Reprinting Stories From: ‘Action Comics’ #1-13, ‘Superman’ #1, and ‘New York World’s Fair’ #1
Writer: Jerry Siegel
Artist: Joe Schuster
Publisher: DC Comics/Titan Books (ISBN: 1845762592)
I reserve the ranking for comics that I believe everyone should read; books that are too good or too important to pass up. You should read ‘Superman Chronicles’ for the same reason you should read the Silver Age Marvel Comics, ‘Zap Comics’, and the first Image comics. Strictly speaking, there are better comics. But these books have changed the course of comics history. They affected everything that was published afterward. We need to read these comics to understand how the artform has (or hasn’t) changed. Most importantly, this book reveals the key to the mass popularity of comics. Two ideas are at play here. One has dominated the superhero genre and limited its maturity. The other was included possibly by accident. But comics that have included this second idea found fame and acclaim throughout and outside the industry. I call these ideas “frustration” and “zeitgeist”.
‘Superman Chronicles’ reprints the first Superman comics ever made. These are the first superhero comics ever created. Everything published by DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Valiant, Crossgen, etc. has its origin here. And in spite of all the changes, evolutions, new ideas, experiments, and deconstructions, there is one element of superhero comics that has remained unchanged throughout the 70 years since these comics were first published. It’s the impetus for the creation of Superman and the reason superheroes have always appealed to boys and young men.
Superman came from teenage frustration. Siegel and Schuster felt powerless in a world they realized was wicked and unfair. So they imagined a man noble enough and powerful enough to change the world. But they created Superman when they were teenagers. They hadn’t fully matured, so neither had their ideas. Their Superman is a brusque older brother figure who “makes everyone play fair”, and intimidates criminals into reform. He stops a war by threatening to crush the leaders of opposing nations. His campaign to reduce auto-related deaths involves smashing a car factory, busting up impounded cars, and showing the commissioner the bodies of hit and run victims. Basically, Superman bullies people until they stop being assholes. He’s got more in common than the Authority than you’d think.
These stories frequently show Superman helping individual people solve their problems. He helps a former boxer regain his title while exposing his crooked manager. He teaches juvenile delinquents to go straight. It’s rare to see Superman get so involved with people on a personal level. When was the last time you saw today’s Superman spend weeks helping one person turn their life around? His worldview has expanded, but Superman seems to have lost touch with individual people.
Superman’s choice of enemies was influenced by real-world enemies of the time. Racketeers, war profiteers, gangsters, and the corrupt rich were villains that plagued people in the 1930’s. Siegel and Schuster were Jewish immigrants that lived on the lower rungs of society. It was the lower classes who were often suffered for society’s ills, and they are the people Superman often champions. This was the other secret to Superman’s success. He embodied an idea shared by the poor and working classes-that society was against them. They were sacrificed in wars that made rich men richer. They were exploited by an aristocracy that saw them as inferiors. They turned to crime because they lost hope and faith in the future. Superman was created to change all that. Superman fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. He saw the people as individuals. He gave them hope when they had nothing. Hell, he even picked up Hitler and Stalin and hauled them into court! Superman embodied the spirit of the working class’s desire for equality; the blue collar zeitgeist.
I believe the reason a comic book finds mass appeal is because it taps into a zeitgeist. The same could be said for any entertainment, but comics seem to be the last to learn this. Superheroes in general have the zeitgeist of teenage frustration. Superman and other early vigilantes had the working class zeitgeist. When America began questioning its very identity and morality in the 1960’s, there was Spider-Man to share the neurosis; X-Men to suffer the racism; Hulk to be the Atomic Age Frankenstein. Underground comix swelled from the counterculture and drug culture of the late 60’s and 70’s. But when publishers focused their energies on the direct market, and targeted people who’d grown up reading comics, they lost sight of the general public. When you make comics just for people who read comics, you end up with intellectually inbred crap like ‘Spawn’. If comics publishers could get back in touch with the ideas and desires of society, they would produce works that give people exactly what they want, (and more quickly than movies or TV ever could.)
‘The Superman Chronicles’ is an important look back at the origins of comics. It’s like looking backwards down a long tunnel and seeing every comic ever written emerging from this single point. And just like a story that reinvents a hero’s origin, looking back at the beginning can give new perspective on the future.
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