By Otto Binder, Jerry Coleman, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Robert Bernstein, Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Kurt Schaffenberger & various (DC Comics)
Although we all think of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s iconic creation as the epitome of comicbook creation, the truth is that very soon after his launch in Action Comics #1 he became a multimedia star and far more people have seen or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read him – and yes, that does include the globally syndicated newspaper strip.
By the time his 20th anniversary rolled around he had become a mainstay of radio, starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons – plus two movies – and just ended his first smash live-action television serial.
In his future were many more (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville, Krypton et al), a stage musical, a franchise of stellar movies and an almost seamless succession of TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even Krypto got in on the small-screen act…
It’s no wonder then that the tales from this Silver Age period should be so draped in the wholesome trappings of Tinseltown – even more so than most of celebrity-obsessed America. It didn’t hurt that editor Whitney Ellsworth was a part-time screenwriter, script editor and producer as well as National DC’s Hollywood point man.
However, that’s not all there is to these gloriously engaging super-sagas culled from Action Comics #241-257 and Superman #122-133, reliving the period June 1958 to November 1959 in crisp, clean black and white in this first economical Showcase Presents collection.
I’d love to plug more modern, full-colour archival editions here, but for some reason DC’s powers-that-be have been woefully slow in gathering this material – and the equally superb all-ages Superboy stuff. I’m not getting any younger but I still eagerly wait in hope – and so should you…
In the meantime, then…
By the mid-1950s The Man of Tomorrow had settled into an ordered existence. Nothing could really hurt him, nothing would ever change, and thrills seemed in short supply. With the TV show cementing the action, writers increasingly concentrated on supplying wonder, intrigue, imagination and, whenever possible, some laughs as well.
The adventure begins here with the lead tale from Action Comics #241 and ‘The Key to Fort Superman’: a fascinating, clever puzzle-play guest-featuring Batman, written by Jerry Coleman and illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, wherein an impossible intruder vexes the Man of Steel in his most sacrosanct sanctuary, after which Superman #122 (July, 1958) proffers 3 yarns by veteran scripter Otto Binder, beginning with ‘The Secret of the Space Souvenirs’ (illustrated by Al Plastino) as temporary madness seems to grip the Man of Steel while he gathers artefacts for a proposed time-capsule. ‘Superman in the White House’ is a fanciful dream by Jimmy Olsen also drawn by Plastino whilst the closing Boring/Kaye bamboozler finds the hero investigating an outbreak of super-powers at a US military base in ‘The Super-Sergeant’…
That same month Binder & Plastino introduce both the greatest new villain and most expansive new character concept the series had seen in years with The Super-Duel in Space’ Action Comics #242) wherein an evil alien scientist named Brainiac tries to add Metropolis to his collection of miniaturised cities in bottles.
As well as a titanic tussle in its own right, this tale completely changed the mythology of the Man of Steel, by introducing Kandor, a city full of Kryptonians who had escaped the planet’s destruction when Brainiac abducted them. Although Superman rescues his fellow survivors, the villain escapes to strike again, and it would be years before the hero could restore the Kandorians to their true size.
Superman #123 (August 1958) featured ‘The Girl of Steel’ by Binder, Dick Sprang & Kaye which tested the potential of a distaff Supergirl as part of a 3-chapter yarn involving a magic wishing totem, which tragically segued into ‘The Lost Super-Powers’ before granting the hero’s greatest dream and facilitating ‘Superman’s Return to Krypton’.
Action #243 (Binder & Boring) sees Superman mysteriously transformed into a beast in ‘The Lady and the Lion’, after which Superman #124 provides the intriguing menace of ‘The Super-Sword’ by Coleman & Plastino, Binder & Kurt Schaffenberger’s delightful desert island drama wherein Lois Lane becomes ‘Mrs. Superman’ and Clark Kent’s investigation of construction industry corruption which compels him to become ‘The Steeplejack of Steel’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye).
Curt Swan pencilled Binder’s ‘Super-Merman of the Sea’ (inked by Kaye) in Action #244: a canny mystery wherein the Man of Steel abandons the surface world for an alien aquatic princess, before Boring & Kaye delineate Binder’s compelling thriller ‘The Shrinking Superman!’: featuring an insidious menace from the Bottle City of Kandor…
‘Lois Lane’s Super-Dream’ (Coleman & Schaffenberger) led in Superman #125 (October/November 1958) with another potentially offensive and certainly sexist parable wherein the plucky news-hen learns a salutary lesson about powers and responsibility, whilst ‘Clark Kent’s College Days’ (illustrated by Plastino) opened an occasional series of Untold Tales of Superman: revealing just how, when and why Superboy became the Man of Tomorrow, before Boring & Kaye conclude Coleman’s hat-trick with ‘Superman’s New Power’ as the hero gained new and incomprehensible abilities with catastrophic consequences…
Action #246 featured ‘Krypton on Earth!’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye) as a trip to tourist attraction “Krypton Island” reveals a crafty criminal scam, and #247 presented ‘Superman’s Lost Parents!’ (Binder & Plastino), wherein a criminal scheme to reveal the hero’s secret identity prompts an extreme face-saving solution. Superman #126 had Binder, Boring & Kaye reveal ‘Superman’s Hunt for Clark Kent’: a thrilling tale of amnesia and deduction whilst ‘The Spell of the Shandu Clock’ (Coleman, Boring & Kaye), provides spooky chills and clever ploys to outwit a malevolent mastermind and ‘The Two Faces of Superman’ (Coleman & Schaffenberger) again saw “conniving” Lois learn an – apparently – much-needed lesson in humility.
