Superman: The Dailies (1939-1940) Graphic Novel Review

A collection of newspaper strips showcasing Superman's early days.

Author: Jason Henderson

In Watchmen, Alan Moore has the character Nite Owl II remark that there seem to be faces and body shapes that were current in the 1930s and 1940s, which people don't have now. Regarding men, he's talking about the kinds of squarish jaws, barrel chests, squinty eyes and eager smiles we see in old photographs and war movies. This shouldn't make much sense. Nutrition and accepted health norms have changed, but our bodies haven't. But I have to agree that it always seems the way Moore describes it. I look at old photographs of GIs, of my grandfather about the time he washed out of the Air Corps for improper aerobatics, of women working in factories and newspaper offices, and yes, those faces aren't replicating today. Or if they are, we change them. You look at pop culture of the era and you realize that these Americans of the Depression were different creatures in many ways.

Superman: The Dailies 1939-1940 is a jewel, a genuine, almost archaeological find that sheds light on this Depression era by showing us its favorite new hero: Superman. This is Superman's first year in a rendition that brought him into every household. This is not a Superman you might instantly recognize. Action Comics #1 has debuted in June of 1938, and the look of the character has settled into a rough estimate of today's costume: red boots, blue tights, blue shirt, red cape, red briefs. Little else has been settled by 1939, least of which is Superman's constantly morphing stylized "S." Creators Siegel and Shuster churned the Superman daily strip out of a small Cleveland office with a stable of artists, while Siegel did all the scripting. It was in these daily cartoon strips - the big time for comic artists in those days - that Superman began to acquire the canon we know.

The newspaper Clark Kent works for (before Siegel decided he was an alien, he knew Superman was a reporter) has not yet been named. It is variously called the Star, the Planet and the Evening News. Lois is there (a reporter constantly getting demoted to the "lovelorn column") but Perry White won't arrive for another year. What was referred to as a "distant planet" in a one-panel origin in Action #1 becomes a long origin story for the strip, and we learn for the first time that Superman's name is Kal-L, son of Jor-L and Lara-L, of the doomed planet Krypton. In a detail I had forgotten, Jor-L intends to build a larger spacecraft and is left with no choice but to put his son in the prototype when the end comes sooner than expected.

There is raw, even thuggish myth at work in Superman: The Dailies 1939-1940. Superman is a late 1930s man's man, not big and burly as he would be later, but tall and muscular like an Olympian. His face, whether in his Superman guise or hidden behind Clark Kent's specs, has the chiseled bones and crevices of a matinee idol like Cary Grant. His hair is perfect, and you have to imagine the oil he must put into it to get it to curl and fall forward just so. And he squints, always.

And those powers! The end of the origin story informs us that Superman "could easily leap one eighth of a mile... hurdle a twenty story faster than an express train... and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!" It's a cliché by now that we pare back Superman's powers about every ten years, but I don't think we've ever gone that far back. This is a Superman who can just barely beat a train and is knocked out cold by explosions. In one exciting story, he leaps onto a rising airplane and has to hold on, at one point almost losing his footing. Of course, this doesn't last: by 1940, he digs a trench several miles long in minutes to divert a flood, which is more like the big guy we know today.

This Superman is a character at home in the world of The Shadow, a man who wades through the Depression-era mud and muck of big cities like Cleveland so women with little pillbox hats and boys with lollipops can rest easier. He is polite but brutal, casually sending gangsters to their deaths, although never actually killing them with his bare hands. In the guise of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, he sexually harasses Lois Lane with bullish if mild-mannered regularity ("Say, Lois, why don't you let me take you to some gay place and you can forget all about this?") a ploy that eventually pays off with an ill-fated date or two. He spends weeks doing nothing but helping an over-the-hill prizefighter regain his title. That's our boy!

Siegel and Shuster know their audience and what they want to see, and that's why I love these strips. They show me what the American audience back then thought of itself and its capabilities. It seems we thought we were Boy Scouts, of which Superman is the ultimate. Look how many times Siegel shows Superman swimming, running, sparring, climbing and sweating. This is not Superman as God, but Superman as the ultimate human machine. And how!

The narrator is sure to let us know what's supposed to thrill us, and what a fascist little world it is. "SUPERMAN CATCHES SPY/ VILLAIN GETS ELECTRIC CHAIR!" screams a headline. One foolish thug turns and runs when an officer tells him to stop, "AND DIES!" the narrator helpfully informs us.

The narrator does a lot of helpful informing, in fact, and in a way it becomes a running joke. I love the self-conscious explanation when Clark pretends with Lois to let an irritating mobster woo her. "Clark shakes his fist in quiet keeping with his assumed attitude of helplessness." You know, in case you don't get the whole Clark Kent/Superman thing. But Kent is never the wimp here he has become at various times in his history. Rather, he's like an attractive, clever rival for Lois attentions, his chief rival being his boxer-like alter ego.

Superman: The Dailies 1939-1940 shows us a Superman not for all seasons, but for the first few seasons. Reading it is like watching an idea take root and only barely begin to grow.

Trade Paperback from Kitchen Sink/DC. Written by Jerry Siegel. Art by various talents. Created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.



The Superman Homepage has had the pleasure of interviewing various Superman Comic Book creative people about their work.

Question and Answer Interviews:


Krypton Club Interviews:

Lois When “Lois & Clark” started production in 1993, there was an obvious relationship between the comic book people and the Hollywood people.

A trade paperback “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, was published, with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher on the cover. It included reprints of comic book stories that were the inspiration for “Lois & Clark”, helping to define the characters. Comic's included are: The Story of the Century (Man of Steel miniseries #2), Tears for Titano (Superman Annual #1), Metropolis - 900 mi (in SUP #9), The Name Game (SUP #11), Lois Lane (in ACT #600), Headhunter (AOS #445), Homeless for the Holidays (AOS #462), The Limits of Power (AOS #466), and Survival (ACT #665).

A number of comic book writers and artists had roles as extras in the episode “I'm Looking Through You” (Season one, episode 4). Their presence was immortilized in the Sky Trading Card #34.

Craig Byrne, president of the online “Lois & Clark” fanclub The Krypton Club, carried out a series of interviews with comic book writers. The interviews are reprinted with permission of the Krypton Club.

Check the Television section of this website for some “Lois & Clark” Interviews conducted by The Krypton Club.