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Superman: Social Crusader

December 31, 2012

I have never been much of a Superman reader. The character always seemed a dull, law-and-order boy scout, and, aside from when I was buying comics obsessively around 1992, most of my Superman comics involve crossovers with other characters, usually supernatural/pre-Vertigo, such as Destiny, the Spectre, Etrigan the Demon, Swamp Thing, The Doom Patrol, and Animal Man.

The New York Public Library, partially on their own and partially at my request, has ordered a number of the DC Chronicles series, which present the stories of, thus far, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Flash Barry Allen. The latter stories are frothy fun, but I found the Batman stories slow-going, generally formulaic mysteries. When NYPL finally acquired the first volume of Superman, I picked it up, but was not expecting much. What I got was quite a surprise.

In the first Superman story, in Action Comics #1-2, Superman stops a war that is being perpetuated to further the interests of a munitions manufacturer. In Action #3, he gets a cheapskate mine owner who gave a guy only a $50 severance to go down into the mine with his rich friends, then deliberately causes a cave-in so that his friends can see all the safety measures are inadequate before they are finally dug out by the miners. In Action #8, he has people evacuate a slum and destroy it so that the city is forced to provide them with better housing, which makes him wanted by the police, which is the main thrust of the story in Action #9. In Action #10, he gets himself put on a chain gang to expose the torturous methods used by Superintendent Wyman and subject Wyman to the same things he does to others. In #11, he financially destroys men who sell junk bonds–a story from Ron Perelman and Carl Ichan could have learned when they tried to take over Marvel. In #12, he shows no mercy to reckless drivers and destroys the vehicles of those who don’t safely use them, or those who sell vehicles of inferior manufacture and safety design.

Although he makes sure to never actually hurt anyone, that this version of Superman came from the same mind that created the vengeful Spectre turned out to be no surprise at all. Lois Lane is a real bitch in these early stories. At first he is into her, but she’s downright rude to him whenever he’s in his Clark Kent identity, that he eventually starts brushing her off as a nuisance.

It’s easy to understand why this version of Superman had such a resonance with readers while today’s appeals mostly to the fanboy. Superman in later years became more about enforcing the status quo, to the point that other DC Universe characters, such as Swamp Thing in the monumental 75th issue, were criticizing him as such. I don’t know enough about the post-Flashpoint Superman to comment, since I’ve mostly been buying the formerly-Vertigo titles. The only issue with the new Superman I’ve read is Justice League #6, which is the first appearance of the post-Flashpoint Phantom Stranger.

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