Superman: The War Years 1938-1945


By Roy Thomas, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster with Don Cameron, Mort Weisinger, Fred Ray, Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela, Sam Citron, Ira Yarbrough, George Roussos, Stan Kaye & various (Chartwell Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7858-3282-9

The creation of Superman and his unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within three years of his debut in the summer of 1938, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy: all deep and abiding issues for the American public at that time.

However, once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors and the Man of Steel was again in the vanguard.

In comicbook terms Superman was master of the world and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was a popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Thankfully, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster informed and infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

Superman was definitely every kid’s hero, and the raw, untutored yet captivating episodes reprinted here were also been completely embraced by the wider public, as comicbooks became a vital tonic for the troops and all the ones they had left behind…

I sometimes think – like many others of my era and inclinations – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the appropriated (but now offensive) contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”.

This superb hardcover archive has been curated by comicbook pioneer Roy Thomas, exclusively honing in on the euphoric output of the war years, even though in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

A past master of WWII era material, Thomas opens this tome with a scene-setting Introduction and prefaces each chapter division with an essay offering tone and context before the four-colour glories commence with Part 1: The Road to War

Following the cover to Action Comics #1, the first Superman story begins.

Most of the early tales were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience have in later years been given descriptive appellations by the editors. Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins in ‘Superman, Champion of the Oppressed’ and ‘War in San Monte’ from Action Comics #1 and 2 (June and July 1938 by Jerry Seigel & Joe Shuster) as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the electric chair and delivering rough justice to a wife-beater, the tireless crusader works over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving suave and feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse, since she was attempting to vamp the thug at the time!

The mysterious Man of Steel made a big impression on her by then outing a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment ‘Revolution in San Monte’ sees the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the actual war-zone and spectacularly shutting down the hostilities already in progress…

Maintaining the combat theme, the cover of Action Comics #10 (March 1939) follows and the cover and first two pages of Superman #1 (Summer 1939): and expanded 2-page origin describing the alien foundling’s escape from Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and eventual journey to the big city.

A back-cover ad for the Superman of American club and the October 1939 Action Comics #17 cover precedes Fall 1939’s Superman #2 cover and rousing yarn ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’, depicting the dynamic wonder man once more thwarting unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon…

After another concise history lesson Part 2: War Comes to Europe re-presents a stunning outreach article. Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, as the Man of Tomorrow arrested and dragged budding belligerents Hitler and Stalin to a League of Nations court in Geneva.

Accompanied by the March 1940 cover, Action Comics #22 and #23 then declared ‘Europe at War’: a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, and a continued story – almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing. Here Lois and Clark’s fact-finding mission (by Siegel, Shuster and inker Paul Cassidy) spectacularly escalated, and after astounding carnage revealed a scientist named Luthor to be behind the international conflict…

The anti-aircraft cover for Superman #7 (November/December 1940) and an ad for the Superman Radio Program precede Siegal, & Wayne Boring & Don Komisarow’s ‘The Sinister Sagdorf’ (Superman #8 January/February 1941). This topical thriller spotlights enemy agents infiltrating American infrastructure whilst ‘The Dukalia Spy Ring’ (Superman #10 May/June 1941) references the 1936 Olympics and sees the Action Ace trounce thinly-veiled Nazis at an international sports festival and expose vicious foreign propaganda: themes regarded as fanciful suspense and paranoia as America was still at this time still officially neutral in the “European War.”

Behind Fred Ray’s Armed services cover for Superman #12 (September/October 1941, ‘Peril on Pogo Island’ (Siegel, Shuster & Leo Nowak) finds Lois and Clark at the mercy of rampaging tribesmen, although spies from a certain foreign power are at the back of it all after which a Fred Ray gallery of covers – Action Comics #43 (December 1941), Superman #13 (November/December 1941), Action Comics #44 (January 1942) and Superman #14 (January/February 1942) – closes the chapter.

All of these were prepared long before December 7th changed the face and nature of the conflict…

After Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor everything changed and Part 3: America Goes to War reflects the move to a war footing, beginning with the infamous Siegel & Boring ‘Superman Daily Strips’ from January/February 1942, wherein an overeager Clark Kent tries too hard to enlist and only succeeds in getting himself declared 4F (unfit to fight)…

Timeless Ray patriotic masterpieces from Superman #17 (July/August 1942) and Superman #18 (September/October 1942) precede a stirring yarn from the latter. ‘The Conquest of a City’ (Siegel & John Sikela) sees Nazi agents use a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name… until Superman spearheads the counter-attack…

The other great patriotic cover master was Hardin “Jack” Burnley and a quartet of his very best follow – Action Comics #54 (November 1942), Action Comics #55 (December 1942), World’s Finest Comics #8 (Winter 1942 and with Batman and Robin thrown in for good measure) and Superman #20 (January/February 1943).

