The Superman Collector:
A Reader’s Memoir and Critique
Cover scans from the collection of Thomas McNulty
click on an image to enlarge
Actor George Reeves was already gone when I became aware of Superman. By 1963 I was fully conscious if not enraptured by Superman. The Adventures of Superman was rerun on television consistently, and every boy in the neighborhood knew who Superman was. When my parents bought their first Zenith color television, we witnessed miracles in “living color.” That big red “S” on Superman’s chest stood for truth, justice and the American way. So it began.
When my father was ten years old in 1938 he bought Action Comics # 1 and every subsequent issue, including Superman # 1, and he continued buying these titles through about 1945. In 1950, when he entered the Army, my grandmother threw them away. In the late 1960s we explored a storage facility my grandparents kept on Ardmore in Chicago, hoping that her memory was faulty. The comics were gone, but there on a shelf sat the Sunday newspaper comics encompassing the years 1940 through about 1945. This included the Superman strip and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, all classics. To our dismay, the newspapers were wet from a ceiling leak, moldy, brittle and chewed to pieces by mice. Nothing was salvageable.
We have all heard this story before. “My mother threw away a fortune in comics!” I heard this story again and again from the survivors of World War II and Korea, all along the suburban block where I grew up. These tales of loss are forever melded in my memory with the sound of an aluminum can of beer being cracked open, followed by the snap of a lighter and the scent of a cigarette. I can recall standing in one garage after another while one of the neighbors was working on a car, and because all of us kids had Superman comics, the topic was quick to spark memories.
My father read my Superman comics, most of which my mother purchased whenever we were out and about. Those metal spinner racks of comic books were common place, and found in nearly every retail establishment. I think I must have decided to become a collector in 1963, when President Kennedy died. Superman # 170, dated July 1964, included the story “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” with artwork by Al Plastino. Originally intended to appear in issue # 168, the story was pulled in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. It was printed in # 170 as a tribute to Kennedy, with a new splash page by Curt Swan. This artwork is now held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. The cover, however, avoided sentiment, and featured a rendering from the imaginary back-up story, “If Luthor Were Superman’s Father!”
None of us kids knew who Curt Swan was, nor did we know about Wayne Boring. We did, however, know all about their artistic styles. Each artist was instantly recognizable by their style. Boring’s artwork was later dismissed as “borrring!” while Swan had become the fan favorite. Over time, I came to appreciate Wayne Boring’s angular Superman, his lush, futuristic backgrounds and wild imagination. But Curt Swan was the favorite in the 1960s, and his covers and interior artwork graced not only the Superman and Action Comics, but also Superboy and Adventure Comics; and he figured prominently in Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, The Justice League of America and World’s Finest. Curt Swan’s images helped define DC Comics in the 60s.
I remember the day my mother bought me Action Comics # 325, cover dated June 1965. Money must have been a little tight that week. I had the option between Action Comics #325 and one of the Annuals or 80 Page Giants. My mother, being budget conscious but also wise, usually encouraged me to read the 80 Page Giants because I would get more stories for only a few cents more. The 80 Page Giants sold for 25 cents. I was making my choice from a wire spinner rack in the Wintergarden Pharmacy, and I asked if I could have two comics that day. I wanted an 80 Page Giant and Action Comics # 325. Sometimes my mother would relent and I would come home with several comic books. This time she said I could have only one comic book.
I chose Action Comics # 325 for several reasons. First, the cover fascinated me. There was a giant-sized Superbaby on Krypton, and that alien planet seem like Toyland. The splash page was even better. Here was Superman as a giant-sized adult next to a spacecraft featuring some villains using a magnet to draw iron items into their ship. The images were mind boggling. There was also a Supergirl story. To this day, I consider “The Skyscraper Superman” a fine example of a 1960s Superman story. I didn’t know it at the time, but the artist was Curt Swan on Superman and Jim Mooney on Supergirl. That 80 Page Giant I wanted was Superman Annual # 11 reprinting the greatest battles with Lex Luthor. Of course I have them all today. I own three copies of Action Comics #325, including my original copy which lost its cover decades ago. The imaginative world of my childhood was enhanced by these comic books, and they helped instill in me an appreciation for storytelling and artwork.
