Story: Rocketed from a doomed planet as a child, Clark Kent grows up to find that he is endowed with super-human abilities. He takes a job as a reporter at a great metropolitan newspaper and fights for the good of all under the name of…Superman!
Review: When DC Comics decided to start producing a series of high-quality, hardcover reprints of their classic comics, they naturally began with Superman. But instead of beginning with Action Comics #1, they began, instead, with the first four issues of Superman’s eponymous title. This was natural enough, as Superman shared Action with several other series, while Superman was for the Man of Steel alone. Since the early issues of Superman mainly reprinted (and sometimes expanded) the stories from Action anyway, the decision makes even more sense.
These are the earliest Superman stories. His very first story (with its original opening – excised from Action Comics #1 – restored) tells Superman’s origin with details that have survived to this day. Over the course of the next four issues, we see him battle a wide variety of criminals, from gamblers to warmongers to his ultimate nemesis: Luthor. And all the while, he tries to win the hand of fellow reporter Lois Lane, who won’t give him the time of day. (How’s this for a line from Lois when Clark asks her out: “For once and all, will you please let it register in that thick dome of yours that I dislike you heartily! Understand?”)
And that’s how it’s been for practically all of the nearly seventy years since these stories were first published. Sure, the details have changed. They changed constantly back then. First, Clark works for the Daily Star, then the Evening News, then the Star again and finally, The Daily Planet. His costume was rarely consistently drawn and even his powers grew as time went by. But at the heart of things, the stories are consistent: Superman uses his extraordinary gifts to help those he feels are in trouble and to do the things no other man can do. It’s what he still does today (when he’s not getting bogged down by modern writers’ penchant for soap opera).
The biggest differences are in the types of stories that are told and the nature of the art. The stories tended in the early days to focus on more mundane villains than they later would. Superman often disguises himself as someone to infiltrate some nefarious organization or other. He would threaten criminals to get them to talk and, in one conclusion unlikely to be used during most of his career, even causes a criminal’s death. We get some flashes of where the Superman stories would lead once Luthor shows up, but for the most part he’s more a super crime fighter than a battler of deadly dangers.
The stories themselves are mostly well written, with dialogue that often crackles, particularly in the prickly relationship between Lois and Clark. (Not unlike the early episodes of the Teri Hatcher/Dean Cain series, when Lois seemed genuinely uninterested in Clark.) Some of the mysteries are a bit too obvious and Clark/Superman seems somewhat easily fooled on more than one occasion, but for the most part they are decently plotted and interesting. Some even generate legitimate tension, especially when one remembers that this version of Superman didn’t have the same sense of ethics as the one we know today.
The art style that Shuster utilized was very simplistic compared to what is seen in comics today (or even back in ’97 when this was published). This is partly due to Shuster’s basic skills (he was trained by a correspondence school), partly due to the incredible strain he was under due to the increased demand for material, and partly because it was a style Shuster liked. Even when he brought in additional help (including Wayne Boring, who would finally settle Superman’s look), the basic layout and feel of the comic was maintained. Thankfully, nothing was done to try and “spice up” the material for this release. The original art was cleaned up and the colors re-done from scratch, but with an eye towards re-creating what it originally looked like (albeit with much better inks and much better paper).
Another point about getting the complete contents is that the Superman Archives include all the silly little filler strips that were common back then. Notable are appearances by humor strip Shorty (a wiener dog), several Superman “life lessons” strips (“Always do the right and just thing – help others, keep your conscience clear… That’s Super-Living!”) and even the occasional prose story. These kinds of items are usually omitted from collections in favor of the primary material. It’s nice to see them get the same loving restoration as the main feature.
The introduction and afterword by comics legend and historian Jim Steranko prove to be quite informative, but a bit dry. Still, he does a great job of setting the scene of the world as it was when Siegel and Shuster were bringing their creation to life and delineating the salient facts about the stories themselves.
Now, I bought this volume back when it first came out at its original $40 price point and I’ve never regretted it. I had no intention of buying any others, but I knew this was one to have and it was worth every penny. Not too long ago, DC re-released this original volume at a new price point (about $20) and at that price, it is an absolute bargain. Without these stories, there would be no comics industry as we know it today. Siegel and Shuster laid the groundwork for every creator that followed. And even if they hadn’t, if theirs had been the only “super hero” to ever appear, their stories would still be entertaining and still be worthy of preservation. They have true value in and of themselves, not just as archival curiosities.
Authors: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; introduction and afterword by Jim Steranko
Publisher: DC Comics