Superman Begins

No, I haven’t got my super-hero films muddled up, although I have seen Superman Returns, and rather enjoyed it.  Not a fantastic film, but good fun and with good performances all round.  I also have Batman Begins on DVD, and think it’s a rather smashing film with an odd, but very effective, soundtrack.  Anyway…  What I actually intend to ramble about are Superman’s beginnings.  Not his fictional back-story (rocketed from a dying world and all that stuff), but his first adventures in print, way back in the late 1930s.

DC Comics, the company that publishes the adventures of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and an oodle or two of other characters, have been reissuing a lot of older material recently.  Some of it, from the 1950s and 1960s, has been in chunky black and white volumes labelled Showcase Presents…  I have read a few of these volumes, and they’re a lot of fun.  However, the most intriguing are The Batman Chronicles and The Superman Chronicles, which are reprinting the earliest adventures of the two iconic heroes – ‘complete and in exact chronological order’.  Thus far, only one volume of each has appeared, and they make fascinating reading.

I had always assumed that unlike Batman, Superman’s character had remained essentially unchanged over the decades, always the ‘boy scout’, pure-hearted defender of truth, justice and the American way, loved by the people and called upon by the authorities.  Having read The Superman Chronicles, Volume 1, it seems I was wrong.  These stories, often very simple, offer a very different Superman, a social crusader prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that the right thing gets done.  The press love him, but the authorities hate and fear him almost as much as criminals do.

As I read these stories for the first time, I began to feel that this Superman, in his adventures from 1938 and 1939, was actually more intriguing than the current version of the hero.  He lacks the colourful array of villains, and most of his iconic supporting cast have yet to turn up on the scene, but it feels as though he matters more.  He burns with a righteous anger and his powers allow him to change things for the better, one person at a time.  The munitions manufacturer is forced to experience life in the trenches first-hand, the mine owner who flouts health and safety is trapped underground, corrupt officials are exposed.  There’s even a story where Superman battles reckless drivers, scaring them witless.  The story-telling is simplistic, the characterisation is hardly well-rounded and the art is basic, but there’s something visceral, direct and honest about these stories.  I don’t approve of vigilantism (now there’s a topic to return to…), but I can’t help wondering if social crusader Superman is the sort of hero we really need.

I also can’t help wondering how on Earth to insert pretty pictures into my posts here, as this is surely a good opportunity to use one…

To conclude: The Superman Chronicles is a fascinating read, though more interesting than enjoyable, and it makes me think far more than I ever expected it to.  Definitely worth tracking down via a library or a geeky friend.

    • Bagpuss
    • July 23rd, 2006

    I guess this comic’s from a bit later; he doesn’t seem quite so socially concerned:

  1. Ah, the Superdickery site… Yep, 1950s and 1960s Superman had lost his social concern and (if the covers from the site are too believed) most of his ethics as well!

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