A short while back, we covered an issue of SUPERMAN that I had purchased in 1988 as a part of my big Windfall Comics buy. That issue featured a single full-length Superman adventure rather than the usual three shorter stories that the title typically ran. (That story was broken up into three discrete chapters so as to maintain the illusion of being teh same; apparently, comic book companies believes that the audience demanded variety in their comic book purchases.) Mark Waid turned up in the comments to confirm that it wasn’t the first book-length story in a SUPERMAN issue, and to list off its predecessors. And that got me curious. Because while it’s typical today for a story to fill up a given issue of a comic book, if not five or six issues, that very much wasn’t the case in the 1950s. And so here, we’re going to take a look at the very first full length Superman adventure.
It was SUPERMAN #113 in 1957 which inaugurated this daring development. But even then, it had antecedents. In the 1940s, a number of books published by ALL-AMERICAN COMICS, NATIONAL/DC’s sister company that it ultimately absorbed, had run stories that filled up an entire issue. (Superman himself was in a pair of these, adventures of the Justice Society of America in ALL-STAR COMICS). Closer to home, Jack Kirby had introduced the Challengers of the Unknown in the pages of SHOWCASE five months earlier, and all of their stories were book-length epics (though, again, divided up into discrete chapters–this practice lasted across all companies until the very top of 1963, when it began to be phased out.) So it’s possible that Superman overseer Mort Weisinger became aware of the sell-through on those early Challengers appearances and decided to steal a move from them. It was a format that he and his creators found success with, and so it was used more and more often.
Weisinger wasn’t yet the editor of record of the Superman titles–that responsibility fell to Whit Ellsworth, who had been with the company since almost the very beginning. But during this period, Ellsworth had relocated to the west coast in order to oversee production on the live action ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television program, as well as to seek out other opportunities for DC in Hollywood. Not only did Weisinger assist Ellsworth in coming up with television scripts for the Man of Steel, but he also effectively ran Ellsworth’s titles back in New York for the duration, though Whit still had the final say. But within a year from this moment, Ellsworth would decide to remain in California and part ways with DC, and Weisinger inherited the Superman titles completely. That’s the point at which Weisinger’s creativity was unleashed across his new books to greatest effect–but he was still a key player in 1957, and my guess was that doing a book-length epic (what was termed a “3-Part-Novel” on the cover, a term that stuck) was his idea.
The creative talent on this story were all top flight craftsmen, though most of them would soon be rotated off of Superman assignments by Weisinger once he was given a free hand. The script was written by Bill Finger, the co-creator of Batman, Green Lantern and Wildcat, among other things. Finger was a chronic procrastinator who suffered from writer’s block, but he was also a canny plotter and one of teh best story men in the business. The artwork was provided by Wayne Boring, who had started out as one of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster’s many assistants, and had risen through the ranks, becoming the primary artist of the Man of Steel’s adventures by the late 1940s and all through the 1950s, in the daily newspaper strip as well as the comic books. He had a signature style that included such idiosyncrasies as regularly depicting Superman jogging across the sky–but his work was a lot more polished and modern than that of Shuster, even if it looks a bit antiquated to modern eyes. The inking was provided by Stan Kaye, who gave the strip an open and uncluttered look.
The story is very much of the period, with the kinds of parallel developments that would become something of a trope in Weisinger’s titles. It opens with Superman recovering a Mind-Tape recording from within a kryptonite meteorite that has fallen to Earth. It turns out through wild coincidence to be a report from Superman’s father Jor-El to the Science Council of Krypton about a recent adventure he experienced–one in which he gained super-powers similar to those his son would possess on Earth. As an astonished Superman listens, the Mind-Tape shows him how, while looking at Earth through his telescope, Jor-El discovered an asteroid containing the concealed spaceship of Queen Latora of the Vergoans, which was headed for Krypton. Learning that the Vergoans’ robots were constructing massive towers that would lead to Krypton’s total destruction, Jor-El set out to intercept the asteroid and prevent the plan. (Because the Kryptonians didn’t have space travel yet, Jor-El had to shoot himself there in the shell of an enormous gun, which is the kind of insane idea these stories specialize in.) Arriving, Jor-El is surprised to discover that, upon the asteroid in its non-Kryptonian conditions, he possesses amazing super-powers.
As is typical in these stories, not only does Jor-El pick up Superman-style powers, but he also predicts his son’s activities when he adopts a concealed identity for himself–in this case, posing as one of the Vergoan robots. He also saves the Queen’s life in true Superman fashion, despite the fact that they are enemies–and like Lois Lane, she is determined to figure out his true identity. Superman’s listening is interrupted by a menace threatening Metropolis in the present–one that resembles what his father had dealt with years before. Inspired by Jor-El’s example, Superman is able to defeat the menace by totally evacuating metropolis and then sealing the entire city off within a colossal bubble until the air runs out and the menacing plant dies off (surely there must have been an easier way to deal with it than that. But again, big, crazy ideas.) Resuming listening to Jor-El’s recording, Superman learns that his father eventually worked out that the Vergoans were transforming their asteroid into a colossal magnet, with which they could tow Krypton out of its orbit and guide it back to their own home system. Queen Latora confirms that they intend to dump it into their dying sun so that Krypton’s uranium core will re-ignite it when it explodes. She also tells Jor-El that it won’t matter much either way, because that same core is going to cause Krypton to explode regardless.
Jor-El scuttles Queen Latora’s plan and then returns to Krypton to warn the Science Council. And that’s where the account ends. Using his telescopic vision, Superman located the planet Vergo and discovers that its sun is still ablaze, though it’s close to dying. He resolves to save them in thanks for the warning about Krypton’s fate that they gave his father. After a short detour where he defeats the scientist responsible for the earlier plant-menace by creating a replica of Metropolis to divert him, Superman realizes he can use the same basic idea to help Vergo. He scours the galaxy for uranium, eventually gathering a planet’s worth of the stuff, and hurling it into the Vergo sun, where it detonates and reinvigorate the thing. Queen Latora is still alive (and still seemingly the same age, bit of a goof there–but who knows how the Vergoans age?) and she thanks Superman just as she had thanked his father years before. And that’s it–Superman returns to Earth and wonders about there possibly being other relics of Krypton floating around out there in outer space that he might encounter–a clear set-up for any potential sequels that might be done. It’s also a decent example of the manner in which Ellsworth and Weisinger found to create conflict unde the confines of the Comics Code. which forbade anything that smacked of violence. Even when it comes to defeating the mad scientist, Superman uses cleverness rather than brute strength to do so–even when that cleverness results in ridiculous Rube Goldberg-esque sequences of events. Being colorful was more important than being sensible.