Friday, August 04, 2006

Superman

Legend has it that this was the first comic book I had - a reprint of Action Comics#1, the comic which introduced Superman and began all other superheroes. My mind was scarred forever, my destiny sealed. Even today I have a hard time believing it!

The volume is one of those old treasury sized editions typical of the '70s, more or less double the size of a regular comic book, which means that on my tiny four or five year old hands it must have felt huge, like a heavyweight - the size, the scope and on top of that, the content - an anthology of old comic strips including Superman's debut! Jerry Siegel's imagination and Joe Shuster's art looked amazing to me -- they still do as a matter of fact! There's an honesty, a charm in their work, an almost warts and all approach, that I find quite uncommon nowadays in mainstream american comics, ugly as some of them can be. As Jules Feiffer put it in his The Great Comic Book Heroes, "Shuster represented the best of old-style comic-book drawing. His work was direct, unprettied - crude and vigorous; as easy to read as a diagram. No creamy lines, no glossy illustrative effects, no touch of that bloodless prefabrication that passes for professionalism these days. Slickness, thank God, was beyond his means. He could not draw well, but he drew single-mindedly - no one could ghost that style. It was the man. (...) But, oh, those early drawings! Superman running up the sides of dams, leaping over anything that stood in his way (No one drew skyscrappers like Shuster. Impressionistic shafts. Superman poised over them, his leaping leg tucked under his ass, his landing leg taunty pointed earthward), cleaning and jerking two-ton get-away cars and pounding them into the sides of cliffs - and all this done lightly, unportentiously, still with that early (...) exhuberance."

Now, this Superman who shows up for the first time ever in the first tale of Action Comics #1 is significantly different from the one most people are used to all over the world nowadays. Sure, you have all the basic ingredients there - the clark kent/superman dual identity, the lois lane romantic interest, the alien origin, the superhuman abilities, the mild mannered reporter - but this isn't your friendly neighborhood Superman. He's more like a social-reformist bully, whose motto could very well be "might makes right". His costume is darker and his features rougher; he's concerned with real world threats and injustices like murderers, corrupt politicians, belligerent armies, spousal abusers and exploitive employers, not imaginary problems like alien invaders, giant robots or bald scientists (as he'd soon be); astounding as they appear, his abilities are far more within the grasp of the believable, not yet the physics defying powers he'd come to be known for - he's a superMAN, not the childish SUPERman with his superboys, supercousins, superpets and superfriends.

Time and the marketing machine would tame him down and power him up for a wider, more commercial appeal, ending up with what we have today. Yet, to me, this guy, as he originally appeared, would always remain the real deal. Ironically enough, Chris Ware's superman character in Jimmy Corrigan is far closer to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's creation than what passes for him in DC's own regular publications these days! Forget modern comics, forget the new film; you want to meet the real Superman, pick this.

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