Action #248 (January 1959) was a rare contribution from Bill Finger, illustrated by Boring & Kaye wherein the Caped Kryptonian becomes ‘The Man No Prison Could Hold!’ to topple a war criminal tyrant, before Superman #127 opened with another Untold Tale of Superman, ‘When There Was No Clark Kent!’ (Coleman, Swan & Kaye) as an accident temporarily deprives the hero of his treasured alter ego, after which Coleman, Boring & Kaye expose ‘The Make-Believe Superman’ as a depressed dad tries to impress his son with a most preposterous fib. The issue closed with the debut of another hugely popular character in ‘Titano the Super-Ape!’. The chimpanzee who is transformed into a giant ape with Kryptonite vision was one of the most memorable “foes” of the period, courtesy of Binder, Boring & Kaye’s sublime treatment combining action, pathos and drama to superb effect.
‘The Kryptonite Man!’, by Binder & Plastino in Action #249, sees Lex Luthor deliberately irradiate himself with Green K to avoid capture, but his evil genius proves no match for our hero’s sharp wits, used with equal aplomb in ‘The Eye of Metropolis!’ (Finger & Boring) as a prominent TV journalist seeks to expose Superman’s secret identity in #250.
Finger scripted the entirety of #128 as ‘Superman versus the Futuremen’ (limned by Boring & Kaye) and ‘The Secret of the Futuremen’ finds the Metropolis Marvel framed for heinous crimes and hijacked to the impossible year of 2000AD, before outwitting his abductors and returning in time to encounter ‘The Sleeping Beauty from Krypton!’ – actually Lois in another hare-brained scheme to trap her beloved into marriage, and deliciously illustrated by the unmistakable and fiendishly whimsical Kurt Schaffenberger.
‘The Oldest Man in Metropolis!’ – Robert Bernstein & Plastino – reveals how an unfortunate lab accident ages Superman many decades overnight in Action#251, whilst Superman #129 (May 1959) reveals ‘The Ghost of Lois Lane’ (Coleman, Boring & Kaye) to be anything but before Binder & Plastino’s ‘Clark Kent, Fireman of Steel!’ depicts the reporter’s aggravating and hilarious “luck” as a temporary fire-fighter. Another major debut follows before introducing the bewitching mermaid Lori Lemaris in ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ – a moving Untold Tale of Superman (from Finger & Boring) which again refined the Man of Steel’s intriguing early life.
From the same month, Action Comics #252 would have been significant enough merely for introducing the threat of John Corben, a criminal whose crushed skeleton is replaced by a robot body and Kryptonite heart to become ‘The Menace of Metallo!’ (Bernstein & Plastino), but a new back-up strip also began in that issue which utterly revolutionised the Man of Tomorrow’s ongoing mythology.
‘The Supergirl from Krypton!’ introduced Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El in another captivating, groundbreaking yarn by Binder & Plastino. The Maid of Might would occupy the rear of Action and alternate covers for a decade and more to come, carving her own unique legend…
Issue #253 featured ‘The War Between Superman and Jimmy Olsen!’ by Alvin Schwartz, Swan & Kaye as an alien presence gives the boy reporter super-powers and a mania to conquer the world whilst Superman #130 presented ‘The Curse of Kryptonite!’ (Binder & Plastino), wherein the Action Ace relives his past experiences with the lethal mineral; ‘The Super-Servant of Crime!’ (Bernstein, Swan & John Sikela) which finds the hero turning the tables on a petty crook who thinks he’s fooled the Man of Tomorrow, and ‘The Town That Hated Superman!’ (Binder, Boring & Kaye) which happy hamlet has outlawed the hero. He simply has to know why…
‘The Battle with Bizarro!’(Action #254, by Binder & Plastino) re-introduces an imperfect duplicate super-being who had initially appeared in a well-received Superboy story (#68, from the previous year), courtesy of Luthor’s malfunctioning duplicator ray.
Even way back then high sales trumped death and so popular was the fatally-flawed character that the tale was continued over two issues, concluding with ‘The Bride of Bizarro!’ in #255 – an almost unheard-of luxury back then. Here that bombastic, traumatic conclusion is separated by the contents of Superman #131, which firstly reintroduces a long-vanished pestiferous annoyance with ‘The Menace of Mr. Mxyzptlk!’ by Coleman & Plastino, before Lois Lane is granted a tantalising glimpse of ‘Superman’s Future Wife’ (Bernstein & Schaffenberger) and ‘The Unknown Super-Deeds’ reveals hitherto hidden connections with the Daily Planet staff long before Superboy left Smallville in another Untold Tale… from Binder & Plastino.
Action #256 seemingly unleashes ‘The Superman of the Future’ (Binder, Swan & Kaye) whilst in Superman #132 (October 1959) Batman and the projections of a super-computer show what might have happened had Superman grown up on an unexploded Krypton in the 3-chapter epic ‘Superman’s Other Life’, ‘Futuro, Super-Hero of Krypton!’ and ‘The Superman of Two Worlds!’ by Binder, Boring & Kaye.
Action #257 reveals Clark Kent as ‘The Reporter of Steel!’ after he is hit by a ray from mad scientist Luthor in a cunning yarn by Binder, Boring & Kaye, before the contents of Superman #133 brings to a close this potent premier compendium with ‘The Super-Luck of Badge 77’ (Binder & Plastino) with the reporter trying his hand as a beat cop, before we can enjoy the first new tales by co-creator Jerry Siegel in nearly a decade: ‘How Perry White Hired Clark Kent’ (art by Plastino) and the wryly light-hearted ‘Superman Joins the Army!’ illustrated by Boring & Kaye.
Superman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and with the character seemingly undergoing almost constant radical overhaul nowadays, these timeless tales of charm and joy and wholesome wit are more necessary than ever: not just as a reminder of great memories past but also as an all-ages primer of wonders still to come…
© 1959-1963, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.