Sunday, September 1, 2013

WGTB Reviews Two Books on Superman

With Superman having turned 75 this year, it's a truism to say he is one of the most enduring fictional characters in pop-culture. But where did he come from and how has he changed over the decades? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question or just want to brush up on the Man of Steel’s history, then you’re in luck: in recent months two great books released that will help you get to know Superman better. 
Superboys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the Creators of Superman, Brad Ricca, St. Martin's Press, 2013, pp. 448, $33.99

The first we'll look at today is Superboys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- The Creators of Superman written by Brad Ricca. Superboys is an updated creator-focused account of Superman's origins and the personal highs and lows, two of the most famous men in comics experienced while creating their iconic character.

Ricca, educated at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland-born himself, makes the Ohio roots and the personal and professional lives of Jerry and Joe the focus of his work. Examining early accounts of the Seigel and Shuster history, the book takes us all the way back to the Netherlands, Russia and Canada before we finally arrive at Glenville High School in Ohio, where the two met and became close friends and collaborators. The book also focuses on the early science-fiction fanzines of Joe, the famous Reign of the Superman story, and the sale of the rights of Superman to National Publications. Along the way the book explores the minds and personalities of the creators with special focus on how these two teenagers longed for something better and eventually found this in Superman, only to have it torn away by a bad deal.

The research of this book is extensive and it's especially good when dealing with the legal aspects of the early Superman story. Siegel and Shuster were paid very little ($130) for use of the character and Ricca does a fantastic job at detailing what exactly happened after they made their ‘work for hire’ deal. Because the book was published in 2013, the author was also able to draw, not just upon the widely known episodes of the early years of Superman, but the latest legal proceedings, the likes of which only recently wrapped up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Reading dialogue taken almost directly from depositions is always interesting, and certainly fits the comprehensive nature of Superboys. Much of the story of Siegel and Shuster has been told before, but if you’re looking for an up-to-date version par excellence, you will enjoy this well written and comprehensive volume. 4.5/5 STARS.

Next we turn to Superman: the Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon. This book is a great place for anyone who wants to know the history of the Superman character as he appeared in the various mediums that have told his story. Weldon, a freelance writer who makes regular appearances on National Public Radio in the U.S., hasn't written an "origin story" per se and barely touches on the Siegel and Shuster aspect of Superman. Rather, he surveys how Superman has evolved over the course of his distinguished career in comics and other media. 

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon, Wiley, 2013, pp. 353, $27.45

Beginning with the Golden Age character -- who at times seemed more like a self-righteous bully than the superhero we know today -- Unauthorized tells us how Superman has evolved, how his powers changed, and even mentions some of the other stranger powers that have fallen on the wayside. 

Whedon also goes through the early comic stories issue by issue, drawing on examples from the early comics to demonstrate how as the Golden Age gave way to the Silver, Bronze and Modern ages, Superman has evolved and changed with American society. We learn of the earliest and lasting villains; the Mad Men-esque conflicts with Lois Lane of the 50s and 60s; and the gimmicks, reboots and costume changes of later years that have all intended to sell more comics. 

Slogging through Golden and Silver Age comics (not to mention Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) is a challenge for even the most die-hard fan, and having done this Weldon proves his mantle as both fan and expert on the topic of Superman. Writing with a humour, style and detailed understanding of the subject matter, this book is without a doubt a great start for anyone who wants to get caught up on Superman and learn how the character has evolved over the years. The latter chapters – from the 1980s onward – are especially good at offering trade paperback suggestions for those lapsed fans looking to get caught up. As such, this book earns a 4/5 STARS

In the early part of his book, Glen Weldon boils down Superman's fundamental attributes to: 1) he always puts the needs of others ahead of himself; and, 2) he never gives up. Both of the above books, while focusing on different aspects of the Superman character, demonstrate that these common threads are what make him such an enduring and enjoyable character. Superman is and will remain one of the greatest superheroes, but his past remains just as interesting and worth knowing if you're willing to take the time. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy the rest of your summer. 

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