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Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Silver Age comic books are, by their nature, different from modern comics. It’s more than just evolving social norms, or even shifting artistic sensibilities. There’s a massive world of difference between a fairly average comic written in the mid-sixties and a similarly average comic produced today. While I’d be reluctant to describe the comics contained in Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives, Vol. 1 as “great” or “brilliant”, they have a certain charm or novelty to them. They feel alien and unique, as if offering a raw and unrefined sample of a mood that Superman has been chasing for the past two or three decades.

While I don’t think Batman was as well-served by the sixties as he was by later decades, there’s a surreal innocence to these comics which speak to Superman as a character. These are the comics that probably inspired Richard Donner’s Superman film, and though artists like Al Plastino, Curt Swan or Dick Sprang might not have drawn a Superman who resembled Christopher Reeve, it’s very easy to imagine him fitting in among these stories quite easily.

The Silver standard?

The Silver standard?

Although you wouldn’t think it to look at these cheerful and surreal stories, the Silver Age was built on compromise. Following allegations and insinuations about how comics were corrupting the minds of our youth, the comic book industry found itself facing the spectre of regulation or even extinction. To avoid this, the industry imposed harsh restrictions on itself. Strict morality was enforced, violence was minimised, subversive morals were brushed aside; crime never paid and heroes were unimpeachable.

It’s very hard to write a comic book story without the freedom to ratchet up tension or to play with the sort of big ideas that the 1954 Comics Code was designed to marginalise. While I can appreciate the storytelling aesthetic of the era, it is pure romantic nostalgia to suggest that these restrictions prompted better stories. By and large, I suggest that there was as much garbage published at the height of the Silver Age as there is today, with just as many classics rising to the top.

It's like he's barely there!

It’s like he’s barely there!

However, the narrative restrictions did – at least – make the writers more creative. In the late fifties, as the Cold War gathered momentum and change was visible on the horizon, comic books got a new blast of energy. At Marvel, Stan Lee would start injecting real-world dilemmas into comics like The Amazing Spider-Man. At the same time, high concept science heroes became the order of the day at DC comics, with Green Lantern reimagined from a rich old guy with a magic ring to a pilot-turned-space-cop and the Flash reworked from a dude wearing Hermes’ helmet to the forensic scientist who took a chemical bath.

While characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had survived the end of the Golden Age, they also underwent changes and evolutions. Personally, I think Superman get the best deal, proving the hero most adaptable to the “gee-whiz” science and bright colours of the late fifties and early sixties. Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives collects the Superman and Action Comics stories published in 1958, officially welcoming the hero to a new world.

They're like... super-friends...

They’re like… super-friends…

There have been many different iterations of Superman, just as there have been many different iterations of Batman. (It’s fitting that a so-Silver-Age-he-could-be-played-by-Adam-West Batman turns up in the first story to welcome Superman to the Silver Age.) Batman thrives on reinvention and redesign, with people instantly able to recognise various incarnations of the character. Superman has gone through the same spectrum of changes.

The difference is that Superman hasn’t always handled the change as well as DC’s other flagship character. While I have a certain fondness for the “champion of the working man” introduced in the very early Action Comics, Superman is a character who can be very tough to write. Look at how divided audiences (and critics) are over Man of Steel, with impassioned debates about what this latest reinvention represents. Other periods in his history are similarly divisive, from John Byrne’s Man of Steel reboot through to the numerous origin stories and even Grant Morrison’s Action Comics.

Some of the changes have been quite jarring...

Some of the changes have been quite jarring…

Everybody has their own favourite version of Superman, and I’ll confess that I have a great deal of affection for this version of the character. I suspect that a lot of regular people do as well. The Superman glimpsed in the pages of the Man of Tomorrow archives seems like a close relation of Christopher Reeve’s iconic take on the hero. The stories here don’t feature the “rohypnol kiss” from Superman II, but he does have super-breath, “super-memory” and the ability to “decipher” a “strange language at super-speed.”

Silver Age Superman was invulnerable. He might as well have been immortal, unless you had Kryptonite. (Which, it seems absolutely everybody did – but it’s okay, they only used it for convoluted schemes.) We didn’t see him turn back time, but this is a character who wasn’t too freaked out by the idea of his dead parents visiting him from the past. He could hold up bridges with one hand, much like Christopher Reeve could let trains ride over him without breaking a sweat.

Wherever I lay my giant key...

Wherever I lay my giant key…

Far from trying to downplay his strength, as most modern adaptations do, these classic comics bask in it. When Superman seems to be falling under the influence of a strange power, Lois tells him to shake it off. “Nonsense, Superman! Everyone knows you’re invulnerable to all the things that affect other people!” When Superman endures a surprising defeat, the new announcers are shocked. “Folks, this is incredible! For the first time in his career, Superman has been wounded like an ordinary mortal!” Of course, it turns out that Superman’s only faking it.

