We’ve spent so much time with Superman this week that I couldn’t resist a look into a book I picked up at the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, Superheroes in Gotham. It is Superman: The War Years 1938-1945, edited by comics historian Roy Thomas. It is, in short, terrific.
This deluxe, coffee table book has design style to spare, and one has to get past how wonderful looking it is before making any effort to read it. It may be crammed with kid’s stuff, but it’s glorious kid’s stuff, and can by savored by all and sundry without any shame.
The War Years collects about 20 comics, mostly culled from Action Comics and Superman, along with covers, comic strips and even some ads. All of this is divided into four sections, each with an introductory essay by Thomas, putting the tales in their historical context.
The comics themselves are great fun. The art would be considered crude by today’s standards, but it had an energy and brio that is sadly missing from today’s product. Some of the stories are drawn by Superman co-creator Joe Schuster, and this steely-eyed, square-jawed avenger is quite a change from the softer, more sensitive Superman of today. Other artists included in this collection are Ed Dobrotka, Fred Ray and Wayne Boring, each of whom brings something unique to the table.
The real challenge for Superman’s writers during the 1940s is how to position a near god-like figure who can do no wrong in the context of a world conflict, without having him in some way resolve it. Included here is the classic strip where Clark Kent fails his enlistment eye-test, thanks to his reading the chart in the next room. In other stories, the Man of Steel explicitly states that he did not join the world war because America’s soldiers could do the job without him, and he was better utilized fighting saboteurs and scientifically-created monsters at home. This, of course, is simply another example of how America at the time prized the concept of the Everyman, the average American Joe who was equal to most any occasion. This figure – so central to the American psyche of the time – has been lost, thanks largely to Identity Politics, Political Correctness, and other cancerous notions born of the 1960s. In the 1940s, Superman was a projection of our best selves, in 2016, he is a tragic reminder of what we once were.
The Superman found in these pages – so soon after his creation – is part social reformer (Kent is a militant FDR Democrat), and part super-soldier. He pulls no punches, and the stories are stronger for that. Also fascinating is Lois Lane. While Feminism would like to claim that images of strong women did not exist before the likes of Gloria Steinem, Lane was a strong-minded career woman who was Superman’s equal in nearly every department. Talented, smart, fearless and adventuresome, Lane is another reminder of perhaps how we had it right before the social upheavals of the 1960s.
While the comics and others materials are themselves quite wonderful, the other great delight of this book (other than its champion design) is the commentary by Thomas. Informative, casual, and complicit with the reader, he pulls off a wonderful balancing act of great insight and lack of pretention. The whole book is a fun read, and Thomas is an important part of the experience.