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Book Review: Superman – A Celebration of 75 Years

By (January 5, 2014) No Comment

Superman: A Celebration of 75 Yearssuperman celebration cover
DC Comics, 2013

Superman, the most iconic of superheroes, turned 75 in 2013, and the occasion was marked most dramatically by the box office success of the movie Superman: Man of Steel. The film, a state-of-the-art $200 million-dollar extravaganza which starred a cartoonishly gorgeous non-American and featuring a version of the character who destroys Metropolis in the process of saving it and who can’t think of anything more interesting to do with his enemy than snap his neck. It was a grim, thudding, curiously monochrome two-hour Wagnerian homage, but it’s well on its way to making one billion dollars, so it’s the Hollywood version of the character we’ll likely see for at least the next fifty years. But Superman’s birthday was also observed in a number of ways by the long-time publishers of his adventures, DC Comics. There were picture books and gift sets and industry tributes, and the best of these was this hardcover volume, Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years. Here you’ll get many different versions of the character, although with some fascinating convergences.

superman john byrneThe concept is simple, just as the concept of Superman himself started out simple: this volume presents cleaned and nicely colored reprints of various Superman comic book issues taken from the character’s long history. There’s the obligatory inclusion of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original sold strip of the industry-starting character they created as Cleveland teenagers; there are nicely-chosen bits from the 1940s and ’50s by writer Bill Finger and paradigm-setting artists such as Wayne Boring and Curt Swan; there’s one good story by die-hard Superman fan Elliot S. Maggin from the 1970s (a dolorous decade for the Man of Steel, so the slighting here is probably for the best); we get some luscious Gil Kane artwork from 1983; and “The Living superman - wayne boringLegends of Superman” is reprinted from Superman #400 in 1984, featuring not only artwork by the legendary Frank Miller but a cover by the equally-legendary Howard Chaykin.

Modern milestones of the character round out the volume: there’s a typically splashy issue from fan-favorite artist/writer John Byrne’s Superman revamp; there’s writer/artist Dan Jurgens’ famous 1993 issue “Doomsday” in which a rampaging creature from outer space appears to kill the Man of Steel; and there’s a nod in the direction of DC’s highly successful “New 52” company-wide reboot with Grant Morrison’s 2012 story “The Boy Who Stole Superman’s Cape.”

superman dave gibbinsThe real treats here will be predictable to any long-time Superman fan. In “The Girl From Superman’s Past” (1959) Clark Kent reminisces about the time back in college that he met and fell in love with the mermaid Lori Lemaris. In “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” writer Joe Kelly has the Man of Steel confront a ruthless band of super-beings sarcastically modeled on The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch – and gives his allegedly boring hero a stirring little speech designed as an antidote to fashionable cynicism:

You know what? Anger is easy. Hate is easy. Vengeance and spite are easy. Lucky for you … and for me … I don’t like my heroes ugly and mean. Just don’t believe in it … dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear – until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting.

And of course there’s Alan Moore’s 1985 story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” certainly one of the most popular Superman storiessuperman gil kane of all time, in which an alien villain traps our hero in an elaborate fantasy-life in which Krypton didn’t explode and he’s a happily-married family man. Fans has rightly pointed out the pathos Moore captures so perfectly as Superman’s dream-world fragments and he eventually awakens to his normal life – and to a moment of towering rage at the alien who forced him to lose his home world all over again (a moment captured with glorious simplicity by artist Dave Gibbons).

The fact that “For the Man Who Has Everything” is one of the best Superman stories necessitates that it be in a collection like this one, but the fact that it’s been in every other Superman collection since the Norman superman batman by alex rossConquest somewhat dims the moment, and if Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years has a flaw, that intense predictability is it. The Gil Kane story reprinted here, for instance, was just reprinted a few months ago in a hardcover collection of Kane’s Superman work (whereas some of his gorgeous longer-format work on various Superman annuals has never been reprinted). Likewise we’ve seen “The Boy Who Stole Superman’s Cape” recently more often than its slender strengths warrant. And although Maggin’s “Must There Be a Superman?” is thoughtful, it’s also boring – which certainly can’t be said for his and Cary Bates’ fascinating 1976 ‘what-if’ story “Superman 2001,” which has hardly ever been reprinted. In fact, if DC Comics had seen fit to make this commemorative volume (of their #1 cash cow) 460 pages instead of 360, there would have been room for plenty of additional signature interpretations of the character, including modern-era artists like Jon Bogdanove, Jerry Ordway, and Ed McGuinness.

But maybe those are quibbles only long-time fans would have, and maybe such fans could stand to gripe a bit less just in general! Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years is wonderfully done, a fine tribute the all the varying interpretations of the character that paved the way for the beautiful, glum executioner of today’s movie franchise. And considering the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had Superman angrily hurling bad guys across the horizon like shot-puts when he could simply have knocked them unconscious, maybe the whole collection serves to bring us, as the English majors say, full circle.

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