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Includes Issues: Action Comics 1-13; New York World’s Fair Comics 1; Superman 1
Issue Dates: June 1938 – June 1939
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This review is spoiler free! Skip To The Verdict? »

This is where it all started. The first appearance of Superman.

Books have been written and graduate studies completed on these early works, but for the purposes of our database, I thought it was worth my time to give this collection a brief introduction.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 1 reprints the first appearances of Superman in Action Comics, his story from the first New York World’s Fair issue, and the first issue of his self titled feature.

These books were created, of course, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, under the watchful eye of legendary editor Vincent A. Sullivan (who also approved the proposals for Batman) near that start of what would be the Golden Age of comics.

The book includes first appearances of Lois Lane, the Kents, a kid that’s a lot like Jimmy Olsen if not specifically named, George Taylor and The Ultra-Humanite (who I consider beta versions of newspaper editor Perry White and nemesis Lex Luthor, though the Ultra-Humanite at least has his own odd place in modern continuity.)

These simple facts should be known to anyone with an interest in sequential art and American History (after all, Superman is a major cultural icon at the forefront of the evolution of an American art form – the comic book. This isn’t to say that comics in general have roots in various places, but that’s a discussion for another time. The comic book as we know it is an American cultural export.)

Knowing the history, though, and knowing the actual comic itself is a different thing. I bet that most Superman fans have never read a Golden Age comic, let alone one of his. It’s a relatively niche market. Just like with radio dramas and classic TV serials, the average sentiment seems to be that old media is kind of boring. That’s why I’m writing this.

Not only is this a classic piece of history, it’s also extremely amusing. That’s the bottom line.

These comics sparked a revolution in the market because they were fun. And that still holds up!

As the back cover remarks, “this was a Superman who embodied pure wish fulfillment” – his actions speak more to the fun things the viewer would like to see than the complex motivations of the modern character we know. He’ll throw people around because it’s fun to look at (and teaches them a good lesson, that’s right.) He’ll mess with Lois for kicks. He’ll shove a fat cat business man and his entire party of dinner guests down a mine shaft and cause a cave in just to teach them a lesson. He’ll take a guy’s identity ostensibly to protect him from a possible beat down, but spend most the story enjoying throwing football players around – perhaps just a little bit more than he should.

Sure, there’s no evidence of laser vision or flight yet (just giant leaps), but he’s super and he won’t take no bull.

It’s amazing how many aspects of modern plotlines are already here (and not just for Superman comics.) Superman is treated as an unlawful vigilante by the police, who fumble around trying to capture him – like many a modern vigilante. Superman makes his own news to secure his job (kind of like Spidey.) He has to deal with companies trying to use his image for advertising. He’s a defender of what he believes is right more than what the law says (this Superman isn’t afraid of international treaties.) Long before comics were “reinvented” and made darker, Supes was there, being a total badass.

This book isn’t gory or gritty and it’s full of bright tones, snappy puns, and half-jokes, but it’s important to note that comics started in a place of moral ambiguity. The set standards of storytelling weren’t yet in place. When people think of the boring work done “Pre-Crisis” they may be thinking of work done in the 50s or early 60s, perhaps, because this Golden Age stuff is Gold.

Speaking of standards and bright colors, I found the art very endearing. The linework is generally sparse (probably due to the much smaller production industry and relative newness of the art form.) It’s not bad or hackneyed, but professional artists just hadn’t been studying comics their entire life. Many of the illustrations have a whimsical freedom to them that isn’t as evident in most work today. I particularly looked forward to any panels where Supes would lift a person over himself, their arms flailing, or drag a pile of people with him as he walked along.

Clark is Clark, hat and all, and Lois is Lois – at least a recognizable Pre-Crisis Lois. Superman goes through a couple wardrobe changes and doesn’t quite settle near his iconic look. But he’s always very recognizable.

Likewise, the faces are expressive and fit the dramatic dialogue (I think I remarked before, but I can’t help reading some of these older stories in an old timey radio voice.) I was sometimes surprised to see a phrase I thought was more contemporary and I also enjoyed all the 30’s colloquialisms – shouts of “eat lead, ya little rat!”

The pages are a pretty standard layout throughout, but I thought it was worth noting that the panels don’t always directly transition into the next. There is often less explained outright than you see in later Pre-Crisis comics, which actually makes it feel like a more sophisticated or modern reading experience. I’m not sure if I can explain it fully here and now, but there are subtle things here and many moments left to the reader’s imagination.

