Sunday comics were allowed a lot more space back then than they are now, so each strip takes up a full page of about the size of a regular comic book. The strips are a lot denser, though. There’s a whole lot more text, since every event requires exposition, explanation, and a recap the next week. It’s clear that these strips weren’t designed to be read all at once, but at the one-a-week rate at which they were published.
Whereas comic books have time to build up suspense and anticipation, strips need to have action and high stakes on every page, because otherwise they’ve wasted a full week. Adventures are relatively simple, and though storylines stretch out over several months, they’re punctuated by lots of small moments of danger that are quickly resolved. There’s no time for nuance, and the only buildup of anticipation is with the cliffhanger at the end of the page.
Through most of the book, Superman does his part to help the soldiers in World War II. It’s total propaganda, of course. It’s propaganda for a good cause, but propaganda nonetheless. In the first adventure, mild mannered Clark Kent is doing a series on the life of an Army Air Corps cadet as he enlists, goes through training, etc. Meanwhile, a group of Nazi spies have decided that the subject of these articles--a brash and headstrong young man named Dave Cooper, portrayed by Clark as the ideal cadet—must be publicly discredited in order to lower the country’s morale.
The leader of this project is a man known only as “Eyeglasses,” which is perhaps the least menacing villain name of all time. He and his men spend literally months following Clark Kent and Dave Cooper all across the country, looking for ways to sabotage Dave as he goes through various levels of training. They sabotage his planes several times and his parachute once. They kidnap him twice to try to make it look like he’s a deserter. Every time, though, Superman swoops in to rescue him.
You’d think it would become apparent after the first couple of times this happened that Superman is keeping an eye on Dave Cooper, and that maybe the Nazis’ sabotage plans would be put to better use elsewhere. Is the biggest threat to the Nazi war effort really a pilot who isn’t even out of training yet?
Once Dave completes his training, Superman moves on to a new adventure: “Superman’s Service for Servicemen.” The Man of Tomorrow pretty much puts his entire life on hold to run super errands for the men defending our country. These stories see Superman flying soldiers home to visit their families, fixing long-distance love triangles, and more. Some of them are funny or silly, while others are more intense and action oriented.
A lot of it’s pretty corny, and, again, blatant propaganda, but still, you have to hand it to the writers. Superman could easily fly into the midst of a battle and decimate all of the Nazis within minutes. Instead, though, the focus of these stories always remains on the soldiers and how much they’re needed. Other superhero comics of the day would have the hero take on the Nazis single-handedly, then include a blurb at the end reminding the readers to buy war bonds or something. Superman steps aside and lets the soldiers be the real heroes. He’s just a guy doing his part to help them out—and encouraging readers to do the same.
There’s also a more disturbing aspect to these stories, though. The propaganda in them is about not just showing our soldiers as heroes, but also showing the enemy soldiers as villains. When your enemy is the Nazis, this is not a difficult task. Still, even Nazis are human beings, and while killing them is a necessary part of war, the casualness and even glee with which it’s done is distressing. Repeatedly, characters talk about how much fun it is to kill enemy soldiers. Superman drops a Nazi spy off a building at one point, then comments that the only reason he’s swooping down to save him from splattering against the pavement is because he has important information to reveal. Then, of course, there are the horrifically racist portrayals of the Japanese soldiers. The carefully crafted image of both the Nazis and the Japanese portrays them as not only deserving of death, but as being barely human, so that they can be killed as casually as ordering a sandwich.
However, the war ended in 1945, and the book takes us all the way through 1946, so, eventually, the war stories give way to more traditional Superman adventures. After a brief story arc about the soldiers coming home (wherein Superman tries to bribe and then force women to marry a particular war hero, based solely on how they look), we move on to the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins, followed by adventures in space, at the circus, and more.
The Superman in these strips has a slightly different personality than the one we’ve come to know. He’s almost more like Spider-Man, punctuating every fight and feat of derring-do with quips and snide commentary. At one point, he yells, “You bother me!” to a henchman as he’s punching him. At another, he sings a Superman theme song to himself as he flies through the air.
He also seems to have no real weaknesses. No matter what danger is flung his way, he’s always able to vanquish it in short order. Nothing ever fazes him. His only worry is not “Will I be able to save this person in time?” but “Will I be able to save this person without them seeing me change into my tights?” Even cliffhangers that show characters headed for seemingly inevitable doom aren’t about “Will Superman be able to save the day?” but “How will Superman save the day?” It’s a small difference, but it changes the entire dynamic of the story.
It might be a good idea to space out the reading of these adventures over a couple of weeks. In terms of pages, it’s about the same length as an ordinary graphic novel, but it’s not nearly so quick a read. The abundance of text in just about every panel makes it a lot denser, with a lot more going on in general. That, plus the fact that, as mentioned before, it was designed to be read week by week, makes it not the best candidate for binge reading.
Still, like most classic comics, Superman: Golden Age Sundays is mainly just cheesy fun. The adventures are interesting and exciting and definitely worth reading for anyone who likes classic Superman.