Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Raven Wilder dives into the Silver Age of Superman comics.
Some Background (on the comics)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was an era of reinvention, it was an era of rigid formula. It was the height of imagination, it was the height of censorship. It was a time of talking gorillas, magical rotary dials, crimefighting teenagers from the future, and Superman shooting rainbows from his fingertips.
It was the Silver Age of Comic Books.
Lasting from the mid-1950’s through the end of the 60’s, the Silver Age was a time when American comic books were beholden to the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board designed to ensure that all comics were appropriate for children. While the organization had no legal authority, at the time there was enough moral panic about comic books corrupting the youth of America that few publishers (or, more accurately, the advertisers and distributors who gave them money) wanted to be associated with comics that weren’t CCA approved. Either you met their guidelines, or you just weren’t published.
And those guidelines got mighty draconian. Aside from limitations on sex and violence, they also forbid detailed depictions of crime, any depictions of vampires or werewolves, disrespect for lawful authority, and really anything that went against the CCA’s conservative, mid-20th Century morality.
Many comic books suffered under these restrictions, and some (such as horror comics) became effectively impossible to publish. But as other genres withered, superhero comics thrived.
While the Comics Code stifled more grounded forms of adventure fiction, the fanciful nature of superheroes let them handily work around their new restrictions. Violent deaths were out, but transforming people into statues or amoebas was A-OK. You couldn’t have your hero oppose the government, but they could battle evil space empires all they wanted. And while the Code called for a clear division between good guys and bad guys (with the bad guys always to be thwarted), you could still have your hero behaving badly, so long as you explained it away with mind control or evil lookalikes.
Superhero scribes responded to the era’s censorship with wild creativity, taking their adventures further and further into realms bizarre, outlandish, and goofy … and readers ate it up. The Silver Age was a Renaissance for the cape-and-cowl set, putting them on course to eventually dominate the industry, to the point where “superheroes” and “comic books” became interchangeable terms.
And in that landscape, Superman reigned supreme.
I won’t be going into Superman’s background here. I trust that everyone reading this is already familiar with the Man of Steel and what his deal is. And if by some chance you aren’t … Wikipedia exists. But I will tell you that in the Silver Age, Superman was big.
Not only did he headline top-selling series Superman, Action Comics, and prequel series Superboy, he co-starred in the spinoffs Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and appeared regularly in anthology series Adventure Comics as well as the team-up books World’s Finest and Justice League of America. There were years when the four highest selling comics in America were all Superman titles.
You don’t become that popular for that long without leaving a legacy. These comics introduced many characters and concepts that would become eternal parts of the Superman mythos, from Brainiac to Supergirl, from the Bizarro World to the Bottle City of Kandor. Whenever a new interpretation of Superman is created, it’s inevitably compared to this era in the character’s history, classified as either a rejection or a recreation of what was done in the Silver Age.
So if, like me, you have more than a passing interest in the Last Son of Krypton, it’s high time we took a look at the Silver Age of Superman, and see what makes these stories tick.
Some Background (on me)
Like most of my comic book knowledge, Superman’s Silver Age adventures are something I learned a great deal about long before I read the comics themselves.
I read histories of the character, and of comic books in general, that discussed this era. I enjoyed reviews of some of this period’s more ridiculous stories (Supergirl becomes Satan! Lois Lane seduces Jor-El!) I read pastiches of these comics in the pages of Astro City and in Alan Moore’s Supreme. And, of course, I was familiar with Superdickery: out-of-context panels and covers from Silver Age stories that make the Man of Steel look like an absolute ass!
But I’d never gotten around to reading them firsthand, not until this year. As the Covid-19 vaccine got distributed, and my local library opened its doors after nearly a year of shutdown, I went spelunking through those great caverns of books like I was re-discovering a lost world. And as I indulged in an orgy of bibliophilia, I found that among the library’s collection were several volumes of Showcase Presents, a series of black-and-white reprints of old DC Comics.
While not the ideal format, the ability to pick up a single volume that contained literally dozens of issues for me to enjoy … it was intoxicating. And with Showcase Presents Superman, Showcase Presents Supergirl, and Showcase Presents Superman Family taking up an impressive chunk of library shelf, I decided it was time to finally sit down and read these things.
I’d spent years hearing about these comics, about how silly the plots could get, about how overpowered they made Superman, about how an endless barrage of Superpets joined the cast. And I’d act like I knew all about it, from what I’d learned secondhand. But now, following a months long binge, I’ve read more than 100 issues of Silver Age Superman comics, and I think I’m ready to add a few thoughts of my own to the discussion.
Let’s Dive In, Shall We?
What struck me about Superman’s Silver Age adventures is that they’re a whole different genre from superhero stories as we normally think of them.
