I reread my original post about this trade, and couldn’t help but feel like there was a lot I left out. I woke up this morning still pondering those first few issues. Is it because I know the sheer magnitude of their impact on entire generations of readers? Possibly. It’s difficult to view the original works on their own without factoring in the multitude of stories that we know would develop from them. It’s difficult to imaging being a child in the 1930’s picking up an issue of Action Comics for the first time and reading about the Amazing Superman and all of his incredible feats of strength. We take superheroes for granted today, but for that generation it was an entirely new experience. It’s no wonder that the comics gained popularity so quickly. What kid wouldn’t want to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and fight bad guys in the name of justice? Sure, there were always everyday heroes to look up to (ie: policemen), but they probably seemed rather boring in comparison. Superman fought for justice in much the same way, but he did it with style and panache. Not to mention even in the earliest comics Superman goes busting through walls like the Kool-Aid man. What little kid didn’t have at least a small destructive streak in them?
I know, this is supposed to be a blog about comics, not some historical dissertation, but I it seems one can’t read these comics without at least acknowledging the environment in which they were written. Superman debuted in 1938. Less than a year later WWII would begin in Europe. Were the comics a form of escapism, meant to depict a world in which justice was meted out to criminals and good always triumphed, as a balance to the global turmoil erupting at that time? Or am I overthinking things, and these were just simple stories meant to entertain children without any overarching theme or message?
Looking beyond the historical influences and focusing more on the comics themselves, it’s incredible to me how much of Superman’s lore was created so early. Reading about his exploits in the first few issues surprised me. There were no superhuman villains attempting to destroy the world. These were your average, workaday thugs and criminals committing crimes that could have been ripped from newspaper headlines of the day. An entire issue was even devoted to Superman fighting for stricter traffic laws and meting out justice to wreckless drivers. This is a far cry from the nail-biting excitement now common for The Man of Steel. It’s justice on a much more relatable scale, to be sure. Still, as a 21st century reader it felt incomplete.
Towards the end of the first collection we see the introduction of the first real villain in the series, a man who has given himself the name Ultra and claims to be behind many of the criminal enterprises Superman has put a stop to. Superman is captured and Ultra attempts to kill him. Superman survives easily and causes Ultra’s escape-plan to crash to the ground. When he searches the rubble, however, he finds no trace of Ultra.
I must admit, this was perhaps my favorite part of the entire trade. Here we have Superman finally facing off against a super-villain (or a facsimile of one), surviving the encounter but with the potential for future meetings to come. This issue felt much more action-packed and fast-paced than some of the others, and was the first issue where I was really excited to read more. Perhaps this was also because it left the story line open to be continued in later issues. All issues prior to this had been self-contained. I found myself looking forward to Ultra’s next appearance (I hope I’m not waiting in vain) and how Superman would handle him.
Overall these first issues may seem a tad pedestrian compared to more modern story arcs, but they cannot be overlooked for their importance to the story as a whole. Numerous writers and artists have picked up the mantle and added their own take to this character, developing him and creating a richer, more fully realized universe. For this reason I’m extremely glad I read this trade, and was able to peer into the past and see where this iconic character got his start.
I’m anxious to read more and see how the story develops, but I have a feeling these original stories will be playing out in my imagination for some time to come.