Tag Archives: silver age

Superman 1.27: House of Wax

It was bound to happen; it’s how these tall tales work. When you’re telling stories about the strongest man in the world, there’s a natural narrative pressure to make him even bigger and stronger and more unbeatable, over time.

Paul Bunyan, the mighty fabled lumberjack of the Northwoods, started out as seven feet tall, able to chop down tree after tree without stopping for rest. As the legend grew, Paul soared to forty feet tall. In the later tales, Paul could fell a tree just by shouting at it, and his bootprints created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.

The same thing happened to Superman. In 1938, he could pick up an automobile; in 1940, he demolished a house with a single blow of his fist; in 1943, he hit a baseball so hard that it circled the globe; and by 1949, he could crash a couple of moons together to make a sun for a distant planet that didn’t already have one.

So when it’s time for him to relax, he can’t sit around and watch TV. He needs to do something spectacular, and if that means creating a creepy private exploding wax museum, then the rest of us are going to have to come along for the ride.

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Superman 1.16: Passing Motorists

Sure, Superman was popular in 1938, but a lot of things were popular back then, like Mickey Rooney and Betty Boop and the Spanish Civil War. Being popular in the late 1930s does not guarantee that your story will still be told in the 2020s. Pop culture is a competitive environment, and for any popular idea, there are a dozen copycats trying to get their own share of the audience’s attention and affection.

It’s a process of natural selection, and the characters and stories that survive for decades in the popular imagination are the strongest and most adaptable. Sherlock Holmes, the Wizard of Oz, Mickey Mouse, Dracula and Superman — all of the long-lasting pop culture icons have overcome dozens of challengers, continually finding a niche in the changing cultural landscape that keeps them alive for another generation.

One thing that these pop culture champions have in common is that they managed to jump out of their original medium, and often out of the reach of their original creator, inspiring plays and parodies and sequels and pastiches and comic strips and films that strengthened the concept by passing on the story-productive details, and removing the parts that didn’t work as well.

Superman is the perfect example: a story that started in comic books, but very quickly expanded into a comic strip and a radio show, then a cartoon, a movie serial and a TV series. Each version of the story is an opportunity to tweak and expand, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Over time, Superman ended up with a core set of characters and ideas that are practically bulletproof. The concept “Superman and Lois” was there in the first issue of Action Comics in 1938, and it worked so well that 83 years later, there’s a TV show called Superman & Lois.

The concept “Ma and Pa Kent”, on the other hand, took a while to find its place in the cultural conception of Superman. The details that worked, like running a farm, stick around forever. But sometimes a concept’s evolution takes a weird turn, and you end up drugging a crowd of elderly people at a lemonade party. Here, I’ll show you what I mean.

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Superman 1.15: Journey Across the Gulf of Space!

Well, if little Kal-El thought he could stretch out and relax during the journey from there to here, then he was mistaken; his dad has prepared a three-year-long audiobook for him to listen to on the trip. We see the boy traveling through clouds of space plankton in his star bubble, and above the sound of a passing scherzo, we hear extracts from Jor-Audible.

The first fragment that we hear is “… which Einstein called his theory of relativity.” I don’t know if that’s chapter one or not; I would hope they’d ease the kid in a bit before jumping straight to Einstein. This is a weird belief that science-fiction writers have, that you can learn things more efficiently if you’re being brainwashed by a computer, because education is basically a data download, and actual engagement with the material just gets in the way.

So I want to take a look at what kind of schooling is going on here, and try, for at least a couple minutes, not to talk about Beppo.

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Superman 1.8: See You Later

And in the other corner: General Zod and his Kryptonian dance crew, appearing temporarily in their standing-room-only farewell stadium show.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that there were mistakes on both sides. Yes, Non is a mindless aberration whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction. True, the woman Ursa’s perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton. Admittedly, General Zod — once trusted by this council, charged with maintaining the defense of the planet Krypton itself — was chief architect of this intended revolution and author of this insidious plot to establish a new order amongst us, with himself as absolute ruler.

I think the important thing is that we come together as a bipartisan coalition, put the past behind us, and start working on the issues that really matter to the average Kryptonian.

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