When Superman debuted back in 1938, in what’s now known as the Golden Age of Comic Books, he set the template for all the superheroes who followed, and that was as a subset of the action genre (guy did debut in Action Comics, after all). Some bad guy causes trouble, the hero fights them, with lots of slugfest spectacle, until eventually good triumphs. While plots could get more complex than that, those are the bones nearly all superhero stories are built on, then and now.
But in the Silver Age, Superman broke from the formula he’d helped create.
At a glance, these comics still look like action stories. There are explosions, ray guns, rampaging monsters, and all manner of super-spectacle. But as you read through them, you might notice there’s rarely any actual fighting. Occasionally you might see Superman throw a punch, but nine times out of ten, he’s doing it to shatter a meteor or break up an iceberg, rather than socking it to evildoers.
The typical climax to one of these stories is Superman showing up to confront the villains, and in the next panel he’s holding them by the scruff of their necks as he carries them to prison. That archetypal Superman scene, where the bad guys fire their guns uselessly at the Man of Steel before he punches them out? That almost never occurs here.
Perhaps the best example of how these comics approach action comes from the story “Titano the Super-Ape!”, published in Superman #127. In it, a freak accident involving radiation turns an ordinary chimpanzee into Titano, a rampaging, fifty-foot ape who shoots kryptonite radiation from his eyes.
In any other era, this would have been an excuse for Superman and Super-Ape to punch, smash, and wrestle each other for a few rounds, building excitement out of the outlandish fight scene.
Instead, Titano’s kryptonite vision is used to prevent Superman from getting anywhere near him, so a fight can never occur. The real conflict of the story is the military building a trap designed to kill Titano, while Lois Lane tries to find a way to save the innocent ape’s life. She succeeds by using some monkey-see-monkey-do to get him to put on a pair of giant, lead-framed glasses. With those blocking his kryptonite vision, Superman can now effortlessly pick Titano up and hurl him through the time stream, landing him in the prehistoric era where he can live out his life peacefully. Maybe you could classify that as a fight … but it’s not really what people mean when they talk about fight scenes.
That’s how most conflicts go in this era. Trading blows was out, while trickery and weird science solutions were in.
But Why Is That?
You might think that this, too, was an edict from the Comics Code Authority, that they simply didn’t allow comics to have violent altercations. But even the CCA was never that strict. You look at other Silver Age heroes, and they engaged in fisticuffs galore. Bloodless fisticuffs, yes, but there was rarely a Batman comic that didn’t have him socking crooks square in the jaw.
No, avoiding punchups was very much unique to Superman, and I think it can be traced back to how powerful the character had become. When Superman was introduced in the 1930’s, his superhuman strength only went so far as leaping an eighth of a mile, and being tough enough that “nothing less than a bursting shell could pierce his skin”. But as the comics went on, they gave him increasingly outlandish displays of power, trying to top what had been done before. Until, by the time the Silver Age kicked off a couple decades later, his power had grown to truly ridiculous proportions.
Silver Age Superman was not just incredibly strong and incredibly durable. He was infinitely strong and utterly invincible … unless kryptonite was around, in which case he was utterly helpless. The complete supremacy of Superman’s power was so well established, the comics took it as a given that no physical altercation involving him could have any tension to it.
Even pitting him against equally superpowered foes didn’t change that. This is illustrated in the story “The Bride of Bizarro” from Action Comics #255, where Superman fights his
evil misguided duplicate, Bizarro Superman.
This has one of the few, genuine fight scenes in these comics, with the two Supermen battling each other in a ship graveyard. Their showdown is epic, wild, action-packed … and utterly pointless. Superman and Bizarro are both invulnerable, even against each other, so all their punching and kicking can’t accomplish anything. The plot’s only resolved when Bizarro is convinced to leave Earth voluntarily, no ass-kicking required.
And in future encounters with criminal superbeings, we don’t even get that much of a fight. Superman and his superadversaries both understand that duking it out will get them nowhere, forcing them to think of other ways to get the advantage over the other.
I’m so used to “invulnerable” being hyperbole in superhero comics, to every hero, no matter how powerful, always facing foes strong enough to beat them down (before they inevitably rise up again). It was a genuine surprise to see these old comics insist that, no, Superman is literally invulnerable, that he truly can’t be beaten in a fight, so if they want to tell an interesting story, it’ll have to be about something other than fighting.
A Different Kind of Battle
I’m not going to call Silver Age Superman the “thinking man’s superhero”. Let’s be clear, these are children’s stories, and were cranked out under tight deadlines by people with no illusions of artistic respectability. Few characters act like believable human beings, the “science” used has only a tangential relation to the real thing, and pondering the weighty questions of life could not be further from their ambitions.
