Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

They used to say that manga was so successful in the US because they only brought over and translated the best of it. That’s not so much the case any more, which increasing demand leading to mediocre work making the jump. I’m wondering if this is the book that similarly demonstrates the dam breaking open for Golden Age reprints.

Supermen! cover
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Until recently, what was available was either historically significant, at least to fans of the genre — the early appearances of Superman or Batman, for example — or ridiculously goofy, like I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! Supermen! changes that by reprinting a random sampling of interchangeable superhero stories from the early days of comics. (All from the public domain, too.)

They’re crude, rough action tales, with a surprising number of images of people standing around. I found them numbing in their primitiveness. The included house ads from the period were most interesting to me, just because of their direct sales approach.

Companies represented include the barely remembered, like Novelty Press or Columbia Comic Corporation, as well as Fiction House, Fox, and MLJ. The artists were selected for name recognition: Bill Everett, Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Fletcher Hanks, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and the like.

We live in an era where almost everything from the past is becoming available. Seeing the history for oneself can be enlightening — just because something’s old, doesn’t mean it’s any good. There are endnotes on the stories, but anyone interested in this period is likely already familiar with the history they cover.

In this interview, editor Greg Sadowski talks about how the artists “were really inventing a new art form, and to me that’s the exciting thing. The heroes themselves are a lot of fun to wrap a book around, but in the end they’re kind of incidental and I feel ill at ease trying to pontificate on them.” It can be exciting to see the roots of a genre, but it can also be frustrating when you’re familiar with much more mature work. Just because something may be historically significant (although I think it’s stretching to make that claim for these stories) doesn’t make it a good read.

See a sample story and a slideshow at the publisher’s website. (This review was based on a preview PDF provided by the publisher.)

7 Responses to “Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Feb. 24, 2009: Love is in the air Says:

    […] [Review] Supermen! Link: Johanna Draper Carlson […]

  2. The Fortress Keeper Says:

    I haven’t seen the book and don’t know which stories were chosen and, yes, there’s a lot of Golden Age stuff that’s mind-bendingly bad.

    I root through a lot of it myself.

    But, that said, the primitive aspect of Golden Age stories often provide a jolt that is akin to listening to the New York Dolls for the first time.

    (Or … if you want to find a more time-appropriate comparison, old 78 recordings of bluesman Skip James)

    The work may not be mature, but maturity doesn’t always equal fun and more often than not is simply self-important.

    So, to sum up, I hope you’re criticizing the book more for what may be a poor selection of stories than simply its primitive aspect because, to turn your sentence around, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s bad either.

  3. Johanna Says:

    True enough. I might have appreciated that aspect of the work more with more guidance. Just reprinting the works leaves a lot to opinion — more context and elaboration would have been welcome to me.

    I’m thinking of, for comparison, the work of Kirby, which often takes readers some time and assistance to appreciate.

    I feel like I can’t really comment in depth on the reasons behind the selection of stories because I don’t have a good grasp of why particular pieces were picked.

  4. Jim Perreault Says:

    Long, I started being very choosy about what Golden Age stories I read for precisely that reason. Most of the obscure stuff was forgotten for good reason, they were very, very bad. A lot of it is very derivative of other works, from comic books, comic strips, movies, or radio.

    If I put some effort into it, I can enjoy them in small doses. But it order to do so, I really have to get into the mindset of an 8 year old boy.


  5. kenny Says:

    weren’t superhero comics relatively new back in the 30s and 40s so judging them by the same standards as today would be wrong.

  6. Johanna Says:

    I’m afraid that I, and many of my readers, weren’t alive back then, so we don’t have any other points of reference than today.

  7. Jim Perreault Says:

    Even judging them by very loose standards, I find to enjoy most Golden Age comics. I do find the better ones entertaining, and those are the ones that have stood the test of time.

    Of course, I would say the same for today’s comics.





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