Golden Age Superman – the changing decade of the 40s

Thanks to Kitchen Sink Press and later IDW, we have the full run of Superman’s color Sunday newspaper strips from the decade of the 1940s, and about a third of the daily strips so far. Prior to a few years ago, I hadn’t paid much attention to the newspaper comics, being more interested in the actual comic books themselves. But that was a mistake, particularly since the newspaper strips contain not only the most expansive early version of Superman’s origin, but also end up going off in their own direction as a separate continuity to the comics.

The newspaper strips give us the earliest account of Jor-L (not Jor-El) and his attempts to persuade the government of Krypton that the planet is doomed. Neither the origin in Action Comics #1 or Superman #1 go into any detail about this. The newspaper strip also spends a day or two detailing the dangerous travel to Earth by baby Kal-L and his rocket. There’s an account of how Clark Kent obtains his job at the Daily Star that differs from the comic book version. And Lois is a redhead in the Sunday strips rather than having black hair as she does in the comics.

There is some early crossover with stories printed in both comics and newspapers, but the newspaper strips soon go off in their own direction. Getting back to the Sunday strips, one of the things that we’re now able to do is see how the approach to the character changed just over the course of the 1940s. Ten short years give us three distinct periods of Superman’s fictional life.

The early 40s – Here is where we see the social crusader and crime fighter that Siegel and Shuster originally created. When we think of “Golden Age Superman”, this is the version most people are familiar with: the guy who can’t fly at first and who isn’t completely invulnerable.

World War 2 – The newspaper strips delve into the war in a way that the comic books really didn’t. There’s a nearly two year long series of stories with the umbrella title “Superman’s Service to Servicemen” where he takes letters from troops serving in WW2 and answers their requests.

The late 40s – The storytelling really lightens up and there’s a mix of goofy plots along with a few more traditional crime and human interest stories, as well as a few returns to the servicemen plots. In the intro to the reprint volume, Mark Waid speculates that post-war America was ready to relax and laugh and leave the heavy drama behind for awhile. That approach is reflected in the newspaper storylines.

One of the benefits of the Sunday strips is that it doesn’t take long at all to get through ten years of comics and really see how the character changed and evolved in that first decade.

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