And yet, these are stories that again and again stress the importance of thinking. This may be the only version of Superman where his intelligence regularly proves to be a more vital ability than how many tons he can lift.
Because, in the absence of battles, these comics instead focus on puzzles.
There are many stories that feature no antagonist at all, or one who’s little more than a plot device to get things moving. Superman is challenged, not by foes he has to fight, but by bizarre situations and mysterious events. People from the past suddenly transported to the present, strange compulsions affecting Superman and his closest friends, the world’s memories of Superman disappearing overnight: these are problems the Man of Steel must face. He’s tasked, not with beating up a villain, but with figuring out how these odd occurrences happened and how to fix them, or simply how live with them for however long they last. In their focus on using problem-solving to deal with strange, scientific anomalies, these stories often resemble a children’s version of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And when Superman does come head-to-head with a human antagonist (or alien antagonist, or mermaid antagonist, or robot antagonist, or … you get the drift) it’s almost always in a battle of wits. Often it’s the old standby that the bad guys have kryptonite, so Superman must devise a way to beat them without facing them directly. Other times, a villain will try to deceive Superman into aiding them or ignoring their crimes. Sometimes Superman’s own code of ethics will be turned against him, with his refusal to break a promise or violate the law putting him in a tough spot (like when the IRS calculated that Superman owed one billion dollars in back taxes, and gave him 24 hours to raise the money or turn himself in).
But perhaps the most reliable way of challenging Superman is to threaten his secret identity. Time and again, the Man of Steel is faced with situations he could solve easily … if he didn’t happen to be in his Clark Kent clothes at the time, so busting out the superstrength would give the game away. There are several stories where someone (often Lois) comes to suspect that Clark is Superman, and sets up a series of traps to prove their hunch. The comic then becomes like something out of Columbo or Death Note, with Superman needing to think on his feet, figure out how they’re trying to trick him, and then trick them right back.
Luckily, this Superman is every inch the trickster hero. Even when it would be quicker to beat a villain into submission, he’ll often prefer a complicated deception instead: sometimes to avoid unnecessary violence, sometimes to trick a confession out of them, and sometimes because it’s just satisfying to mess with their heads a little. There are multiple stories where the whole plot turns out to be a ruse Superman engineered to catch a bad guy … or to teach one of his friends a lesson.
Given all that, it’s not surprising that these comics lean heavily into sitcom style farce. “Bizarre situations” is only a hair removed from “wacky scenarios”. “Deviously complicated tricks” is just another way of saying “overly elaborate pranks”. And “has to think fast to hide his secret” … well, that could describe every episode of Fawlty Towers.
It’s most prevalent in the Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane series, but comedy is a huge part of all the Superman titles from this era. Now, some might think the humor here is unintentional, that it’s the result of old children’s comics seeming silly from our modern, adult perspective. But I think the comedy to be found here is (for the most part) exactly what these stories were going for.
After all, the Silver Age comics that came closest to challenging Superman’s market dominance weren’t superhero titles: they were humor comics like Casper, Uncle Scrooge, and Archie. If nothing else, I’m certain that making Lois Lane and Lana Lang rivals for Superman’s affection was a deliberate attempt to replicate the success Archie Comics had had with Betty & Veronica.
Wacky hijinks were in at the time, and Superman comics thrived by using their fantastical, sci-fi trappings to create the wackiest hijinks of all. Perhaps nothing sums this up better than a story from Jimmy Olsen #20, where the plot concludes with this immortal line from Superman’s pal:
“Why did you hoax me into believing I was a merman, Superman?”
I think that says it all.
So What’s My Opinion?
If you’re in the right mindset for them, Superman’s Silver Age adventures are a barrel of fun!
There’s a tendency to dismiss Silver Age comics as less sophisticated, less engaging, and just less well made than their modern descendants. And it’s true that if you’re looking for complex plots, thematic depth, and well-rounded characters, then these are going to seem frightfully shallow affairs.
But for the Superman comics of this era, that’s not the right metric to judge them by. Where most superhero stories focus on action and drama, these focus on puzzles and comedy. They’re playing a different ball game, and stand the test of time because no one else makes comics like this. Other comics may do farcical situations, sci-fi mysteries, or battles of cunning, but the fusion of them here is such a unique blend, it’s a delight to lose yourself with them for a while.
Every comic book fan owes it to themselves to read at least a dozen or so Silver Age Superman tales (most are only about eight pages long, so it’s not like it’d take you a while). What they do may not click with you, but if it does, they offer a fantastical romp like nothing else out there.
Of Their Time
Of course, being more than half a century old, these stories aren’t always what we would consider woke.
