Chances are that, unless you’re a self-confessed comics obsessive, you probably wouldn’t be able to name more than a handful of comics publishers. It is probably due to the monopolised nature of the comics industry, where totemic, decades-old franchises rule the roost, that condescending parents, lovers and other innocent bystanders may have only heard of DC or Marvel Comics. It didn’t always work like that, however, and there was a time when the comics landscape was a lot more varied – with Superman and Batman having to compete with other colourful characters from publishing houses such as Novelty Press, Fiction House Magazines, and Chester, Centaur and Fox Publications.
In the foreword to Supermen!, a beautifully designed volume of early American comics from Fantagraphics Books, Jonathan Lethem asks the reader ‘Who was your first?’. Meaning superhero, of course. One of the tidier, mainstream accounts of the rise of the comic book tells of Superman revolutionising the nascent medium in June 1938’s Action Comics #1.
In reality, it was a little less streamlined. The volume takes a glance at some of the comics from this elastic, formative period, gathering various stories from 1936 to 1941. The edition is both aesthetically pleasing and sturdy, featuring clarified reprinting of the colour strips, covers, and scattered elements of advertisements and back matter.
The strips included cover a lot of ground, with each of its 20 stories starring a different super-character, and featuring the early work of some of comics’ biggest creators, such as Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk), Gardner Fox (Batman, the Flash, Justice Society of America), Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Jack Cole (Plastic Man). Although, the actual content needs to be handled with either an acute critical awareness, or a child-like sense of awe, because few of these (on average) 9 page stories are essential reading.
What is fascinating about the strips found in Supermen!, however, is their simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. Even by these early stages of the Golden Age, certain tropes of the form are already in place. Certain characters, like The Flame, Skyman and Silver Streak come with iconic cape and/or insignia costumes; some offer a witty quip with each punch, others save damsels in distress, and most battle hoodlums and super villains – all within the stifling, staid structure of the panel-grid page layout. The medium’s young age is also evident through its more open relationship with its obvious sources, from the crash-bang-wallop condensed narrative form of adventure serials, to settings and characters pilfered from the pages of detective pulps, sci-fi tales, and other literary genres. This often makes the content a little stiff and awkward, but never dull.
Of course, there are exceptions – moments of wide-eyed transcendence. Often they are unintentionally hilarious, or joyously barmy, such as Fletcher Hanks’ bizarre Stardust story, or Marvelo: Monarch of Magicians’ use of the George Washington statue at New York’s Federal Hall to apprehend a couple of goons. However, there are some that are brimming with imagination and creativity, especially Jack Cole’s two strips, ‘The Comet’ and ‘The Claw Battles The Daredevil’, with the latter featuring wonderfully expressive artwork that overcomes the script’s unsavoury racist streak.
Supermen! is a nice, well-made edition, with spotty, but historically important contents. However, it is hard to see few but the collectors being satisfied. Indeed, there are few familiar characters here, and the notes provided by editor Greg Sadowski are squirreled away at the back of the book, and veer from worthwhile insight to dry background details. It is obvious that the strips are the bait, and if you aren’t salivating at the prospect of, for example, a sketchy 2-pager by Superman creators Siegel and Shuster from May 1936, your cash might be better spent elsewhere. That said, Fantagraphics have done a good job with Supermen!, even if it doesn’t convert the masses. Maybe in the future DC or Marvel, with their archives of original or bought-out characters from the period, could take a leaf from their book, and do a similar affordable anthology.
Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic-book Heroes is out now.