DC has long been overshadowed by Marvel when it comes to the nostalgia game. While both companies have a long history of publishing trade paperbacks, it’s only in recent years that the market for collected editions has exploded. Marvel capitalized on this explosion best, releasing seemingly every comic they’ve published in the last five years bound and reprinted for the lucrative mainstream bookstore market. DC is no slouch, of course, but has been slightly more conservative. While many popular story arcs are widely available, particularly from Vertigo, the rich history of the company has been left virtually wide open.
Marvel began releasing the Essential books in the mid-‘90s, reprinting huge chunks of continuity black and white, phone book-style portions. They were affordable and fun, allowing readers a chance to see not just milestone issues like Amazing Fantasy #15 or Fantastic Four #1, but later issues that were simply part of a series’ run. For those who want these issues in color there are the pricey hardcover Marvel Masterworks.
Like the Masterworks, DC’s Archive Editions reproduce classics from days gone by, but at a premium price. Last year, there was a shift in the nostalgia market when DC quietly released a slim volume of Batman’s earliest adventures, in color and chronological order, offering readers an affordable chance to see the Dark Knight’s initial run. Then came Showcase Presents.
DC’s answer to the Marvel’s Essential series finally offers readers the chance to explore the storied, strange and sometimes plain corny history of their favorite heroes. The first wave—Superman, Green Lantern, Justice League and Jonah Hex—offered DC classics at bargain basement prices, and future volumes promise more of the same, featuring titles like House of Mystery, Elongated Man and Green Arrow.
At over 500 pages, Showcase Presents Superman feels like a comprehensive history book. These stories from the Silver Age of comics are essential to understanding Superman, his appeal and his problems. This is the canon, and every cliché and stereotype of the Man of Steel is presented here—Lois Lane, Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, the constant danger of discovery of Supes’ secret identity.
These stories—now approaching half a century old—are reprinted in crisp detail, capturing the simplicity and fun of the original artwork. Artists Curt Swan, Wayne Boring and Al Plastino render Superman as the classic big blue boyscout, from his “aw, shucks” facial expressions to the famous cowlick.
Reading these stories, one begins to realize they’re much like folk songs—each writer lends his own distinctive voice and style, adding his own details and quirks depending on the stories’ needs. There are extrapolations and variations, but they’re basically the same. Because of this, few stories actually stand out from the others. There are only so many times Lois can almost discover Superman’s secret identity before the gag becomes slightly unbearable.
To enjoy these stories, one has to distance oneself from today’s continuity driven comics environment and think like a child of the Silver Age, when attaching the word “atomic” was all a writer had to do to fire a reader’s imagination. Despite the sameness, it is imagination that makes these stories work.
Sure, they followed a plug-in-the-details formula, but Superman’s writers—including Otto Binder, Bill Finger and Jerry Siegel—bent the rules of physics, logic and reason to their whims month after month, creating an outrageous body of work that, though cornball by today’s standards, is still fun to read. They even attributed ridiculous powers like super-ventriloquism to the Man of Steel whenever their stories called for them. The writers—and I suspect the readers, too—knew that every Superman story could be finished in just a few panels if necessary. Superman could avoid pretending to be injured or dead or without his powers and just walk into crook’s hideout, punch him out and be home in time for Jackie Gleason.
Though Showcase Presents… is filled with wildly imaginative stories, the same cannot be said for the villains. Though Supes faces Brainiac, Bizarro and Lex Luthor, these characters are the only ones who present any real challenge to our hero. That has always been the basic problem with Superman—who should he fight? After all, DC’s writers set him up as virtually omnipotent and impervious to harm. Kryptonite, his only weakness, is used in virtually every issue to create problems, but even the problems with that dastardly element are easily cast off. Instead of villains that are a physical match for him, Superman was given an intellectual heavy weight (Lex Luthor) and a radioactive element from his homeworld. Otherwise, it’s runaway trains, kittens in trees and other acts of god that give him trouble. He even fights a rogue real estate developer—that’s how easy he had it in the ‘50s.
Of course now there are intergalactic warlords and all sorts of earth-shattering crises, Infinite or otherwise, the Man of Steel must face. Then, in a much simpler time, when bank robbers and crooked landlords were the ultimate evil, Superman protected the citizens of Metropolis as if everything depended on it. It’s nice to know some things never change.