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

This is a really enjoyable collection of about thirty short stories from the earliest comics, by twenty or so different artists. No Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman here – the stories in this book, published by Fantagraphics in 2009, are more obscure. The artwork is also presented in a much more appealing manner than in your typical Marvel or DC reprints from the same era, obviously scanned from the original comics, and slightly contrast boosted, but seems to use the original coloring, and is perfectly readable and relatively pleasant to look at.

Presented as a collection of early super hero comics, most of the stories here feel more science fiction and crime pulp influenced to me. Actually, most of the stories reminded me more of a sort of fever dream than anything else, full of sudden twists, free of all logic except dream logic.

One unusual choice, that probably increases the disorienting feeling reading many of these stories create, is that instead of starting with origin stories and issue ones (which may have gotten a bit boring), most of what’s collected here tends be stories where the characters have already been completely developed, so it often reads like starting in the middle of a longer adventure. It didn’t bug me too much, but sometimes I wish there had been a few tales in a row featuring the same character, to get a better, deeper feel for what, if anything, was going on. Instead of just having around two hundred pages of comics, wouldn’t it have been nice if this was an eight-hundred-page omnibus?

The most well-known creators in the book are obviously Simon & Kirby, then probably Basil Wolverton and Fletcher Hanks, who both have collected editions of much or all of their work somewhat available these days (I guess the recent Fletcher Hanks collections are out of print now, which is a shame, as they’re wonderful). I loved all their work in here too, but the real stand out for me was two of the stories by Jack Cole, The Comet and The Claw Battles Daredevil. I was of course somewhat familiar with Plastic Man, though I haven’t read of ton of those yet either, but I thought his stories in the book were the most graphically advanced and definitely the most innovative, fun to look at and read. I was researching a bit more about Cole online, and according to this blog, he drew over 3,600 pages of comics. Wouldn’t a nicely scanned complete edition of his works be a great project for somebody to release someday?

If there’s a fault with this book, I’d say a few of the stories didn’t do much for me, and had a real amateurish feel, with some occasional really low-level writing. However, overall, I was kind of shocked by how great the art and writing was on the vast majority of the early comic books collected in here. It’s kind of a weird bit of fate that these comics ended up as public domain obscurities, while other books from the same era, that were certainly no better than most of what’s collected here, have ended up becoming billion-dollar evergreen products.

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