For more than 25 years, the Man of Steel fought for truth and justice in newspapers across the country, but only the first few years have ever seen the light of day as reprints. Thankfully, the Library of American Comics has partnered with DC Comics to bring the complete series to fans in these oversize hardcover editions. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing a handful of these exquisite collections and now I’ve made my way to this, the final volume in the series.
Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Volume 2 (1963-1966) collects the final few years of the full-color Sunday strip. Weighing in at 2.6 lbs and standing tall at 9.6 x 0.8 x 12.3 inches, it contains stories scripted by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by Wayne Boring, one of the quintessential Superman artists of the '50s and '60s. It’s also got a nice hardcover with awesome retro-kitschy artwork by Pete Poplaski, one of those fancy ribbon bookmarks and it looks fantastic on your bookshelf (assuming your bookshelf is actually tall enough to hold this thing). Listen, I don’t just throw the word “exquisite” around for nothin’ and we’re all familiar with the level of quality that the Library of American Comics has become known for.
All of the stories contained within were adapted by Jerry Siegel from tales that had previously appeared in one of the seven Superman comic book titles. Written by the likes of Robert Bernstein, Otto Binder, Leo Dorfman, Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, and even Siegel himself, many of the quintessential Superman tropes and iconography came to light during this era and are showcased in this volume. This is the stuff Grant Morrison drew from when he created All-Star Superman and for better or for worse, it’s what comes to mind when folks think of the Big Blue Boy Scout.
A great deal of “the better” that I’m referring to comes in the form of two fantastic Luthor stories. Here, we see Superman’s arch enemy escape from prison and challenge Superman to an old-fashioned slugfest on an alien world with a red sun, where they would be equals. Of course, Luthor isn’t above cheating, but what’s surprising is that he takes a moment to help the denizens of this desert planet find the water they so desperately need to survive, making Luthor the hero and Superman a villain in their eyes. I won’t spoil either story, but when we return to this planet two years later, we are treated to a depiction of Luthor that is more nuanced and three-dimensional than what I’m accustomed to seeing in a Silver Age villain and we see Superman as…honestly, kind of a jerk.
I mean, yes Luthor escapes prison with the help of a robotic simulacrum he created from the prison boiler and yes, he steals a spaceship to return to the planet Lexor (they re-named it after him when he saved them), but did Superman really need to chase Lex down all the way across the galaxy to arrest him? The way I see it, if Superman had just let Luthor go, Lex probably would’ve just stayed on that planet, a reformed man living his best life as a sort of god-king and Superman’s workload would’ve been cut in half. Just let it go, Superman!
Whatever. That's probably why they never let me be a superhero. And Superman was just doing his best to do what’s right, I guess. Maybe Luthor would’ve been an evil tyrant and Superman would’ve damned an entire planet by letting Luthor go. The Man of Steel is nothing if not a law-abiding citizen, doing his best to maintain law and order.
Which he also does in another story where the entire Metropolis police force simultaneously falls ill and Superman is deputized, which isn’t really all that different from how he normally operates, only in this story, he actually wears a cop hat, which looks every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Now, let’s take a moment to contrast this with the dysfunctional family antics of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man’s financial woes that we saw in the Marvel Comics of the era. It isn’t hard to see why Superman was perceived as a super square, an image he hasn’t really been able to shake since. He’s kind of like a Super Dad, making dorky jokes and wearing black socks with his sandals, drinking lemonade while admiring the lines he cut into his lawn this morning; he's just doing it at superspeed.
But what he lacks in coolness and It factor, Superman more than makes up for in sheer weirdness, as he competes in the Interplanetary Olympics, becomes King of Earth, gets split into two people (again), and travels through time so, so many times. He even tussles with his old foe, Mr. Mxyzptlk no less than four times in this collection. But therein lies “the bad”.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the weird stuff and under normal circumstances, I’d be ecstatic to see Mxy pop up to irritate Supes. But there are only so many ways to trick a man into saying his name backwards, and every time Superman travels through time, this collection feels like it grinds to an immediate standstill. Having read a few of these collections, I can tell you that time travel is something Superman does a lot and it usually involves either Kal-El or Lois Lane adopting several different identities and more often than not, features Superman offering Lois the opportunity to marry him, if she can solve his riddles or figure out his identity. And of course these stories involve Superman humiliating Lois in some fashion. Even when Lois proves herself to be adept in the ways of badassery, as she does in the “Lois Lane, Spy-Hunter” tale, she winds up looking like a doofus and needing Superman, or even worse, Perry White or Jimmy Olsen to bail her out. And nine times out of ten, one of those three are probably behind the shenanigans anyway.
Plus, the time travel stories are just boring, which is a statement I honestly never expected myself to say, but I stand by my words. While the Luthor stories feature a man of science taking on a veritable god in a battle of wits, the time travel stuff just has Superman dressed as a gladiator wearing a fake goatee or finding out that Lois Lane is the spitting image of Cleopatra. They just can’t hold a candle to the rest of the stories and it winds up feeling like you’re reading some sort of boring historical comic you might read in school.
If you grew up on modern superhero comics, you might find stories like these to be a bit too silly for your liking, but it really all depends on your frame of mind. The Superman depicted in these strips is more akin to Bugs Bunny, Popeye, or heroes of myth and legend than he is the pulp-influenced vigilantes or melodramatic mutants that we are used to these days. Every single story features some sort of unbelievable and nonsensical deus ex machina and if those don’t have you rolling your eyes, the scientific prowess of both Luthor and Superman likely will. Seriously, I think if you left these guys alone in your kitchen, they’d have an army of robots built in a matter of hours (or more likely, seconds, given Superman’s super-speed abilities). For the most part, I really enjoyed this volume, but there are times when the fantastical and ridiculously fun manages to borderline on repetitive and cringe inducing.
I won’t deny that Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Vol. 2 is my least favorite volume of the series. But for every repetitive story about gangsters or time travel, we also get one about space criminals rigging an interplanetary sporting competition, so it evens out. Some of Superman’s actions and a great deal of the character depictions are more than a little bit questionable to modern eyes, but there is also a separate charm and goofiness to these stories that’s sorely lacking in a lot of superhero comics, and a sense of fun that is refreshing. Chances are, you aren’t going to pick this book up unless you’re already predisposed to the types of stories anyway, so you probably already know what you’re in for.
If you are a fan of these types of stories, Superman: The Silver Age Sundays, Vol. 2 will be another fine addition to your collection. The Library of American Comics is nothing if not consistent and they are consistently awesome, bringing the same level of care and attention to yet another collection. Superman didn’t regularly appear in another newspaper comic strip until The World’s Greatest Superheroes, which launched in 1978, to coincide with the Superman film. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the comic historians at the LOAC that long to bring us a collection of those comics as well!