As the tumultuous 1960s rolled on, I noticed a new style of artwork on some of the covers. I was intrigued. Superman # 210 (October, 1968) depicted Superman swimming under a boat as Jimmy Olson fishes Clark Kent’s fedora from the water as Lois reads a purported suicide note from Kent. The cover for “Clark Kent’s Phoney Death” was drawn by Neal Adams. This and many other Neal Adams covers graced the pages of various DC titles. I liked what I saw. Adams offered a sleek but powerful Superman. His perspective and angles were much different than the average comic book page. Neal Adams quickly became a favorite, although I never stopped being a fan of Curt Swan.
During the 1960s Superman was subjected to imaginary tales depicting either his reported death or the death of a supporting character; time travel stories; constant plots by Lex Luthor; a Superman of the future tale; and kryptonite poisoning, all while maintaining his secret identity of Clark Kent. In fact, the importance of being Clark Kent was never more apparent than during the 1960s where his alter ego was besieged by one nefarious plot after another.
There’s no doubt that Superman has always been a symbol of hope for the repressed, with a costume that matches the colors of the American flag. His dual identity as Clark Kent and Superman represents the duality and complexity in all men. Kent is equally as important as Superman. Kent represents the erstwhile endeavors of the common man, while Superman embodies the potential in all of us. He’s been called “The Man of Tomorrow” and we collectors refer to him affectionately as “Supes” or “The Big Blue.”
Superman’s iconic 1960s adventures remain highly sought after issues. Naturally, I delved into other books. I loved Batman, and Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and Dare-Devil. But Superman was always my first choice. I’m no expert on Superman; I’m just a collector, but there are certain things that strike me as important. For many people, Superman represents the immigrant experience, a shining example of trying to fit in which is difficult because he’s so different. For others, he symbolizes the potential of the common man; and he’s the embodiment of American culture and all of its values and ideologies. Superman’s origin as created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in 1938, is a science fiction story. Perhaps it’s the best science fiction story ever told. Siegel and Shuster created a character whose “S” symbol is globally recognized. His exploits are legendary. Over 75 years later, Superman is the best known fictional hero on earth.
In the summer of 1978, just before the premier of Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve, DC commenced publishing DC Comics Presents, a monthly Superman team-up series. The first issue was written by Marty Pasko and penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, two more personal favorite creators. The many supplemental titles came and went, and Superman survived, now forever linked to actor Christopher Reeve.
The 1980s was a solid decade for DC comic book collectors. The Crisis on Infinite Earth’s mini-series premiered cover dated April, 1985, and lead to the Superman reboot of 1986 by John Byrne. The national media coverage helped turn Byrne’s six-issue Man of Steel mini-series, and subsequent run on Superman and Action Comics into collector’s items, at least temporarily. Like so many collectors at the time, I over-indulged and bought quadruplicate copies of everything, and today the issues will bring but a nominal profit. I loved Byrne’s artwork, but unfortunately he emasculated Superman’s origin, thus diminishing his complexity. Byrne lasted two years, and I agree some of the individual tales worked fine, but in the final analysis there was never any reason to change Siegel and Shuster’s premise.
Artist Jerry Ordway was one of the highlights during this period. Ordway both wrote and penciled Superman comics, and his issues brought back the sense of fun. Along with artist Thomas Grummett (an unsung hero in the Superman canon), Ordway created numerous exciting story-lines. While John Byrne received all of the media attention, subsequently it was Ordway, Grummett and Dan Jurgens who created the individual issues that collectors prefer from that era.
In Frank Miller’s entertaining but overrated The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is depicted as a government lackey, a boy scout. This characterization detracted from the Champion of Justice that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel envisioned. In fact, editorial changes and some revisionist writing altered the friendship between Superman and Batman. I don’t agree that these two stalwart heroes would be at odds. And Batman is too dark, too gloomy. This trend continues to this day. Their team-up was intended to inspire, and not to create a platform for bad writers to script hissy fits.
1993s “Death of Superman” story arc, culminating in Superman # 75 (vol. 2) by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding, was a rollicking adventure that temporarily revitalized the series. Of course, we all knew Superman wouldn’t stay dead. In fact, my “Letter to the Editor” in Adventures of Superman # 503, accurately predicted Superman’s hibernation, rather than death, and his subsequent revitalization by the sun.
