Monday, June 13, 2011

May 1939: Superman #1; Feature Comics #22

Cover by Joe Shuster

This is another momentous occasion: the first time in this project that I have read a comic devoted entirely to a single character.  I must say that it was very cathartic reading a comic entirely filled with super-hero stories. No detectives, no cowboys, no mounties, and no secret agents, just cover-to-cover Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This is exactly the sort of comic that made me want to start this project in the first place.

It begins with another retelling of Superman's origin, although it skips the stuff on Krypton with Superman's parents from the newspaper strip.  There is a small retcon here once we get to Superman's arrival on Earth. In earlier versions of the story he is found by an unnamed "passing motorist", but here he is specifically found by Ma and Pa Kent. They still send him to an orphanage, but for the first time we see them returning to adopt him, and also get a glimpse into his childhood as his powers develop.  Superman's altruism has been taken for granted in earlier stories, but we see an important scene here as Ma and Pa Kent tell him that he must hide his true identity while using his powers to help people. The origin sequence ends with Clark at the graves of his foster parents.  It's a whole lot of new material that gives the character some added depth.

Next we see Clark Kent applying for a job at the Daily Star newspaper, and this is where the continuity of the comic books and the newspaper strips diverge. In the strips Clark is told that he can have the job only if he gets an interview with Superman.  In the comic book he has to get the scoop on a mob attacking the county jail before the editor will hire him. I could probably reconcile the two if I wanted, but at this point I'm reluctantly willing to declare the continuities separate and call it a day.

Once Clark Kent has his job we move into another plot, where the guy who was about to be lynched at the county jail tells Superman about a woman who has been wrongly sentenced to death, and tells him who the real culprit is. At this point it was starting to sound familiar to me, and that's because this is a set-up for the first Superman story from Action Comics #1. Superman finds the real murderer, a night club singer named Bea Carroll, and carries her away.

From there on the book is almost all reprints.  First up we get the Superman stories from Action Comics #1 and #2. To refresh your memories, Superman saves the woman from the electric chair, has a few other adventures unrelated to the story, then takes a crooked weapons manufacturer to South America and forces him to enlist in the army. With the new opening material, and the fact that Action Comics #1 leads right into issue #2, this is a very long and satisfying story. Even without that initial impact of seeing Superman for the first time it has a lot of energy and holds up quite well.

The story from Action Comics #3, in which Superman forces a mine owner to confront the poor conditions in his mine, doesn't fare quite so well. It hinges on the mine owner deciding to take his high society dinner party into a dangerous mine for a lark, and also on his guests all believing that it's a great idea. Such stupidity, even from wealthy twits, stretches credibility a little too far.

The story from Action Comics #4 also has its problems. It's the one where Superman masquerades as a footballer to expose a corrupt coach. But the opening with a hit-and-run motorist has no bearing on the plot, and Superman only stumbles on the football story by going through a train window for no apparent reason. I already remarked last time I read this on Superman's startling decision to drug the footballer he's posing as with a hypodermic needle, but I noticed this time that he keeps the guy sedated in bed for days. Modern day Superman would give this guy a lecture he'd never forget.

Siegel and Shuster love a good fan club, as the Junior Federal Men Club has shown, and now they're starting up the Superman of America. It's the usual stuff, with badges and a membership certificate, but what I'm interested in is Superman's Secret Code. Apparently he's going to have a secret message in Action Comics from now on, so I hope I can decipher it.

The issue finishes with a text story in which a detective tries to arrest Superman only to find Clark Kent instead. Kent spends the story quietly making fun of the guy and capturing a murderer as Superman when no one is looking. It's not bad, and more entertaining to me than most of the prose material has been.

Cover by Lank Leonard

It should be noted at this point that I was in a terrible mood while reading this comic, so the reviews might be excessively negative. You've been warned.

'Jane Arden' (by Monte Barrett and Russell E.Ross): Jane is still investigating the murder of Judge Stephens and looking for whoever hid his will. There's some effective misdirection from all sides, and enough legitimate suspects that I have no idea who did it. The problem is that I just don't care who did it.

