Superman: The Persistence Of An American Icon by Ian Gordon (book review)

August 7, 2017 | By | Reply More

As Ian Gordon’s book title, ‘Superman: The Persistence Of An American Icon’, reveals, he is interested in the longevity of the world’s most famous alien immigrant, the Man Of Steel. He points out from the start that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were guided by editorial management. More so with Siegel as the writer to getting his facts right when he defined haemophilia incorrectly. Considering the mistakes various American comicbook writers have made over the years, I’m not looking at it as something of an odd tradition.

Thing is, though, Superman was breaking new ground from the start. There was no template to follow and even Batman was fighting gangsters in his own titles, so it was hardly surprising he was fighting them as well. Gangsters and such were in the news a lot back then and instantly identifiable as villains. Lex Luthor was just a bright human when he was introduced and it took a while to develop super-villains that could really battle Superman.

I will disagree with Ian Gordon about the loss of sales with the ‘Action Comics’ title. Superman was just spread out too thinly when you count up the number of titles he was also in: ‘Superman’, as well as the team books, ‘World’s Finest’ and ‘Justice League Of America’, not to mention the ‘Jimmy Olsen’ and ‘Lois Lane’ titles. On top of that there was the ‘Superboy’ and ‘Adventure Comics’, the latter becoming another team book with the Legion Of Super-Heroes, titles. Even when the Olsen and Lane titles were dropped, they were replaced with ‘The Adventures Of Superman’ and another team-up, ‘DC Comics Presents’. The cash cow or kryptonian literally couldn’t be afforded by those who read his adventures and there were other characters and comicbook companies to choose from. It’s a lesson that the current generation of comicbook companies has yet to learn from. Less really is more.

Although it’s noted that Superman has had many re-boots over the years, Ian Gordon neglects the biggest change with the 1950s to 1960s when the early adventures were relegated to what is now Earth-2 and the current adventures on Earth-1. Unlike the later re-boots, these all happened with the Earth-1 reality even if DC Comics now consider it all part of 52 different realities and thus different versions of Superman now. As Alan Moore pointed out, they are all ‘imaginary stories’ but I add to that, take your pick as to which is canon now.

Probably the most entertaining chapter was looking at particular regular letter writers to the Superman titles. I recognised a lot of names but one thing Ian Gordon neglects is that many of them, including the late famous T.M. Maple, also got letters in Marvel Comics on a regular basis. Speaking as a regular contributor to the letters page of the national ‘Mirror’ in the UK, no letters column gets thousands of letters. Usually, at most, maybe a hundred a publication but usually around fifty. If you have something worth saying in a concise way, the odds will sway in your favour at being selected. Serial letter writers invariably progress from wanting to prove their first letter in print wasn’t a fluke, nor the second, third or fifth. Then again, I might just have something to say.

The merchandising of Superman is also presented well and it does sort of feed on itself as you read the comicbook and then get the toys, whose licence pays to keep the comicbooks going when they earn a lot less. About the only thing Ian Gordon missed out on was the Twinkies adverts but a lot of DC characters were involved in these. Fictional characters fame can last longer than real people simply because they can remain ageless and mostly unchanging or at least not enough to make much difference in updating in the public memory.

Superman or Clark Kent’s wink to the reader and breaking the fourth wall doesn’t make him the only comicbook character who acknowledges someone reading his adventures. If anything, it’s an Illuminatus moment but, then again, how many of you reading here have spoken to yourself as if someone else is listening in. Visually, it just comes out better in comicbooks. It’s either that or their creators are over-indulging themselves.

In many respects, I’ve written this review from my reaction to it. Any book that can do that and not have many errors is doing well. As the first super-human or super-kryptonian comicbook hero, it shouldn’t be surprising that Superman developed into an icon. But then, so did many of the characters from that period of time, more so as they evolved or were adapted to each generation. It’s hardly surprising that these characters have endured, even the less successful second-tier ones. If you want to understand elements of this then studying Superman isn’t a bad place to start.

GF Willmetts

August 2017

(pub: Rutgers University Press. 210 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £26.50 (UK), $ (US). ISBN: 978-0-8135-8751-6)

check out websites: www.rutgerspress.rutgers.edu and www.eurospanbookstore.com

Category: Books, Superheroes

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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