Book Review: Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Volume 1 (1959-1963)

Extremely entertaining and occasionally quite troubling, these stories are the groundwork for the Superman myth.
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Maybe that’s a bit much, but it’s not a wholly inaccurate description of Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Volume 1 (1959-1963), which depicts a version of Superman from a bygone era that is both classic and clumsy. This isn’t the Superman of the modern film era, blistering with smoldering looks and Kryptonian abs, but more of a square-jawed and barrel-chested father-figure type. And just like your actual human parents, the Superman we find in this elegant hardcover collection can both inspire love and trust and turn absolutely cringeworthy and embarrassing at the drop of a dime. 

The Man of Steel was featured in newspapers beginning in 1939 and continuing until 1966, but only a fraction of that has been reprinted. The Library of American Comics, in conjunction with DC Comics, is remedying that situation with this collection, divided into three subsets: the Golden Age (1940s), the Atomic Age (1950s) and the Silver Age (1960s). If you’ve been keeping score, or you’d like to catch up, I’ve actually reviewed a few of these previous volumes, such as the Golden Age (1946-1949) as well as the Atomic Age, Volume 1 and Volume 2. My friend and colleague, General Jabbo provided a review of the Atomic Age, Volume 3 if you’d care to sneak around behind my back and read reviews from other people. That’s fine. I’m just glad you could be honest with me about it. 

Anyway, back to the book and the Superman of a bygone era and all that. In some ways, it’s a simpler time, when a giant yellow arrow not only pointed the way to the Fortress of Solitude, but also acted as a key that only Superman was strong enough to lift. It was an time when giant ants might kidnap Lois Lane and place her on a throne as their queen and a chance encounter with Red Kryptonite would turn Superman’s head into that of a giant ant, allowing him to communicate with--yes, I’m being totally serious here. That actually happens in this book. We also see Perry White get super powers and become a hero in his own right, and Clark Kent get all maudlin about his mermaid college girlfriend. Yeah, that happens too. Along with a bunch of stories about super-powered dudes from other planets, other dimensions and other timestreams trying to woo Lois Lane and make the Last Son of Krypton jealous. 

Silver Age Superman anthead.jpgAs I’ve said in my previous reviews and will repeat here, Superman reminds me more of Popeye or Bugs Bunny than the archetypical superhero in these strips. Though his power set is limited (he doesn’t seem to have freezing breath or microscopic vision yet and he’s still using his X-Ray vision in lieu of heat vision), there still doesn’t seem to be a whole lot he can’t do as his strengths and abilities pretty much boil down to “whatever the story calls for.” Superman habitually breaks the laws of nature, physics, and straightforward logical storytelling throughout the 18 tales collected here. Skyscrapers and ocean liners remain structurally sound as Superman picks them up and the Big Blue Boy Scout even breaks the time barrier a time or two. It’s “anything goes” storytelling - it’s big and crazy and wild and kitschy and on the whole, it’s a lot of fun. 

This was a defining era for the very definition of a superhero and in these strips (all of which were lifted from the comics being published at the time) we find the groundwork of the Superman myth that is so ingrained in the American consciousness. But as we know, the American consciousness can be a strange and interesting place and the stories collected in this oversize volume are from 1959-1963, which was a different time for America and listen, it’s all I can do to stop myself from making some sort of “Make Superman Great Again” joke here, but that’s the line that kept running through my head as I read this collection.

Remember that website Superdickery, which featured a bunch of comic covers and scenes of Superman being rude, insensitive or just downright cruel? That’s basically this entire book, whenever Lois Lane shows up. In the midst of all the fun and zaniness of an ant-headed Superman and a bunch of clanking robots are a host of tales that might be referred to as “problematic” if one was trying to be diplomatic. But that’s not even the right word; they’re just plain mean. And though this type of stuff shows up in previous Superman stories, the Silver Age seems to be when it really started to flourish.  

