Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1943-1946 by Jack Schiff, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley and Whitney Ellsworth (graphic novel review)

The ‘Superman Sunday’ pages were written and drawn during World War II and that’s important to remember. One of the most perceptive comments about that war I ever read was made by Len Deighton, the British thriller writer, who also dabbled in history. He pointed out that during the war we didn’t know we were going to win. Certainly, from a British point of view, it looked as if we were certain to lose at one point, about to be over-run by a truly evil regime. When you realise that, it gives the whole thing a very different perspective from the heroic nostalgia of retrospection. At the time, people were terrified.


Maybe not so much in the United States, where Superman hangs his cape, but even Americans were under threat and their especially perceived menace, as this book demonstrates, from the Japanese. There is a lot of nasty stuff in here about the ‘Japs’ and much of the content, both words and pictures, is overtly racist. This has to be put in context but there’s a warning about it in the introduction by Mark Waid to ‘readers of Asian descent and/or nervous dispositions and/or a speck of human decency’. There is irony in two Jewish comic creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, producing such stuff at the time of the Third Reich. Just goes to show we all have our blind spots, especially when in danger.

The approach to Hitler and his henchmen, on the other hand, is almost jovial. In one set of strips Superman goes to meet the leaders of the Third Reich – ‘the nasty nabobs of Nazism’ – whereupon those ‘supermen’ of the master race dress up in Superman costumes and assure him they all belong on the same side! Cartoons of Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and Hitler in super-hero costume are quite amusing sixty years on. Poking fun at the big bad menace is also a way of bringing it down to size.

But, you may ask, why didn’t Superman just go out there and thrash the enemy himself? This issue obviously had to be sidestepped. Clark Kent avoided the draft by a genuine error. He was reading an eye chart but was so keyed up with anticipation to enlist that he inadvertently used his x-ray vision and read the chart in the next room! He failed the test. Superman, meanwhile, generally opined that American men and women could easily win the war without his help. It would have been ‘presumptuous’ for him to intervene. Of course, he does intervene all over the place. That’s what the strips are about

Clark Kent does a column following the exploits of Dave Cooper, a model Army Air Corps Cadet. Nazi spies led by ‘Eyeglasses’ are out for a propaganda coup by discrediting Dave. Happily, Superman is always on hand to save the young chap. Eyeglasses vows that Superman’s interference ‘shall not deter me from my avowed determination to link misfortune and dishonour to the name of David Cooper’. He has a pretty nifty vocabulary for a newspaper cartoon villain.

Too many of the stories are about ‘Superman’s service for servicemen’ whereby, in response to sack loads of mail, our hero does favours for the fighting forces. One chap is worried that some bloke is after his girl back home. A girl has a similar problem when a ‘mutual friend’ tells her that her man prefers someone else. The ‘friend’ is Lily Field. ‘She toils not, neither does she spin.’ Clever scripting again. Superman spanks her! He couldn’t have done that under the Comics Code Authority. What with Wonder Woman tying everyone up and him spanking, super-heroes were a pretty frisky bunch back in the 1940s. On the more positive side for feminists, there is loads of praise for women’s contribution to the war both in the services and back home.

There’s quite a lot of front line action. A desk bound officer in Washington DC requests that Superman take him to Asia for a weekend so he can get involved for real. Several ‘Japs’ are duly bashed about. However, this portrayal of the fighting as a bit of a lark where the enemy was far inferior to the mighty American male and easily dispatched might not have been to pleasing to those actually on the front line, where things were pretty damn tough. I suppose they took it as a joke.

When the war is finally over, there’s a reprisal of Superman’s origin. The story is familiar but I noted that Ma and Pa Kent are quite elderly and not so glamorous as in later incarnations, especially on television. Pa is a bald, bespectacled little man who wears a derby hat. There’s a gangster yarn in which Clark Kent gets his job on the Daily Planet, then an adventure on the planet Suprania in which another lady gets spanked! Not by Superman this time but he is encouraging the fellow who does it. After the beating. Queen Arda says that the spanker is ‘strong and masterful’ and she may marry him. Ah, the good old days. Next is a story set in a circus but the war is the main thing here.

It’s worth mentioning that the scripting is often witty and the art is quite charming in its own cartoonish way. Each strip takes one page and there are usually about eleven panels, all rectangular. Within these limitations the lads do a good job of storytelling. Which lads, though? As with many early comic strips it is difficult to know who actually did the work. The credits on this edition say ‘Scripts by Jerry Siegel and DC Comics’ and ‘Artwork by Wayne Boring and Jack Burnley’. The introduction to this magnificent volume mentions ‘Siegel, Shuster and their assistants’ struggling to meet the demand for strips. I will leave the question of who did what to those many pundits on the net. Whoever did it, they are well-served by this large, beautiful bound volume in glorious colour. No squinting at tiny lettering or little pictures with this production.

The book would probably not be on the average fan’s must have list. It is what it is: dated one page comic strips written for a particular moment in history. I found it interesting and not nearly as awful to read as I thought it might be at first glance. Superman aficionados should snap it up and collecting these historical items into this well produced volume is good work by the publisher.

Eamonn Murphy

July 2014

(pub: IDW Publishing. 184 page graphic novel hardback. Price: $49.99 (US), £37.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61377-797-8)

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