Written by: Tom Hardej, Special to CC2K
SUPERMEN!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, is a new collection of the early works of the first generation of comic book creators, including Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Gardener Fox. Greg Sadowski, the editor of the collection, offers them up here for the first time all together in their oversized, full-color glory, and fills in the gaps on the business side of how these came to be.
In the foreword of the book, Jonathan Lethem gets right to the point. “Who was your first?” he asks. He’s not being rude; instead, he wants you to think back to who your first superhero was. (Mine was the Flash. The 90s television show in all its ridiculousness directed me straight to the comic and I was hooked. Adam West had the same effect on my dad’s generation.)
But now think about not your first, but the first. Who was the first superhero? Most people in the world (though not necessarily most people reading this website) would probably answer Superman or Batman. They would be close, but not quite right: there were many superheroes before Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne arrived on the scene. Maybe the business was too young, or maybe these characters were just a warm-up for what was to come so they didn’t quite stick, but they are just as cool as any early Superman or Batman comic.
The comics are all really neat to read, crude and unfiltered by the future comic code. However, the lack of commentary through the book was a little disappointing. I guess I was hoping for an illustrated real-life version of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing of Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I want to know not just the details of how these books came to be, but what they represented at the time, and how we can read them today. But that’s not what this book is, and that’s fine, in the end. What it actually is, is a really nicely packaged, nearly 200-page collection of the precursors to the golden age of comics.
The stories and art are simple, and these books certainly wouldn’t have a place in the modern comic book shop. But like, say, an early recording of the Beatles, they are fascinating because we know what’s to come.
The first, and my personal favorite, is the earliest work of Superman creators Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, a comic called “Dr. Mystic” (Comics Magazine, no. 1, May 1936). A giant monster named Zator stalks the city, and only Dr. Mystic can stop him. It’s only 2 pages, but I dare you not to geek out a little at reading their first shot a caped, flying man.
In “Cosmic Carson” (Science Comics, no. 4, May 1940), we get to see one of Jack Kirby’s earliest. Even though he’s using a pseudonym—Michael Griffith—the art is distinctly Kirby, and the story of a spaceman foreshadows his greater works to come.
Another high point is Gardener Fox and Fred Guardineer’s “Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians” (Big Shot Comics, no. 1, May 1940), in which the title character stops some gangsters by bringing to life the George Washington statue on Wall Street in Manhattan. He catches the criminals and still manages to fit in a lecture on patriotism! You can’t find much wrong with that one!
So if you’re a comics fan, especially of the early stuff, this book is a must-have. It could be a little meatier, but then again, how many comics fans would rather read about superhero books than read actual superhero books? The collection is gritty and exciting, so definitely go check it out!