Graphic Novel / Comics Review

The Superman Chronicles

(2005) Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Titan Books, 9.99, trdpbk, 208pp, ISBN 1-84576-259-2


DC Comics, having set themselves the unenviable task of printing every Batman story in chronological order in The Batman Chronicles, have made life twice as difficult for themselves by doing the same for Superman in The Superman Chronicles. This first volume contains Action Comics issues 1-13 (June 1938-June 1939), New York World's Fair no.1 (also June '39) and Superman no.1 (July '39). The volume also reproduces all the covers of these issues and it's interesting to note that Supes appeared on only four-and-a-half of the first 13 issues of Action (the 'half' is from sharing a cover with Zatara the magician, Zatanna's father), the other eight showing scenes of derring-do featuring heroes in deserts, jungles, exotic isles and jumping out of planes and the like. After all, at the time (1938) who knew how long Superman would last? It does sometimes seem weird to be writing about something 68 years after its creation, a quarter of a century before I was even born! Not that weird, however, as I've read reproductions of the three "no.1's" before. But still a bit weird; just think... No Perry White or Jimmy Olsen, not even the Daily Planet - Clark Kent works for the Daily Star. Superman himself is more the SF 'superman' of old, with no extra powers to speak of (actually X-ray vision makes its first appearance in issue 11 of Action). There's no Ma and Pa Kent, but for three panels in Superman no.1. No Supergirl, no kryptonite, no Fortress of Solitude, no Kal-El (nor Jor-El, nor Lara), and no "super-villains" to speak of. Only the first ever Ultra-Humanite - a mad scientist by any other name, bald and looking a lot like Lex Luthor would in time, nothing like the big white ape we know today - making his debut in Action no.13. For the most part when he's not fighting generic 'gangsters', Superman fights corrupt political lobby-ists, mine owners, arms dealers and even, in a plot straight from the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers, a crooked football coach! And Supes, for all his modern loathing of Batman's methods, actually started out quite a bit like him, with plenty of intimidation and death threats and, if a crook does accidentally die, his attitude is "the fate he received was exactly what he deserved." Not exactly Mr.Compassionate. In another Marx Bros-like episode, Superman's solution to a civil war is to kidnap the leaders of both sides and tell them to fight each other; if they won't, Supes threatens to beat up both of them! Clearly he'd really thought that one through...

This is all lovely stuff, if not as slick as a modern audience would be used to, but that's hardly the point. This is history. Real history; history literally on the page. The history of a creation, yes, but also a history of the culture that informed that creation, and the history of our culture, with Superman, Batman and the like firmly embedded within it. Supes is iconographic and Supes is totally global - as well known across the planet as America's less beneficial exports Coke and McDonalds, but long before they were - and there's nothing wrong with having a global icon that stands for decency and justice. Superman's methods in his early incarnation may be indistinguishable from Batman's, let us say, idiosyncratic style, but by gum he stands up for the little guy and for what's right. Just a damn shame America can't in real life live up to the ideals set by Superman. But that'd be crazy... fictional... Nonetheless, let that not detract from this wonderful project, nor your enjoyment of it. Thoroughly recommended.

Tony Chester

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