Writer: Jerry Siegel
Illustrator: Joe Shuster
DC Universe Timeline: 13 Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1938-39
(The stories in this volume obviously take place during Superman's first year in Metropolis-- no one knows who he is at the beginning, but he rapidly becomes famous. The 1930s setting is pretty obvious-- which I guess means the present day of the DC Universe is the 1950s? Comic book time is a bizarre thing.)
The Superman Chronicles is a series with a rather ambitious aim-- to reprint "every Superman story in exact chronological order!" I don't know how far they plan on going with this thing, but right now they are up to five volumes of this stuff, which covers about three years of publishing, so they've got a ways to go, even if they are only doing the Golden Age. (Unfortunately, James only owns the first volume.) The first volume contains seventeen stories, mostly from various issues of Action Comics, though there is also one issue each of the New York World's Fair and Superman books. I'm not going to review all of these stories, however, because that would get pretty redundant.
Action Comics #1 ("Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!") of course created a splash on its initial publication, and it is easy to see why. Because Superman is awesome. In this first issue, he stops a woman from being wrongfully executed, stops a wife-beating in progress from a tip at the Daily Star (though who exactly phones a newspaper to inform of wife-beatings in progress is beyond me), takes Lois out for a dance, prevents Lois from being raped, and intimidates a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. This is a much more down-to-Earth Superman than the modern reader is used to-- not in the sense that he's more relateable as a character, because he's absolutely not-- but because he's got a much lower powerset (he can't yet fly, though he can run fast and jump high, and he has enormous strength, but no laser vision or anything like that), and he deals with much more "normal" problems. There's only one supervillain in this entire collection-- Ultra-Humanite makes his appearance in one of the last stories, and even then his plan is to take over the world via a taxi protection racket.
So Superman pretty much spends all of his time righting human wrongs-- and he does this in a most entertaining fashion. In Action Comics #2 ("Revolution in San Monte, Pt. 2"), he takes the boss of the aforementioned lobbyist to the South American country where his company is selling munitions to spur on a civil war, forcing him to enlist and then enlisting alongside him! Hilarity ensues as the lobbyist discovers the horrors of war, Lois is nearly executed for some random reason, Superman battles an airplane, and the war ends when the leaders of each side suddenly realize they have no idea what the war's about. How could you not enjoy this?
Of course, random South American countries aren't all Superman cares about. This early Superman is always sticking up for the little guy, and of course you know he's always going to win, because no one remotely capable of threatening him even exists. Where the entertainment value in these stories generally comes from is in how Superman rights his wrongs-- usually by giving the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine: he traps a negligent mine owner in his own mine (along with a group of bored socialites), he solves the problem of tenement housing by destroying the housing so that the government will have to build nicer housing (not exactly on the side of the law, this Superman), he puts a crooked prison warden in his own prison, he gets back on a group of stock swindlers by making them think their own shares are worth millions... and then wrecking their oil wells permanently, and he combats reckless driving by smashing up used car lots.
Of course, sometimes you have to wonder if he doesn't have better things to do, such as when he investigates cheating on the "Dale" and "Cordell" college football teams, or when he joins a circus to increase its flagging ticket sales. Though, in the end, there's usually an attempted murder, which would seem to justify his super-involvement.
The early Clark Kent persona is interesting-- I prefer a much more confident Clark myself, but this Clark is an absolute pansy. One is somewhat unsure why he must play at being such a pansy; at one point Clark gives up a source to a man likely to kill him just to keep up his persona! Of course, Superman rescues the man, but surely that wasn't necessary? Still, it's also interesting to note the overlap between the two persona-- frequently, he ends up embroiled in an adventure when using his Superman persona to do some investigative journalism that Clark doesn't have the powers to carry out. On the other hand, God knows what he's playing at with Lois Lane. For some reason, he seems purposefully mess things up with her as Clark, but when she's obviously willing to jump Superman, he acts entirely aloof and noncaring! (One can't blame him for having a thing for Lois, though-- even this early on, she's plucky and courageous, always doing what needs to be done for her story, and she doesn't take crap from anyone. And she's apparently a helluva kisser to boot.)
But by the end of the volume, this early Superman is starting to come to an end. As appealing as the idea of Superman, Champion of the Oppressed is, it can't work forever. When Superman's always going to win, it's eventually boring (the Superman vs. a cracking dam story is a great example), and he can't reshape the social structure of America-- which Superman could if he was real. The coming of Ultra-Humanite signals the end of this approach to Superman, as unrelentingly fun and enjoyable as it might be.
Next up: Crisis on Infinite Earths