This is a version of Superman who can routinely cruise around the solar system, plum the depths of the ocean and still find time to help orphans. (It seems like every time the writers need to interrupt Superman doing stuff, he’s helping orphans. Insert cheap gag about hanging out with Batman here.) It’s strange to see these old comics embracing the character’s invulnerability so completely and assuredly, without a hint of second-guessing or concerns about making him “relatable.”

Matching outfits!

Matching outfits!

However, that’s part of the appeal. I imagine it is very tough to write comics about a character who is so completely impervious to harm. It’s tough to put Superman in danger, and the writers very rarely make a serious attempt. (Unfortunately, when they do, it’s always Kryptonite. The damn thing is always failing from the sky.) You can’t tell conventional superhero stories with an invulnerable protagonist, because there’s no real fear of defeat. Nobody reading it believes he’ll be in pain, let alone danger of death.

Having to turn out monthly comics about a guy who can’t be hurt, the creators seem to have latched on to just about any crazy idea they could find to sustain the comic. There is no such thing as “too daft.” Superman and Batman play hilarious pranks on one another, because that’s what they do! Superman decides he’s had it being a cool hero and pretends to be Silver Age Aquaman for a while! Superman is transformed into a lion before Lois invites him to a performance of Beauty and the Beast! Superman dresses up as Alfred E. Neuman, because why the hell not?

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

These aren’t great ideas. Most of them aren’t even good ideas. However, the creative team commit to them with enough enthusiasm that it’s hard to be too critical. There’s a sense of fun about these stories which carries them across most of the logical problems – after all, it’s a small logical leap from “man who can fly, shoot laser beams and withstand nuclear explosions” to “same man turns into lion.”

So there’s not a lot of weight to these stories, but that’s fine. There’s something so absurd about these tales, but there’s also a strange ingenuity about the way these storytellers have write around not only the limitations of the comics code, but also the fact that there’s really nothing Superman can’t accomplish. Sometimes (often) this is silly. Superman does strange things for reasons that seldom make more sense than “because he can.”

History repeats...

History repeats…

The storytelling devices are a little hackneyed, with the stories frequently falling back on absurd last-minute reveals which make Superman look like a manipulative sociopath who enjoys the challenge of accomplishing his goals in the most contrived and amoral manner possible.

In The Super-Sergeant, an army officer is granted Superman’s powers for some reason that has to do with “science!” I love how blasé Superman is about it. “I suspected this might happen to Private Jones due to that freak accident yesterday,” he muses, as if this is a semi-regular occurrence, “when I was testing a new device for scientists…” There’s something very charming about the idea that Superman has time to save the world, amuse orphans and help crazy scientists try out their funky stuff. The world truly was a simpler place in 1958.

Little green men...

Little green men…

Anyway, Jimmy Olsen is carrying around a hunk of Kryptonite for some reason (you know, just in case Superman needs his pal to put him down – talk about your cynical subtext), and is ready to incapacitate the  officer when Superman casts the lead box. “But I have a good reason for letting Jones continue to use his super-powers which I can’t explain now!” Of course he can’t. There are similar twists in lots of other stories, as the writers have to worm their way out of picking a suitably dramatic cover.

And there’s always Kryptonite. The compound (or isotope, I suppose?) is established as the one thing that can hurt Superman, so it keeps turning up as a shorthand for “we need something bad to happen to Superman.” Kryptonite turns Superman into a lion in The Lady and the Lion and conveniently strands him on an island in Ms. Superman. It’s so well-worn a trope that even the characters in the story seem to recognise it.

More power to her...

More power to her…

When Superman disappears underwater in The Super Merman of the Sea, a passing ship’s captain speculates, “Hmm… perhaps Kryptonite dust tainted Earth’s atmosphere, forcing Superman to remain underwater!” Jimmy Olsen is shocked when it turns out there isn’t Kryptonite in the atmosphere. “But that’s the only thing that could keep Superman exiled undersea!” Even Superman himself complains about the device in Superman’s Hunt for Clark Kent, moaning, “Criminals are always after me with Kryptonite, the element whose radiations are deadly to me!”

There are also some strange “dream” stories, as if the writers need an excuse to write crazy stuff. I like the idea of these alternate Superman stories, even if I never liked the idea of anchoring them to a specific Earth or a character’s dream. They are different expressions of the same concept, and are interesting on those terms without a need to contextualise. In a comic that Grant Morrison would borrow heavily from, Jimmy dreams that Superman ends up President of the United States. Assigned a fluff piece by Perry White, Jimmy suggests, “Why not write about a future great President… Superman!”