That last also provides ‘Destroyers from the Depths’ wherein Hitler himself orders dastardly Herr Fange to unleash an armada of marine monstrosities on Allied shipping and coastal towns. Of course, they prove no match for the mighty Man of Steel,

After Burnley’s Action Comics #58 cover (March 1943), Siegel, Ed Dobrotka & Sikela detail the saga of ‘X-Alloy’ from Superman #21 (March/April 1943) as a secret army of Nazi infiltrators and fifth columnists steal American industrial secrets and would have conquered the nation from within if not for the ever-vigilant Man of Steel…

Sikela’s cover Action Comics #59 (April 1943) concludes this section as Part 4: In for the Duration discusses the long, hard struggle to crush the Axis. By the time of the tales here the intense apprehension of the early war years had been replaced with eager anticipation as tyranny’s forces were being rolled back on every Front….

Following Burnley’s May 1943 Action Comics #60 cover, Superman #22 May/June 1943 provides Siegel & Sam Citron’s ‘Meet the Squiffles’: a light-hearted yet barbed flight of whimsy wherein Adolf Hitler is approached by the king of a scurrilous band of pixies who offer to sabotage all of America’s mighty weapons. Neither nefarious rogue had factored Superman – or patriotic US gremlins – into their schemes though…

Action Comics #62 (July 1943) and Superman #22 (July/August 1943) are two of Burnley’s very best covers, with the latter fronting an astounding masterpiece of graphic polemic. Don Cameron scripts and Citron illustrates ‘America’s Secret Weapon!’: a rousing paean to American military might as Clark and Lois report on cadet manoeuvres and the Man of Steel becomes an inspiration to the demoralised troops in training…

Covers by Burnley for Action Comics #63 (August 1943) and Superman #24 (September/October 1943) – which latter provides ‘Suicide Voyage’ – follow. This exuberant yarn by Cameron, Dobrotka & George Roussos finds Clark (and pesky stowaway Lois) visiting the Arctic as part of a mission to rescue downed American aviators. Of course, nobody is expecting a secret invasion by combined Nazi and Japanese forces, but Superman and a patriotic polar bear are grateful for the resultant bracing exercise…

‘The Man Superman Refused to Help’ comes from Superman #25 (November/December 1943) and follows Burnley and Stan Kaye’s cover for Action Comics #66 (November 1943). It is a far more considered and thoughtful tale from Siegel, Ira Yarbrough & Roussos exposing the American Nazi Party – dubbed the “101% Americanism Society” – whilst offering a rousing tale of social injustice as an American war hero is wrongly implicated in the fascists’ scheme… until the Man of Steel investigates.

Next up and from the same issue is much reprinted and deservedly lauded patriotic classic.

‘I Sustain the Wings!’ by Mort Weisinger & Fred Ray was created in conjunction with the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command under Major General Walter R. Weaver and designed to boost enlistment in the maintenance services of the military.

In this stirring tale Clark Kent attends a Technical Training Command school as part of the Daily Planet’s attempt to address a shortfall in vital services recruitment – a genuine problem at this time in our real world – but the creators still find and space for our hero to delightfully play cupid to a love-struck kid who really wants to be a hot shot pilot and not a mere “grease monkey”…

Wayne Boring & Roussos’ cover for Superman #26 (January/February 1944) precedes Boring’s ‘Superman Sunday Strips #220-227’ for January – March 1944 with the Metropolis Marvel heading to multiple theatres of War to deliver letters from loved ones on the Home Front after which Roussos’ ‘Public Service Announcement’ (from Superman #28, May 1944) urges everybody to donate waste paper.

July/August 1944’s Wayne Boring cover for Superman #29 find’s Lois greeting the USA’s real Supermen – servicemen all – before Action Comics #76 (September 1944 and Kaye over Boring leads to anonymously-scripted ‘The Rubber Band’ from World’s Finest Comics #15 (Fall 1944).

Illustrated by Sikela & Nowak and concentrating on domestic problems, it details the exploits of a gang of black market tyre thieves who are given a patriotic “heads-up” after Superman dumps their boss on the Pacific front line where US soldiers are fighting and dying for all Americans…

Drawn by Boring, ‘Superman Sunday Strips #280-282’ from March 1945 then rubbish and belittle the last vestiges of the Third Reich as Hitler and his inner circle desperately try to convince the Action Ace to defect to the side that is comprised of Supermen like them…

In Superman #34 (May/June 1945) Cameron, Citron & Roussos attempt to repeat the magic formula of ‘I Sustain the Wings’ with ‘The United States Navy!’ as Clark is despatched to follow three college football heroes whilst they progress – in different maritime specialisations – through the hellish war in the Pacific…

This enthralling sally through Superman’s martial endeavours conclude with one final Thomas-authored article as Part 5: Atoms for Peace? Reveals who the fruits of the top-secret Manhattan Project changed everything…

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly situated in these gloriously luxurious Archive Editions; a worthy, long-lasting vehicle for the greatest and most influential comics stories the art form has ever produced. These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
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