'Lena Pry' (by Creators Unknown): Lena has been kidnapped by "ghosts" who are actually her neighbours. One of them wants to marry her, and one of the group coming to her rescue wants to marry her as well, but the only thing they value about her is her cooking ability. This would have no entertainment value if it weren't for the characters all talking like hillbillies.

'Rance Keane, The Knight of the West' (by Will Arthur): When Rance stumbles across a guy who is being eaten by coyotes, he rescues him and discovers that the man was left there to die by a guy named Moseby. Moseby had forced him to sign over his ranch, the usual western genre shenanigans that I'm already sick off. Needless to say, Rance hatches a plan to get Moseby put behind bars, and that's the story. And to think that I used to like westerns.

'Espionage: A Black X Story' (by Will Eisner): The Black X's Hindu servant Batu has been captured by a spy ring, and is being tortured, but he's able to contact the Black X via telepathy. The Black X comes to his rescue, and shatters the spy ring with gusto, just pummeling them all into submission. (They never should have talked smack about his monocle. It's rad.) There's not much to this story, but it's well paced and pretty good fun.

'Big Top' (by Ed Wheelan): I vaguely remember this one from last issue, but all I remember is that's it's about a circus, which is no help at all. It seems there's a rival owner sabotaging the circus. His accomplice is the announcer, who gets crushed by a falling beam and knocked unconscious. There's a banker who is working as a clown for some reason. And two characters want to get engaged. It's all a bit choppy, as none of these disparate plot threads seem to relate to each other at all.

'The Clock Strikes' (by Geo. E. Brenner): The Clock investigates the supposed suicide of the local District Attorney, and through some astute detective work manages to trace the murder back to the mayor, who was about to be exposed for graft. It's not bad, but I'm puzzled that The Clock only wears his mask in two panels, and we only see it from behind. For the rest of the strip he's just plain old Brian O'Brien, which makes his adventures seem a lot more banal.

'Ned Brant' (by Bob Zuppke and W. Depew): This another one that has slipped my mind completely. It's also incredibly disjointed. It starts with Ned fighting a guy for reasons I can't figure out. Then on the next page he's going camping with his pals, and by the end there are some shifty characters in the caravan next door. At this point I'm not even certain if this is a continuing story or a series of one page gags.

'Captain Cook of Scotland Yard' (by Stan Asch): Cook is on the trail of Koffler, a notorious jewel thief. This is okay, but the end is very ambiguous. Everyone acts like Koffler was blown up by his own bomb at the end, but it seems to me like he escaped. I guess the cops could just be wrong, and Koffler will be back, but it does make them look pretty stupid.

'Rain Bird' (by Robert M. Hyatt): In this prose story, two Indians are sent to the mysterious Jugardillo people to ask for rain. This is all set-up, establishing that Broken Bow is the brave one who was sent on the quest, and Weetah is his less brave companion. It's a relatively decent premise, and continues the trend of the continued text stories being better than their one-shot counterparts.

'Reynolds of the Mounted' (by Art Pinajian): Arg, Mounties. And not only is this a story about mounties, but it has one of my least favourite plot devices ever - the guy who first reported to the police about there being counterfeiters in the area turns out to be the counterfeiting ringleader! I can't for the life of me even figure out why he would do such a thing. It's baffling, and I hate it.

'Slim and Tubby' (by John Welch): Speaking of crap that makes no sense, in this story a girl named Judith falls in love with Roger after he becomes poor, but when it turns out he's still rich after all she runs off to start dating his fat buddy. Only in comics, folks.

'Gallant Knight' (by Vernon Henkel): The plot of this is pretty good; Princess Alice has been kidnapped by the rebels, and Sir Neville has been mistaken for a rebel by the king's men. So he taunts the king's men and leads them a merry chase to the rebel hideout, and while they're attacking it he sneaks in, kills the rebel leader and rescues Alice. But the pacing is super-fast, with too much of the action covered in narrative captions.

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