IDW recently released a new installment in their Library of American Comics series, featuring Superman in the The Golden Age Sundays, 1946-1949. Seeing it brought to mind my first encounter with early Superman comics through DC Comics collections, and what I found then, not having previously been a historian of early Supe comics, was quite surprising. I was aware that I was actually unable to view this caped guy as the same Superman I was familiar with through recent comics, and I was really pleased that was the case. I had been concerned that I would bring all my previous expectation to the reading and it would cloud my appreciation of the comics and what they meant to superhero history. Instead, I found a very fresh character, a stranger who spoke and acted in enigmatic ways, and I think, at least in a small way, I experienced the absolute shock of seeing a man fly that readers must have been swept up by when they first encountered him.
Now, looking at the Golden Age strips tastefully collected in this large, hardback volume, I have the privilege of seeing the comics in bold colors, with sharp lettering, and way more complicated in their plots than the previous early Superman comics I read. They are wacky, imaginative, virtually limitless in their odd scope, and yet they had to fit the confines of a strip when they were originally published and keep readers engaged in that short-form, long-plot pacing. It seems to me from comparing these strips to the earlier material I've seen that spectacle must have been a key element in keeping readers engaged. Recognizing that doesn't make me turn my nose up at these comics–it intrigues me. It reminds me that superhero comics have always been elastic, capable of embracing a myriad of genres at the drop of a hat, and even infused with humor. All of these are options for superhero comics creators working today, and we owe that to an expansive tradition that didn't feel the need to restrict this popular form of storytelling with ironclad formulas.
This volume actually include 18 fully composed plot arcs, gathered together so that in modern-day parlance, you can "binge-read" them instead of reading them in the short segments the original audience would have had to wait for. I'm guessing kids back then tried to keep the previous week's strip (or all of them) to remind them what was coming up next. This edition actually cites the exact strip number and date of original publication at the bottom of each page, an excellent thing for comics scholars and students, or even just to keep the reader historically-minded.
My favorite story, of course, is Superman's encounter with a dinosaur who turns up on a "nearby beach" and ends up "liking" Superman in little heart-shaped emote bubbles. It gets weirder, for she actually dreamed of Superman "3 million years before the Man of Steel's birth". We see Supe employ every mode he can, with increasing exasperation, to keep the beast in check, including flying around, dinosaur in tow, several times. It's his reaction that makes the story entertaining. We often talk today about how hard it is to write a good Superman story because he has god-like powers and nothing can defeat him, but what about something that simply irritates him relentlessly? It's very entertaining to see him discomfited in this way and observe how he works his way out of a jam.
But there's plenty of other strangeness in this volume: we have travels in time and space, detective work at hand, Cleopatra making a cameo, other ancient civilizations, and even a talking dog. Nothing is off-limits in these early strips, that's clear. And that is an excellent, salient reminder to comics makers and comics readers today. There is no "one way" to create superhero comics, or any other genre of comics for that matter. The proof is in the pudding. Is it good art? Is it entertaining? Does it make good use of the conventions of the form?
These comics meet the criteria for strong storytelling across the board from what I've seen so far. Long live the Caped Crusader, whether he's talking to beasties, being wooed by ancient monarchs, or just trying to figure out his personal life. And IDW is helping make sure that happens with these well-appointed archival editions.
You can find out more about this edition of Superman comics here at IDW.