarily cruel career-woman, who turns into a lovestruck teenager around Superman. This duality doesn’t really make sense to me, but then again Lois isn’t the star of the show here. She serves two purposes in the comic: to scorn Clark Kent’s cowardice and validate Superman’s heroic acts. Beyond this she really doesn’t have a role. Luckily, I didn’t really expect her to. This is the 1930’s we’re talking about, after all. I’m lucky the comic even depicts a woman in the workforce. Where’s Wonder Woman when you need her?
Overall I enjoyed the comics in this collection, and I recognize the significance they have on the overall story. We learn the basics of Superman’s backstory, what powers he possesses, and which he doesn’t yet. (Apparently flying comes later?? All the comic says is that he can leap “1/8th of a mile”. Exactly 1/8th. They say that repeatedly. Where in the hell did they come up with that exact distance?? But I digress.) A lot of this is old hat by now, but it’s importance and relevance can’t be overstated. Without these stories the Superman we know today wouldn’t exist. That alone makes them worth while.
A bonus is that I now have a few useless bits of trivia to pull out at parties. Example: Name the very first criminal Superman apprehends in Action Comics.
Answer: Bea Carroll. Yeah that’s right, the first criminal Superman caught, the precursor to all other criminals and villains he would fight over the years, was a woman.
Sure, I’m grasping at straws trying to make that significant in any way. It’s still pretty cool though.