Book Review: Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays, Volume 2 (1953-1956)

An important and worthwhile historical artifact, even if it is my least favorite one so far.
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Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays, Volume 2 (1953-1956) is the fourth collection of classic Superman Sunday comic strips from IDW and the Library of American Comics and the third volume that I’ve had the opportunity to check out.  I’ll do my best to avoid rehashing too much of the same ground I already covered in my reviews of The Golden Age Sundays (1946-1949) or the prior volume of The Atomic Age Sundays (1949-1953), but for those who don’t care to read my other reviews (that’s fine, I’m totally not offended), here’s the deal: these comic strips are sort of a Holy Grail for Superman fans, as the vast majority have never been collected before. They’ve got amazing covers by Pete Poplaski, which evoke the look and style of the era, and they’ve got fancy hardcovers and ribbon bookmarks, which is how you know a book has class. They’re written by Alvin Schwartz and drawn by Wayne Boring, which is a pretty impressive pedigree. And boy, do they ever look nice! They're gigantic and printed on paper that's undoubtedly of a much higher stock than the newsprint of the 1950s.

So, you know how whenever you see a modern interpretation of a classic character, they always say “This ain’t your daddy’s fill-in-the-blank!”? Well, this actually is your father’s Superman. My dad’s, anyway, but my dad is probably a little older than yours. Anyway, this version of Superman isn’t grimacing while he tussles with a heavily armored Batman and his familiar (shall we call it “classic”?) blue and red costume is a few shades brighter than the one you might be used to. He wears his underpants on the outside and he’s not Dean Cain or even Christopher Reeve… heck, he’s barely even George Reeves, as the Adventures of Superman television series had only been running for about a year or so in March of 1953, where this volume picks up. This isn’t the original Superman, but it’s the version where everything is starting to gel, even if the stories in this collection don’t always match up to the familiar stories from the comics.

For example, Supes meets two surviving Kryptonians for the first time in this volume, even though he had met three other Kryptonians three years earlier in the comics. But the comic books and the newspaper strips were like alternate realities, so it’s cool. Stories were borrowed and recycled from the comics (all seven of them) to the strips to the television show and back again, so apparently the presumption was that folks only enjoyed one type of media at a time. Superman’s powers at this time aren’t exactly the ones we’re familiar with either. Though he’s invulnerable and can fly by this point, his X-ray vision acts as a bit of a deus ex machina whenever the Man of Steel is required to do something and he doesn’t have a power to suit that occasion. Did you know that X-rays give off heat? I didn’t either, until I read these stories. But hey, comics from this era didn’t just play fast and loose with the rules of science - they aren’t even consistent within their own realities. In one story, Superman is able to move so fast, he seems to literally disappear before the very eyes of stunned passersby, while in another, he worries that he can’t act fast enough to save a girl from being hit by a speeding truck, and in yet another, he flies fast enough to break the time barrier, hopping through history as easily as you or I might hop over a puddle. Modern fans with a strict sense of continuity might pull their hair out over such conundrums, but the best reasoning can be found within the very first story, when Lois questions Superman about how they managed to back to ancient Greece - “No need for explanations, Lois! This is it!”

And so it is.

And for the most part, it’s a blast! This version of the Man of Tomorrow has more in common with Popeye or Hercules (who, incidentally, pops up in one of several time-travel stories) and will having you chuckling over, as opposed to thrilling to, his adventures. Superman doesn’t get into fights with villains as much as he stumbles into situations that require him to wear false beards, solve the mystery of a flying horse, or make perfect replicas of famous works of art. It’s much more farcical than action packed, which isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Until it is.

Though Superman’s never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way is referenced extensively throughout these stories, the adventures depicted here are decidedly more pedestrian. Yes, he does tussle with the Prankster and several super-powered characters, but for a near-mythical being, Superman seems to spend a lot of his time in his civilian identity handcuffed to a famous actress (who thankfully suffers from regular fainting spells, allowing Clark to go into action), setting up a millionaire widower with the woman of his dreams, and helping a process server deliver summons to appear in court. While the tales are generally pretty entertaining, they eventually get a bit too mundane for my taste, and after a while you start to wonder if Alvin Schwartz’s heart was really into it anymore. Even the story with the Kryptonian criminals has them setting up shop as investment advisors in order to swindle the citizens of Metropolis out of their money rather than using their heat vision (that is to say, the heat from their X-ray vision) to reshape Mount Rushmore in their image or take over “Planet Houston”. 

While I’ve raved about similar oddities in the past (again, in those earlier reviews I’m trying not to rehash), I have to admit that by the time I reached the end of this volume, I was doing a fair amount of skimming. I’m not sure if I’ve just reached my limit when it comes to 1950’s storytelling or if Mr. Schwartz did, but the stories in this volume just don’t have the same zing that the prior ones did.  They’re weird, but it’s almost like they’re just not weird enough.

Or maybe you’re just not supposed to read this much 1950’s Superman in one sitting? The most obvious answer might just be the correct one. Folks in the '50s were reading one of these per week - I was reading several months worth every night. But despite my criticisms, I still can’t bring myself to give this volume a negative review overall. Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays, Volume 2 (1953-1956) is an important and worthwhile historical artifact and once again, I have to give to IDW and the Library of American Comics not only for making it available to collectors, but for doing it with such impeccable style. Like everything else I’ve seen from them, these collections treat comics with the respect that is due them as an art form and a quintessentially American form of storytelling. While this might not be the first such collection I’d recommend to a new reader, it is still recommended. 

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