‘Superman Atomic Age Sundays Volume 3 1956-1959:’ Hardcover Review

This may be Superman’s strangest set of adventures yet. Keep in mind, I’ve read and reviewed three of these collections of Superman’s Sunday comic strips from the '40s and '50s already, so I know what I’m talking about. In the past, I’ve seen Superman transformed into an intelligent toddler. I’ve seen him put on his own one-man circus to save a down-on-his-luck ringmaster from ruin. I’ve seen him submit to a series of tests by the Metropolis Skeptics Society in order to prove his own existence. Still, none of that compares with some of the adventures in this volume.

Of course, all of these collections tread a thin line between the “bizarrely awesome and exciting” type of strange, and the type that’s more “Wait, what’s even going on here?” This volume veers a lot more toward the latter category. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty entertaining. There’s just also a lot of head scratching.

For instance, the very first adventure involves Superman traveling to a tiny nation in Central America, disguising himself as a local peasant, and running for public office in order to expose and ultimately thwart an attempted military coup. That’s actually one of the saner stories here.

Once he’s done with that, he stops a deadly comet that’s on a collision course with Earth. Superman did something similar to this on the show Lois & Clark once. It was a tremendous feat of strength that took the entire episode to accomplish. Here, he gets it done in half a page. Then, the rest of the story over the course of the next several months is about Superman dealing with an eating disorder. I’m dead serious.

That one was definitely my least favorite story, in no small part because it’s full of fat shaming. Superman accidentally puts on a lot of extra weight, and every single person he encounters makes fun of him for it. At a party, he’s mistaken for just an ordinary person in a Superman costume, and someone tells him, “You have no right to wear that costume! You’re too fat to be Superman!” He applies for a job at the electric company and is told, “We don’t normally hire overweight people.” Even Lois makes a snide remark about how Superman used to be so attractive, before he went and got fat. In 1956, it was meant to be silly and fun, but in today’s world, it comes off as harsh, callous, and uncomfortable.

There are tons of other adventures, though, which, in their strangeness, do still manage to be silly and fun. There’s a story wherein a telescope gone awry sends three Metropolis citizens to three distant planets. At one point, Superman battles an ancient genie who’s apparently both a mob enforcer and a union member. Later, he gets elected to the U.S. Senate. There’s time travel, space travel, boat travel, a jury trial for a giant ape, and much more.

Perhaps the strangest thing about many of these adventures is what a waste they seem to be of the Man of Steel’s ridiculous amount of power. In reviewing previous volumes, I postulated that Superman is, essentially, a bored god for whom no task, big or small, requires more than the bare minimum of effort. His character has evolved somewhat since then, and many of the situations he faces do succeed in challenging him, even putting him in danger. Kryptonite is used frequently, along with enemies whose strength seem to match his.

What makes these adventures so strange, then, is the fact that the ones that should be the real challenges are barely touched on. Much of his time is spent dealing with seemingly trivial matters in a super way. As I mentioned before, he stops a rogue comet with ease, but then spends weeks dealing with being fat. He fixes broken dams single-handedly and investigates top-secret laboratory explosions on his lunch hour, but he’s stymied by the minor problems that arise from those calamities.

One of the most frequent problems he deals with is simply trying to keep his secret identity from being revealed. Interestingly enough, in these comic strips, Lois totally knows that Clark is Superman. At least, she strongly suspects. A recurring theme is that every time she finds herself close to uncovering the truth, Clark/Superman goes to ridiculous, super-powered lengths to disprove her theories. She still knows it’s him, but she just can’t find any solid proof that she could use in a newspaper story.

That’s the nature of most of the stories in this volume: unusual situations for Superman to find himself in; unusual uses for his powers while he’s there; and elaborate ways for him to save the day while still keeping his dual identity a secret.

As with the previous volumes, this one is rather deceptive in terms of length. Each page is about the size of a regular comic book page, and it’s around the same number of pages as a standard graphic novel; however, it’s important to remember that they’re newspaper comics, not comic books. There’s a lot more art, dialogue, and general goings-on packed into each page, and the adventures are very dense. Reading the whole book at a sitting could prove exhausting. Keep in mind that they were designed to be read at the rate of one page a week. While that might be stretching it out a little too much, it still might be a good idea to read just one or two stories at a time, over the course of a few days or weeks.

Despite the strange, sometimes incomprehensible nature of some of these stories, as a whole this book manages to be very entertaining. If you’re a fan of Superman and of cheesy, silly adventure comics of the 1950s, you’d do well to check out Superman Atomic Age Sundays Volume 3.

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