I wanted to wrap this up with a few notes about the collection style. This is a Chronicles book, which means it contains full color reprints of several titles in chronological order (as opposed to the Superman Archives that collected Action Comics and Superman separately.) I’m a big fan of the ordering, but I am always a little disappointed at the decision to leave out an introduction on such a historically important reprint collection. Perhaps that’s one of the main draws of the Archives? I’m not sure why they couldn’t include a page or two of contextual writing.

I’m happy to report that the digital recoloring here is quite faithful to the original, with a minimum of strange looking photoshop gradients – it’s mostly flats that fit the work well. It’s not always quite as saturated as the originals – the background to this website is from the cover of Action Comics #1 – and of course doesn’t have the texture of ancient comics, but recoloring has been a pet peeve of mine in past reprint volumes and the work by Bob le Rose and Daniel Vozzo is good here.

If you want to check this out yourself without having to wait for shipping, an online copy of Action Comics #1 was previously featured here on Uncle Gorby’s Corner of Free Stuff. I wish I could show you more while respecting DC’s copyrights but these scans will have to do.

You’ll have to get the book for context and all that good stuff. And you really should.

4.9 out of 5. I’m being a bit of stickler because of the lack of an introduction, but if you’re going to get one Golden Age Superman collection, this might be it. It’s often available for quite cheap, so there’s not much excuse for not picking it up. I got my copy for $2.60 in perfect condition.

Essential Continuity:
Oh totally, absolutely yes. It’s the first Superman comic!

Ok, you could get away with just reading a modern origin if you’re not interested in any of the history, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor here.

Read first:
I assume you have some exposure to Superman. If you don’t, I bet you could read this one first anyway.

Read next:
A million places to go from here. If you really really love the Golden Age, you could just keep following the Superman Chronicles releases. But I honestly don’t know how many of them you need unless you’re a serious collector or historian (they may get a bit stale to the average reader, though I think they all have very fun moments and slowly introduce a lot of interesting elements of the character’s history.)

You may want to see what was up in the 60s by picking up the black and white Showcase Presents: Superman Vol. 1. There are also the Superman In the Decades books that showcase stories from 10 year chunks from the 40s to the 80s. If you want to catch up on history in an even more compact fashion, Superman From The 30s To The 70s collects stories in a large black and white hardcover, though it’s hard to find in good condition (there is also another printing that goes to the 80s).

You could jump to a modern age origin story and continue from there (I still like Byrne’s Man Of Steel the best, but there are a few on the Modern Age timeline.)

Or you could go watch that Superman movie. You know the one.

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6 Comments Post New »

  1. Marc wrote on at November 12, 2010 12:28 pm:

    Great review, Ian! I personally think Superman was one of the very best comics of the Golden Age, and I would agree that this is the book to give people who think that “old” comics are “boring.” It’s interesting to see how Superman straddles the line between vigilante and advocate for social justice in these issues; I particularly love the one where Superman destroys a slum neighborhood so the government will be forced to build nice new houses. Very creative, and very fun.

    I’ve been looking to buy the complete run (to date, anyway) of this trade series, and was actually watching a listing that TZBA had for it on ebay, but he took it down a few days before the auction was set to end (I don’t think anyone had even bid on it). I haven’t seen any enticing auctions for these books since then, but I’m still keeping my eye out.


    Ian replied on November 12th, 2010 at 12:40 pm:

    Thanks Marc! Supes is definitely focused more on social issues here, which I like. Not really supervillains yet.

    That’s a shame about the TZBA auction – last I heard he was in the process of moving to a new day job, so he may have had to cut back on the auctions to give him more time to focus on that.

    I think I bought most of them individually though and it wasn’t that hard to find good prices (especially if you’re ok with library stamps.)


  2. etragedy wrote on at November 20, 2010 1:20 pm:

    So I read this – I’m not going to read the rest of the Chronicles, but I do feel there are some more pit stops to make in the 40s before moving on to Superman in the 50s.

    Namely, The Adventures of Superman novel by George Lowther (reading that now), The Superman radio shows (also working my way through those) and the Superman movie serials.

    Then it will be on to Superman in the 50s (and the 50s stories in Superman from the 30s to the 70s, and possibly some of the collected volumes D.C. has put out of the 50s stories – Showcase Presents, Superman Family, etc.)


    Ian replied on November 20th, 2010 at 2:53 pm:

    Superman Family is a fun place to hit, and I think all the Showcase volumes move into the 60s too. Definitely the 50s are the most under represented in terms of trades, but maybe there just wasn’t much to collect from that decade.


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