Superman smash!

Superman smash!

Wacky hijinx ensue, even if we don’t get to see President Superman dealing with the Cold War. Still, there has to be something to recommend a story where “President Superman wipes out debt, balances budget” with gold from “an old sunken pirate ship.” Obama could learn something from that, a plot twist so absurd that even the staff gently mock it in the next dream story, with a superpowered Lois explaining how comics work to a superpowered Clark. “If you need money, all you have to do is dive under the ocean and recover some sunken treasure!”

(Though Clark puts a bit of a dampener on things when he points out the birth clause. Damn you, Trump!)

Even discounting plot devices like that, these aren’t necessarily great stories. The teams never quite manage the consistently off-the-wall insanity of Bob Haney’s beautiful run on The Brave & The Bold, which remains one of my favourite Batman comics ever. But there’s something charming about the little touches. Superman’s friendly wink at the reader in the last panel. His underwater fortress of solitude in The Super Merman of the Sea, complete with warning: “Submarines and divers keep out.”

A little piece of home...

A little piece of home…

And yet, despite that, there’s enough fun to keep it interesting. In one story, Superman just accepts that his parents have travelled forward in time to see him do his stuff. In Superman’s Hunt for Clark Kent, he actually exploits his ability to travel faster than light to help him solve a mystery. “By flying at super-speed, I could overtake light rays that left the Earth long ago and even see Columbus discovering America!” It’s hardly practical, but it’s a nice idea.

This is a Superman with no self-doubt and unlimited power, but without any cynicism. He helps the planet. Though we’re told he fights crime, most of his encounters with gangsters seem to occur between the stories (they’re always out for revenge for his stopping them). There’s a suggestion that common crime is just passé to Superman, and that the real adventure is what he does between. You can see how these stories would have inspired Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.

That's a secret he can let off his chest...

That’s a secret he can let off his chest…

(Indeed, there’s some rather direct foreshadowing in The Shrinking Superman, when the villainous Kryptonian Zak-Kul steals Superman’s persona. He doesn’t use Superman’s identity or powers to conquer the world or commit crime. He keeps catching criminals and helping out. It fits quite nicely with Morrison’s idea that you can’t have these powers and not help. That said, Zak-Kul does try to kill Lois at the end of the story, so perhaps it doesn’t fit perfectly.)

Superman’s mythology evolved over time and across media. His history is a tapestry sewn together from comics, radio serials and television shows. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that even as late as 1958, the creators were still introducing new story elements that would go on to become iconic and essential ingredients of the Superman mythos. By this point in his history, Batman really had most of his ensemble sorted – only Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane were really waiting to emerge as high-profile bad guys.

A rocky road...

A rocky road…

It feels weird that Brainiac makes his first appearance here. (It’s also weird to think that Brainiac the character may have inspired the slang word “brainiac”, proving how popular these comics were.) Of course, like the early version of Lex Luthor, he doesn’t really resemble too many of his later incarnations. He’s green, and he likes to shrink cities for some reason. “I will take a dozen cities-in-the-bottle back to repopulate my home world, where a plague wiped out my people!” he boasts, but that doesn’t explain what he plans to do with human people. Surely he’s just colonising his own home planet.

That said, the Brainiac introduced in The Super-Duel in Space is a fairly generic bad guy. As much as a green alien who shrinks cities and talks to his monkey sidekick can be deemed generic. There’s none of the resonance of later additions and modifications to the character – he’s little more than “an enemy from some alien planet!” He does have a nice gimmick, though. “See, Kok? The hyper-forces I released reduced the entire city to miniature size and transported it inside this bottle!”

Keeping it all under lock and key...

Keeping it all under lock and key…

The gimmick allows for the introduction of the Bottled City of Kandor, another great Superman image. It’s just such a wacky science-fiction concept, and it’s handled so unashamedly. That said, it’s weird that Kandor is so casually brushed aside, rather than explored. Superman doesn’t seem too bothered to find a piece of home, even when he meets Kimda, who happens to have a contrived personal history. “Jor-El? Why, he was my roommate in college!” (Then again, given the Silver Age’s emphasis on wacky science, it makes sense to push Krypton back to the fore in the Superman mythology.)

Although not the first female analogue for Superman (Lois Lane was “Superwoman” as early as 1943), this collection also includes the début of Supergirl. (In Lois Lane’s Super-Dream, Lois also gets to play as “Power Girl.”) Supergirl would prove so popular that the character would be properly introduced the following year. It’s interesting that Supergirl is wished into being by Jimmy Olsen. In The Girl of Steel, Olsen wishes, “I wish that a super-girl with super-powers equal to Superman’s would appear and become his companion.”

