Book Review: Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1946-1949

Sometimes goofy, occasionally deadly, and always exciting, it's Superman as you may not have seen him before.
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It wasn’t long after his 1938 debut in Action Comics #1 that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s most famous creation began appearing in his own daily newspaper strip, followed shortly thereafter by a separate Sunday strip. Back in those days, funny books were a stepping stone to the big money and prestige found in the funny papers. Curiously, a large number of these Sunday strips have never been reprinted, a wrong that The Library of American Comics valiantly continues to set right with the second volume of their Superman Sundays series. Collecting over 170 sequential Sunday pages from August 11, 1946 through October 16, 1949, Superman: The Golden Age Sundays is a giant-sized effort to fill a major gap in the character’s publishing history. 

The byline on most of these strips says Siegel and Shuster, but the writing duties are shared by Alvin Schwartz and the art is provided by none other than legendary Superman artist Wayne Boring. In these pages, we see Boring in the process of working out what would eventually become much of the iconic imagery of the Man of Steel. There’s plenty of square-jawed, barrel-chested action in these pages, often accompanied by an exaggerated, cartoony style of illustration that would no doubt seem quaint to many modern readers. It would be easy to simply call these comics “classics” because of their age and put them on a lofty shelf, revered but never referenced; but to do so would be a disservice to their quality. The 18 stories contained within are a window through time - a look at an enduring icon that we’ve never been allowed before, and they deserve to be read.

 At the risk of falling prey to the geek hyperbole that so often pervades the internet, there is a purity, vitality, and uniqueness to these stories that simply cannot be found in today’s superhero comics. The Superman in this enormous hardcover volume (12 x 9.4 x 0.9 inches) isn’t exactly the steely-eyed New Deal Democrat of the early Siegel & Shuster work, but he certainly isn’t the boring, stodgy Boy Scout one might expect from the era.  These stories seem like they’d be more at home alongside the exploits of Popeye or Tom & Jerry. Superman is like a force of nature, acting as a guardian angel to the little guy - helping a down-on-his-luck veteran by building him a new home in seconds or working as an attraction in a circus in order to fix the hash of a couple of swindlers. There’s a downright goofy quality to stories in which exposure to radiation turns Superman into a super baby or he finds himself as the love interest for a time-displaced dinosaur with the unlikely binomial nomenclature of “Paleomatzoball”. Seriously.

The godlike Man of Tomorrow travels to Venus, meets Cleopatra, and has to prove himself to a group of highbrow cynics known as The Skeptics. He swims in a vat of molten steel and uses his super breath to convince a salesman that his Persian rug can fly. He does dishes, takes care of a bratty little kid, and lowers himself to what the parlance of the times referred to as “women’s work” in a story that still manages to be humorous despite the necessity to file it on the product-of-its-time shelf. He outsmarts mob bosses and, as Clark Kent, puts up with a level of abuse from Lois Lane that no human being should ever be subjected to, regardless of what sort of spandex they happen to be sporting under their coat and tie. But most of all, the Superman of these stories has a whole lot of fun. There’s simply a lot of joy to be found in these unpretentious panels: characters and situations that leap off the page and a mixture of humor and drama. 

If there is a flaw to this book, it is the lack of context given to the series. The venerable Mark Waid mentions in his introduction that Siegel and Shuster’s byline disappears partway through this volume as a result of a lawsuit the two creators initiated against DC, but little other info is given about what was going on when these stories were newly minted. While not necessary to the enjoyment of the collection, the part of this reviewer’s brain that fancies itself a historian of four-color culture always wants to know a little bit more about what was going on. But maybe this “flaw” (certainly not the appropriate word) is for the best? Rather than provide insight to post-war culture or act as a tawdry behind-the-scenes tell-all about the early days of comic book characters, Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1946-1949 simply exists to entertain and it does so in a pure and simple manner.

It’s a giant hardcover that presents larger-than-life comics in a format that does them justice. It’s got an incredibly beautiful cover by Pete Poplaski and it comes with one of those fancy ribbon bookmarks - the kind they only give to high quality books. You don’t see volumes of the Twilight or Left Behind series’ with those kinds of fancy bookmarks, do you? But this level of quality presentation is exactly what the Last Son of Krypton and his fans deserve.

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