By the end of the 1990s, my collecting became sporadic. The inconsistent quality had marred the series. By The Adventures of Superman # 600 and on, readers had been subjected to poorly conceived stories. I won’t name the issues in question. My purpose is not to embarrass the editors, writers and artists involved, but Super-fans know which issues and sequences I’m referring to. The economy was fluctuating, and the comic book industry had changed, but not for the better. The days when wire spinner racks full of comics could be found everywhere had ended. The Comic Book Shops that flourished in the 70s and 80s had disappeared.
Post Millennium issues have varied in quality. Devoted fans enthusiastically reacted to writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s superb storytelling. Although some of Geoff Johns stories were still revisionist, he managed to pay homage to Superman’s mythology with story arcs involving The Legion of Super-Heroes, Braniac, and, yes, even Superman’s origin. The Geoff Johns and Gary Frank issues (with inks by Jon Sibal) are favored by collectors. Gary Frank depicted Superman as a harbinger of actor Christopher Reeve, a habit that he has wisely avoided in recent work. All the same, Gary Frank’s artwork is as imaginative as any of the best from the Golden Age or Silver Age.
DC Comics has long been conflicted in its approach, choosing to retell and revise Superman’s origin again and again rather than engage Superman with new challenges, fresh villains, and classic adventure tales that made him a household name. The constant revisionism and focus on revised continuity has effectively stalled the series. The poor films coming out of Hollywood are further evidence of this mishandling, commencing with the dismal Man of Steel and continuing with the reviled, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Adding to the criticism lies the fact that DC is owned by Warner Brothers, a sprawling entertainment conglomerate that has a reputation for being decidedly un-friendly to fans and creators alike.
The May 2016 “Rebirth” has been a better effort, and is generally popular. The primary positive change to the series (which occurred prior to the “Rebirth”) has been the marriage of Lois and Clark, and subsequent birth of their son, Jon. Recent issues by such talented writers as Patrick Gleason and Peter J. Tomasi are enjoyable, and I’m hoping to see this positive trend continue. Superman is the ultimate pulp fiction hero. He appeals to everyone, because he represents hope for everyone! No matter his mishandling by the slack-jawed and dim-witted bureaucrats at Warner Brothers, fans and collectors have a wealth of classic material to choose from. I’m constantly heartened by the many Superman collectors I meet at comic book conventions. Listed below is a short list for the beginning collector.
|Artist Gary Frank's images are fantastic!|
A Collector’s Silver Age to Present Preference List
Action Comics # 300, May, 1963, Superman Under the Red Sun
Action Comics # 340, August, 1966, “Power of the Parasite” by Jim Shooter, art by Al Plastino, cover by Curt Swan and George Klein, center-spread pin-up by Curt Swan.
Action Comics # 356, 1967, First Neal Adams Superman cover
Action Comics # 400, Neal Adams cover
Action Comics # 583, September, 1986, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Part Two, by Alan Moore, Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger
Action Comics # 858-863, December, 2007
Action Comics # 866-870, August, 2008, Brainiac storyline by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
Superman # 141, “Superman’s Return to Krypton,”
Superman # 146, “Superman’s Life Story,”
Superman # 149, November, 1961, “The Death of Superman,”
Superman # 156, “The Last Days of Superman,”
Superman # 170, July, 1964, “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy.”
Superman # 181, November, 1965, “The Superman of 2965” By Edmond Hamilton, artwork by Curt Swan and George Klein, cover by Curt Swan.
Superman # 199, “The Race Between Superman and the Flash,”
Superman # 201, Iconic Curt Swan cover
Superman # 233, Neal Adams Kryptonite Nevermore cover
Superman # 243, Neal Adams, Superman kissing cover
Superman # 247, January, 1972, Must There Be a Superman? by Elliot S. Maggin, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson
Superman # 432, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger (continued in Action Comics # 583)
Giant Superman Annual # 1, 1960, not numbered on cover, reprints key issues featuring Lois Lane, Supergirl and Jimmy Olson.
80 page Giant Superman Annual # 1, August 1964, (reprints) often mistaken as the first annual.
Superman Annual # 11, 1985, For the Man Who Has Everything by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
NOTE: I won’t buy CGC (Certified Guaranty Company) graded comics. Their grading is inconsistent and promotes premature price increases.