Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman (2018)

Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman: The Deluxe edition (2018): edited by Paul Levitz: Not Action Comics 1000 but a companion volume. With Action Comics the first mainstream American comic book to reach 1000 issues, DC released both a special anniversary issue and this thick volume of reprints, the latter containing one never-before-published story from the Shuster studio, and a new story by editor Paul Levitz and legendary artist Neal Adams.

Created by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Canadian ex-pat Joe Shuster (cousin of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster), Superman came to life in 1932 and was then met by complete indifference from the comic strip syndicates for the next 6 years. 

Finally, what would become DC Comics bought Superman from Siegel and Shuster for less than a thousand dollars in 1938. In Action Comics 1, cover-dated June 1938, Superman ignited the superhero genre. Everything with American superheroes springs from that moment, this creation of Siegel and Shuster.

Neal Adams (him again!) led the battle in the 1970's to get more compensation for Siegel and Shuster beyond that initially paltry sum. Time Warner, DC's corporate overlord, caved to a certain extent, granting the Cleveland duo a pension. More lawsuits and settlements would follow over the years.

Here we are, 80 years later. Action Comics has reached 1000 issues, though recently it wasn't always numbered that way as DC restarted the numbering in 2012 for reasons I won't bother explaining before returning to the original numbering (folding the new numbering in as well). Detective Comics should have gotten here first, but Action Comics was a weekly for a year back in the 1980's. Thanks, Action Comics Weekly!

Paul Levitz has assembled 300+ pages of stories, essays, and covers. It's solid work -- and I don't think this type of anniversary volume is easy to assemble, as Levitz had to serve history as well as artistic achievement. Thus, this isn't The Best of Superman.

For one thing, Levitz was charged with presenting the other recurring DC heroes who first appeared in the pages of Action Comics (Vigilante, Zatara the Magician, Supergirl, Human Target). For another, the book emphasizes Firsts and Anniversaries along with major stories. That still leaves lots of material.

So pretty much all the great writers and artists are here, though some are by necessity omitted. The raw power of the first two Superman adventures by Siegel and Shuster still compels, to the extent that one wishes Superman would return to his left-wing, agit-prop roots, when stopping a domestic abuser and saving a wrongly convicted woman from the electric chair were more common moments for the Man of Steel than punching it out with some angry-ass super-villain or another.

Oddly, the book doesn't present any of the two-page Superman stories from Action Comics Weekly, I assume because they presented a serialized story in emulation of the Sunday full-page comic strips.

In any case, there's a lot here to delight both a Superman aficionado and a casual reader. The reproduction of the art is generally good, not always easy when the originals don't exist (the muddiest looking reprint comes from 1978, which is a shame because the story is a humdinger of a 40th anniversary issue). A Joe Kelly-penned, many-artist-illustrated anniversary story from the oughts is excellent. A never-before-printed story from the Shuster Studio is a rare find, as is Marv Wolfman's tale of how he rescued it from the garbage. Paul Levitz pens an original story to end the volume, illustrated by comic-book-art Titan Neal Adams.

The essays are fine, too -- none match Ray Bradbury's text piece from Superman 400, but that's a pretty high standard to meet. So all in all, a satisfying volume that I'd be happy to read at twice the length. Long may the Reign of the Superman continue! Highly recommended.

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