So there’s a story in which Superman gives Lois some artifacts from outer space and tells her she can photograph them, but under no circumstances should she touch them. Which kind of doesn’t even make sense, because obviously she has to arrange them and handle them in some small way in order to take a photo, but whatever. The point is that of course Lois touches them, of course there’s a hideous and horrible side effect, and of course it all turns out to be a joke that Superman played on Lois to prove she’s a dipshit. And of course they all laugh at her, because that’s Lois Lane’s entire reason for existing. Even Jimmy Olsen, the certified King of the Dipshits, gets in on the act, telling Lois Superman’s secret identity just to prove that she can’t keep a secret and therefore could never be suitable wife material for the Man of Tomorrow. Olsen doesn’t even know Superman’s secret identity! He’s just an ass, as is Superman throughout most of these stories. And these aren’t just isolated incidents or rare occurrences; Lois Lane only appears in these stories to pine over Superman and for Superman and friends to humiliate at every possible opportunity. 

And then there’s the coup de grace, a little story titled “The Fattest Girl in Metropolis”.

Silver Age Superman Fat Lois.jpgWhen a scientist (there’s a lot of scientists in Metropolis working on an abundance of fantastic contraptions) creates an enlarging ray and Lois Lane accidentally walks in front of it, she becomes the laughing stock of Metropolis. She gets in a car with a few other heavyset ladies and the tires break off and when Superman carries the car, even the Man of Steel struggles under the strain. It’s legitimately just eight weeks of fat jokes and in the end, it turns out Superman planned the whole thing in order to disguise Lois from some mobsters who were out to get her, which actually seems like kind of a solid plan, until Supes reveals that (spoiler alert for a nearly 60-year-old comic) he’s actually been following Lois around until the mobsters finally do recognize her and he can stop them from murdering her. 

Seriously. That was his plan.

So like I said, these are the tales of a bygone era that paved the road of the Superman mythology and shine a spotlight on the potholes of our past, as classic stories so often do. Whether or not humanity has improved since then is up for debate, but at least we’ve evolved to the point where nearly every comic worth it’s salt has been collected in a fancy hardcover format with one of those built-in bookmarks like a fancy bible. And in reading those fancy hardcover books, we are offered the opportunity to reflect upon our past and build a brighter tomorrow. 

See, I turned it into something positive, just like Superman would want me to. Well, maybe not the Superman in these stories, who just seems to be a vindictive jerk, but you get my point. 

And bless the LOAC for putting something like this together. Not just because it’s an historical artifact that deserves to be preserved, but because of the quality of every product they put out. By now, the Library of American Comics should be known as an “It goes without saying…” type of publisher. Having reviewed a handful of their books, I’m now at the point where I need a thesaurus nearby - how many different ways can you say “this is awesome”? Oversized, with insanely clear art reproductions and sharp (not garish or recolored) colors printed on quality paper stock. Hardcover, the aforementioned fancy bible-style bookmark - what more do I need to say? If you’ve seen what the LOAC does, it goes without saying that their comic collections are some of the finest out there. 

So in the end, what do we have here? In my opinion, an extremely entertaining, if occasionally troubling book that allows readers a unique historical experience. Collected in these 180 pages are real fake history - when the average person thinks of Superman, odds are whatever ideas pop into their heads were little seeds germinating in these pages. It's like actually being able to watch Hercules or Thor do their thing. But not the Hercules or Thor from comic books; the real ones. Er... you know what I mean. This is history. These are stories created by men like Wayne Boring, Otto Binder, Jerry Siegel, and other foundations of the comics medium. They are often quite juvenile and more often than not, downright cruel. But the bad stuff needs to be preserved too, as a lesson for future generations (you know, if we actually bother to learn from it). 

For these reasons, I feel that Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Vol. 1 (1959-1963) is a must-have for Superman collectors and comic-book historians, even above the other volumes I previously reviewed. This is Superman, warts and all. It’s American history, like an apple pie or a Model T Ford. This is the Superman your parents read and much like your parents, he often embarrasses the hell out of you, but you still love him anyway. 

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