You gotta have super-hobbies...

You gotta have super-hobbies…

There’s something a little weird about that. (And it’s not just that the wishing device comes with handy reversal instructions, advising, “to cancel wish made, rub the magic jewel again.”) It seems to acknowledge some sort of creeping teenage sexuality, as if Jimmy realises that Superman should probably be interested in girls, but isn’t quite sure why. Then again, given Jimmy lugs around a box full of a chemical that could kill his best friend, it’s hardly too surprising.

That said, there is a lot of the creepy toxic Silver Age romance here. DC’s comic book romances from their early comics tend to have some unfortunate subtext, with couples seeming more likely to plot to murder one another in their sleep than to fall deeply in love. It’s mainly because the writers never figured out a half-decent excuse for why Clark and Lois shouldn’t hook up, beyond the fact that it removes a major dramatic obstacle that is fun to write, so they wind up making the characters incredibly passive aggressive to one another.

The life aquatic...

The life aquatic…

At one point, Superman tries to throw Lois off his scent by proposing. She declines, and he’s happy about it. “I figured she’d reject Clark! But what if she had accepted? Whew!” Given that he’s supposed to be in love with her, he seems like a jerk. In Ms. Superman, he confesses that he’s Clark Kent and prepares to marry her, only to change is mind when it turns out they aren’t stranded together. This leads to a convoluted set of circumstances, prompting Clark to concoct an excuse, summarised by Lois, “Superman arranged this whole hoax from start to finish, hoping I would marry you, eh? But you were too honest to win me under false pretences!”

Although this simmering passive-aggressive and untrusting nonsense continues throughout the collection, it reaches a crescendo with The Two-Faces of Superman. Lois acts horribly to get out a blind date. “Chet never saw me before, and he’ll never want to see me again!” she vows. Superman is disgusted at how shabbily she treats her date. “She must have dressed like that to get out of a blind date in time to see me later! That’s a miserable trick, and I’m going to teach her a lesson!” So, being a man in the fifties, he sets out to teach his woman what’s what.

Little wonder...

Little wonder…

Anyway, he pretends to be hideous to teach Lois a lesson in humility or something. Anyway, he asks Lois to marry him – because he suspects she’ll be unable to marry somebody with his ugly fake face. She says yes – not because his appearance doesn’t matter, but because she thinks he’s faking. It’s worth pausing and asking if it sounds like these two could ever make one another happy. Anyway, this puts Superman in a bind. “I asked her — and I’ll have to go through with it, since I never break my word — but — I must think!”

He could talk to her about it like a grown man. They could articulate their feelings and reason it out. As you may have guessed, that is not what he does. “I’ll just use the heat of my X-ray vision to melt the steel of both car doors so that they’re welded to the rest of the frame!” He traps her in a car during her wedding. However, that’s not the real jerkish passive-aggressive part. He arrives later to rub salt in the wound. “I guess you weren’t sure after all, Lois! It’s past twelve, so we’ll have to call the wedding off!” Why does she want to marry this guy?

Superman's new hideout is a bit of a dive...

Superman’s new hideout is a bit of a dive…

I suppose you could make a case that the relationship in Superman Returns is a spiritual successor to this awkward passive-aggressive caring, except Superman got Lois pregnant before dicking around with her feelings. Interestingly, there’s a story here which seems to foreshadow Superman Returns, with Krypton-on-Earth featuring a Kryptonian island on Earth and a dodgy scam from a man who claims to be visionary. “Homes for sale cheap!” a sign boast, foreshadowing the real-estate villainy of Singer’s film.

Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives, Vol. 1 might not be the absolute best collection of Superman comics ever written. The plots are illogical nonsense and absurdity, wrapped around each other. However, they are also unashamedly fun, and a vital part of the character’s success and appeal. The impact of these strips is still felt today.


7 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on TheSlashDash.

  2. Glad to hear you don’t mindlessly drool over the Silver Age. I’m really surprised people love as much as they do. But I’d like to make a factual correction. DC (along with Archie comics) was a company backing the Comics Authority Code, because horror comics were taking too much marketability away from them. They weren’t concerned about the censoring of the stories because they assumed kids would buy them anyways. I rather do like Silver Age Superman. Particularly when written by Otto Binder. He, fat more than Siegel and Shuster, crafted a lot of the Superman mythos, and added a lot of science fiction elements to the originally generic character. The 50s did serve Superman very well alongside the new characters introduced in the decade.

    • Thanks for the clarification!

      • On a side note, I personally think the greatest version of Brainiac appeared in the DCAU. I don’t think you’ve discussed the character for an extended amount of time.

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