Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Superman - The Silver Age Dailies 1959-61

Great chunks of Superman lore is readily available in various collections these days: Many of the comic books have been republished; the 1950s TV show, most of the movies and the fabulous Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s are on DVD and Blu-ray.

But "Superman: The Silver Age Dailies" presents a lost chapter of the Man of Steel's history.

Kitchen Sink published nice collections of the 1940s Superman strip several years ago, but this new collection shares strips that haven't been seen since they first appeared in newspapers in the late 1950 and early 1960s.

Published by IDW, which has done such a fabulous job collecting the newspaper strips of Milt Caniff along with other classic comic strips, this volume nicely presents three years' worth of adventures in well-reproduced black-and-white.

Further volumes from the 1960s are planned, with IDW working it's way backward through the 1950s' "Atom Age" and eventually republishing the 1940s Golden-Age strips.

By the time the project is finished, fans will have a chance to see Superman's complete comic strip adventures, which ran all the way from 1939 to 1966. Volumes collecting the shorter-lived Batman and Wonder Woman strips are also planned.

This first Superman volume presents three years' worth of strips over 280-some pages, starting in 1959 and running through the end of 1961.

All told, there are 16 stories of varying lengths, all of which will be slightly familiar, yet also startlingly different to fans who know their silver-age Superman stories backwards and forwards. This is because scripter Jerry Siegel (who created Superman with artist Joe Shuster) adapted the tales from tales that originally appeared in Superman, Action Comics and Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane around the same time.

Nine of the stories are illustrated by Curt Swan, while the rest feature art by Wayne Boring -- two of the all-time classic Superman artists, doing superb work within the confines of the tiny, three-panels-per-day format of newspaper comics.

Adding a layer of interest, is that Swan and Boring are frequently providing art for stories that were penciled by other artists in the comic book versions. So, in the newspaper strip, you'll have Swan and Boring illustrating adventures that were originally illustrated by other great Superman, artists such as Al Plastino and George Papp, or the great Lois Lane artist Kurt Schaffenberger.

In a couple of cases in this book, Curt Swan illustrated newspaper versions of stories originally done in the comic books by Boring, or each artist reinterprets his own comic book work for the newspaper format.

Many of the stories are expanded, too, from the comic versions, featuring new and expanded scenes. They read well, too, as a collection, considering the necessity in newspaper strips of regularly using exposition to remind readers what happened the day before, or to bring new readers up to speed.

The plots are typical of the silver age: check your logical mind at the door.

All sorts of improbable things occur, from Superman's head turning into that of a lion to his being investigated by the IRS for tax evasion. This is also the Flying God version of Superman, with seemingly limitless superpowers. When it's convenient to the story, he uses his "telescopic vision" to see occurrences half a world away, or uses his super-strength to scoop a baseball diamond out of the ground. His only weaknesses are kryptonite and his inability to propose to Lois Lane.

It's all fun stuff if you don't take it too seriously (and why would you?).

The spotlight tale is an adaptation of "Superman's Return to Krypton," originally published in issue 141 of the Superman comic book.  The story is poignant, considering it comes from a time when superheroes tended to show little emotional depth.

In the story, Superman travels through time and returns, as an adult, to pre-explosion Krypton. He meets his own parents, but can't reveal who he is. Nor can he reveal Krypton's fate to them, or change it. He also falls in love with a woman he knows is doomed.  The story is expanded from the comic book version and provides an excellent reason to have these long lost strips back in print.

There's a nice introduction providing historical perspective and color covers of the Superman comic books adapted in the strips, though there's no information about how these strips were recovered and prepared for republication. There's also no mention in the introduction where they came from, only a tiny credit to collector Sid Friedfertig in the indicia at the front. Seems like he deserves a bit more attention. But additional volumes are on the way, and more opportunities to go into such details.