The Superman Chronicles
Volume One

Author: Jerry Siegel
Artist: Joe Shuster
Titan Books
RRP: 9.99
ISBN 1 84576 259 2
Available 21 April 2006

Nowadays Superman is well known as the defender of truth, justice and the American way. But his earliest stories show a Man of Steel who takes no prisoners, makes his own laws and gleefully delivers his own brand of justice, even if it means dangling a crook by the ankle above the city, or giving a wife-beater a taste of his own medicine. Superman's early adventures reveal a raw superhero in the making...

Like The Batman Chronicles, this series promises to present the complete adventures of a world-famous DC Comics hero in exact chronological order. This volume reprints the first thirteen months' worth of Superman stories, from the pages of Action Comics #1-13, New York World's Fair Comics #1 and Superman #1. The covers are also presented, though in many cases the Action Comics covers don't actually depict Superman.

Not surprisingly, aspects of these strips have not aged well. The artwork, storylines and even the lettering appear crude by today's standards - and as for the characterisation... Lois Lane comes across as a real bitch. She is downright rude to Clark, which makes you wonder why he continues to pursue her. And hoodlums utter such gritty dialogue gems as: "Good heavens! He won't die!"

However, from a historical and cultural point of view, this book is truly fascinating. Many of the familiar elements of the Superman mythology are present and correct: Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Superman's mighty strength and speed, and the titles "Man of Steel" and "Man of Tomorrow". However, other aspects of the myth would evolve later. For instance, the newspaper for which Clark and Lois work is called The Daily Star, rather than The Daily Planet, and their editor remains nameless for now.

As most readers probably already know, Superman couldn't fly in those days, but instead leapt great distances. He possesses super-hearing, super-vision and x-ray vision, yet these powers are vague and undefined. The Man of Steel needs to be right outside a window in order to eavesdrop upon a conversion. He rarely uses his x-ray vision, preferring to smash into buildings to look for things (evidently there was a lot of lead in the paint in those days). In Superman Plays Football, he seems to believe that the impact of a speeding train could kill him.

His initial origin story involves an orphanage, though the expanded version that subsequently appeared in Superman #1 revises this aspect and introduces Clark's kindly (though at this point unnamed) adoptive parents. Top tip: as the book explains, Superman #1 reprinted the first four Superman stories from Action Comics, therefore only the original material from Superman #1 is reproduced here. This includes the expanded introduction that prefaced the reprint of the first Action Comics story. Readers will get the best satisfaction if they read the Superman #1 prelude first.

In terms of his character, the late '30s Superman is somewhat shocking. He is not averse to intimidating people if he feels that the ends justify the means. In Superman vs. the Cab Protective League, a struggling racketeer slips from the superhero's grasp and plummets to his death. The Superman of today would have agonised about such an event, and might perhaps even consider resigning, but the Superman of 1939 shrugs off the incident as not being his fault and states that the villain got no less than he deserved.

In Superman in the Slums and Superman Declares War on Careless Drivers, he causes tremendous deliberate damage to public and private property, and is not always on the same side of the law as the police. In other stories, he gives cruel profiteers such as an arms dealer, a mine owner and oil magnates bitter tastes of their own medicine. Rather than battling for "truth, justice and the American way", the early Superman is a "champion of the helpless and oppressed". If he'd carried on like this in the 1950s, he'd have probably been denounced as a communist!

Superman vs. the Cab Protective League, the final complete strip in this collection, sees the introduction of the genre's first super-villain, the crippled but super-intelligent Ultra-Humanite. With his bald head, it is tempting to see this character as a precursor to Lex Luthor, though he is clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes's arch nemesis, the "Napoleon of crime" Professor Moriarty.

Needless to say, it would cost a small fortune to purchase the individual magazines in which these strips originally appeared. In that respect, this volume is undeniably super value for money: more than 200 pages for less than a tenner! Bargain.

Richard McGinlay

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