Golden Age Superman is my favorite Superman (even more than All-Star Superman)

Hello friends, I’ve been reading the very first superman comics, in a compilation from DC comics called: Superman in the Golden Age. It is excellent–one of the best comics I’ve ever read, and I personally liked it even better than my all-time favorite Superman story, All-Star Superman, which I wrote about a few years ago.The thing about the original Superman (he was first invented in 1938 and was an immediate hit) was that when he started, there were no supervillains. Superman was just a guy who was really, really strong and invulnerable. You didn’t know his origin story at all. He worked by day as cowardly Clark Kent, who shirks from all conflict, and through his job as a reporter he hears about various wrongs, and then he quickly transforms into Superman and rights them!

But it’s never as simple as just beating up someone or killing them (original Superman does occasionally kill people, though usually only by accident). Instead he creates extremely elaborate schemes to teach people the errors of their ways. So far, in the fourteen issues I’ve read he has:

  • Solved a hit-and-run problem in Metropolis by running around punishing speeders and by destroying a factory selling substandard cars
  • Helped a circus being shaken down by the mob, by giving the circus a new star attraction to pay its debts: The Superman himself!
  • Interfered in a college football game to prevent match-fixing, by posing as one of the players and leading the team to victory
  • Gone undercover in a prison, to uncover a warden who’s abusing the prisoners
  • Taught a lesson to a mining magnate whose mines are unsafe–he leads the magnate down into the mines and traps him there and forces him to try and dig his way out
  • Broken into the governor’s mansion with evidence exculpating a woman from murder, so she can be saved from execution with just minutes to spare
  • Helped a hoodlum being sentenced to prison for robbery, by exposing their gang-leader and teaching them that being strong means staying ‘clean’ (like Superman himself)
  • Stopped a war in central America, by finding the munitions maker who was selling arms to both sides, forcing the munitions maker to enlist as a marine in one of the armies, and making him undergo the horrors of war himself

It’s so great. I cannot overstate how much I love him. Every plot is so Rube-Goldbergian. He finds a simple wrong and then spends the equivalent of many days and weeks concocting a plan to teach the wrong-doer their lesson (which usually ends with them agreeing to turn over a new leaf). It’s a lot like that show Leverage (where a team of crooks interfere in some ordinary person’s life to help them out, usually by blackmailing, stealing from, or framing their opponent). What a great concept! I wonder when Superman evolved away from this?

To be honest, I find the plotlines genuinely affecting, precisely because of how personal they are. Not only does Superman intervene when you have a problem, but he finds a very customized, personal solution to the problem. I think that, more than anything, is what gives the people of Metropolis hope: the idea that someone out there truly cares about them on an individual level.

I also really like the art style. It’s very simple. Superman was originally going to be a newspaper strip (and after getting popular, it ran as a newspaper strip for many years), and you can tell, by the simple, stripped-down style. It’s strongly reminiscent, actually, of today’s indie comics. You can tell that all the penciling and inking is being done by the same person. Sometimes when comics are too realistic (as in the romance comics I posted about) you can get an uncanny-valley situation where the stillness of their face seems a bit unsettling and vacuous. You don’t have that problem in Superman. It’s cartoonish, but that fits with the story.

On a sidenote, people are sometimes surprised that I like Superman. People find him boring and unrealistic. And a lot of people have tried to humanize Superman-type characters by showing in real life they’d be depressed or racist or haunted by their own powers. And that’s totally fine, that’s a natural progression. But I think having someone who is genuinely good and caring is great, when done well! There’s something about Superman that is just so hopeful–he really thinks that people can change and be better. And to me that’s far from boring!

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