Aside from bizarrely colored aliens, you’ll rarely see anyone in these comics who isn’t white. And the handful of exceptions can be … problematic. Going back in time to gawk at the “savage Indians” is about where the bar is set.
As for their treatment of women, that’s a mixed bag.
This era was not kind to “girl reporter” Lois Lane. While Lois has always been attracted to Superman, in the Silver Age this turned into a full-on obsession, where she’d stop at nothing to get married to the Man of Steel (or, as she often puts it, to “become Mrs. Superman”). And when she’s not trying to get Superman to propose, she’s either trying to suss out his secret identity or getting herself into trouble that he has to rescue her from. Silver Age Lois is the “meddlesome woman!” stereotype on steroids.
On the other hand, these comics also gave the world Supergirl. While initially inexperienced, and always deferential to her older cousin Superman, she was portrayed as no less hypercompetent and omnipowerful, and was as likely to come to Superman’s rescue as the other way around. And she was no mere sidekick; Supergirl was given her own series in the pages of Action Comics, with her own supporting cast, going on her own adventures, and carving her own niche in the world of comics.
Oh, and I guess I should mention that there’s more casual smoking in these comics than we’d accept in kids’ media today. Like, one story has Perry White give up cigars, and this is taken as proof that a sinister force has been tampering with his mind.
“The Super-Key to Fort Superman!” (from Action Comics #241)
Aside from introducing the Silver Age’s Fortress of Solitude (no barren ice palace this, but a kid’s playhouse writ large, full of far out gadgets, intergalactic pets, and bizarre mementos), it also establishes this era’s love of mind games. There’s no threat to the world, no fearsome villain Superman must defeat, just evidence that someone has been inside his impenetrable fortress, but no clue as to who. It’s a hoot watching Superman descend into paranoia as he tries to solve this mystery, and the ending is a corker that I don’t dare spoil.
“Lois Lane’s Secret Romance!” (from Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #14)
This is the comic where Supergirl tries to gaslight Superman into marrying Lois. I know people throw the word “gaslighting” around a lot these days, but I’m being serious: she makes her cousin think he’s having full-blown hallucinations, all as phase one in her efforts to play matchmaker. And those efforts just get more disastrously, hilariously misguided as the story goes on.
“Hercules in the 20th Century!”/“Superman’s Battle with Hercules!” (from Action Comics #267 & #268)
This two part tale begins with Lex Luthor using random junk in his prison cell to build a time machine and transport the legendary Hercules from ancient Greece to 1960’s America, and it just gets wilder from there. The epic showdown between Superman and Hercules is terrific fun, and demonstrates this era’s approach to super-battles. In a contest between the world’s ultimate strongmen, we see maybe one punch thrown, but get oodles of magical gadgets and clever schemes to outfox each other.
“The Old Man of Metropolis!” (from Action Comics #270)
Superman travels into the future where he’s an old man, where years of kryptonite exposure have robbed him of his powers, and where the world has forgotten him and all his superdeeds. Silver Age Superman was defined by his absolute power, so to see him reduced to a feeble old man, forgotten and disrespected by the world he did so much for … depending on your mindset, it’s either a tragic glimpse into what could be, or the most darkly hilarious thing ever, as one indignity after another is heaped on Old Man Superman. Either way, this story’s a gem.
“The Interplanetary Circus!” (from Superman #145)
As you might guess, this story has an interplanetary circus come to Metropolis. While there’s some conflict between Superman and the alien ringmaster (who wants Superman to be his new star attraction), this is really just an excuse to show off the circus and all the bizarre sights it has to offer. There’s almost a Dr. Seuss vibe to the aliens’ designs and the attractions they set up, and it makes for an utterly charming children’s story.
“The Duel Over Superman!” (from Superman #150)
Lois Lane and Lana Lang have had it with competing for Superman’s love, and decide to settle matters with a duel to the death! Or is that just what they want him to think? This is a Superman comic at its farcical best, where everyone is pulling some sort of zany scheme, where no one for one second thinks about the moral lines they’re crossing, and where it all ends in such an outrageous place, you can’t help laughing at the audacity of it all.
“The Strange Bodies of Supergirl!” (from Action Comics #284)
This is the second part of a storyline where Supergirl was exposed to six pieces of Red Kryptonite, each of which will mutate her body in bizarre and random ways. The first part of the story, in Action Comics #283, was fun enough, with Supergirl first gaining weight, then becoming a wolfgirl, then shrinking to microscopic size and fighting some bacteria. But this second part is where the transformations truly go off the rails, into such wonderfully dark and bizarre territory, I just love it to bits.
Those are my thoughts on this weird, strange, wonderful era in Superman comics. I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe got introduced to some comics you didn’t know you were going to love.
Be super, everyone!