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Superman Chronicles Volume 4

01/10/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Superman Chronicles Volume Four in the USA - or Buy The Superman Chronicles Volume Four in the UK

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The Superman Chronicles Volume Four by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. pub: DC Comics. 192 page softcover. Price: $14.99 (US). $17.99 (CAN). ISBN: 0-978-1-4012-1658-0.

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Ah, Superman! The most obvious thing in reading these early 1940s stories from the ‘Action Comics’ and ‘Superman’ comicbooks is how much the Man Of Steel or the Man Of Tomorrow as he was frequently called was more a detective with heightened powers than picking on people in his power range. Actually, there wasn’t anyone in his power range. If anything, he was more comparable to Batman than I thought he would be as this is my first time reading the really early adventures. Creators Siegel and Shuster’s influence coming from the old matinee detective movies feels obvious and I suspect this influence later extended to the George Reeves starring ‘Superman’ serials as its showrunners had to be kids when these came out.

These tales also didn’t differentiate their speech balloons with dialogue and thoughts, the latter being added in brackets. I wonder if kids in that time period thought Superman was whispering behind his teeth and wondered why no one else there heard him?

More amazingly is how Lois Lane never puts together the absence of Clark Kent with the presence of Superman who just happens by all the time. Maybe all she ever saw was Clark’s timidity against Superman’s masculinity. An odd insight into how women were thought to behave at the time. Likewise, the number of times, Clark nerve pinches her and she misses events must make her wonder on her own bad luck.

‘The Strong Arm Assaults’ was the first story here to really impress me with a circus strongman the obvious candidate for theft. Hardly surprising as he didn’t change from his Big Top togs and just put a mask on with a neat twist at the end.

‘Terror Stalks San Caluma’ is the first indication towards moving Superman towards flying, even if he was only gliding down to the ground but when you consider he was moving aeroplanes around, he couldn’t just leap around. Watching this develop over successive stories, you can feel Sigel and Schuster thinking this would add a new dimension to their character. The same story has a crook spotting Superman changing identities but can’t place who the Man Of Steel actually is at first. Bullets bouncing off his chest did bring the connection but a fall stops that problem.

The end of ‘The Construction Scam’ is significant because it has Superman as Clark Kent, breaking his own skin so he can ensure Lois Lane gets a needed blood transfusion. An indication that his invulnerability was only skin deep. Medical knowledge must have been skimpy in those days cos the doctor involved doesn’t realise ‘O’ type blood is universal to humans and a particular Kryptonian but it does pep her up.

‘The Life Insurance Con’ shows Superman’s stance from an air perspective and is showing him less leaping to the rescue and more the accepted flight pose as he dives into action. Shame they never show the landing in such cases.

‘A Midsummer Snowstorm’ has a really cunning plan and the first time in ages that Superman has some real problems when a radiation bomb robs him of his powers temporarily. The fact that Zolar escapes at the end at least indicates a re-match from a cunning villain. Superman also demonstrates a ruthless streak in crashing the enemy aircraft with people on board.

‘The Exploding Citizens’ has something that wouldn’t have been out of place in the later ‘Twilight Zone’ where the citizens of Gay City (I should point out that ‘gay’ in those days meant happy) who became so fragile that even moving could break something. Trying to keep Lois out of trouble, Clark goes in as Superman and, although he’s immune, finds himself rescuing people before attacking the bad guys. With stories like this, it wouldn’t be hard to see it becoming possible later to move away from only having Superman as the fantasy element of the stories.

‘The Black Gang’ is significant for having Lois and Clark going undercover to investigate why a rival newspaper’s reporter gets to the crime scenes so quickly. For this Lois dyes her hair blonde and Clark dispenses with his glasses. She thinks him handsome but I suppose without his union suit doesn’t realise he’s Superman. There’s a lot more emphasis on his soft spot for Lois with a little jealousy in this story and seeing them both as lounge lizards changes the dynamics a little.

The final story, ‘In The Grip Of Morpheus’ is again of the ‘Twilight Zone’ vein where the village Clark drives Lois for her holiday has all its inhabitants asleep. This is no normal siesta but crooks getting hold of a scientist’s sleeping gas. They do try a death-ray gun on Superman but he’s above such problems.

Looking over this book as a whole, I was surprised how much the emphasis was on Clark Kent than Superman, let alone the emphasis on doing some detection. The three significant stories with the more fantastic elements makes fascinating reading considering how early these stories were and does make me wonder if Rod Serling was a fan. Although the early Superman bears little resemblance to the one of today, if you’re interested in seeing how he developed then you should be buying these books.

GF Willmetts

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