thrift store finds: the superman story

(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood St. Vincent DePaul store.)

One of the things that got me started thinking about the comic paperback collections of the days of yore was this book:

The Untold Legend of the Batman was a TOR Books reprint of an old Batman origin series that the publishing house had in bookstores right around the end of the 1980’s… right at the time that the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie was breaking all sorts of box office records. To say I was a HUGE fan of that Batman movie and the resulting marketing hoopla would be a gross understatement. I gloried in that movie. I had Batman toys, I ate Batman cereal (despite, TRUE STORY, it being produced by a company more widely known for making DOG FOOD). I dressed up AS Batman when I finally got my parents to take me to see the movie… six weeks after it premiered. Imaging going to see a movie a month and a half after it had first come out in theaters and seeing people dressed as their favorite characters. Ridiculous… but I was that much a fan.

That paperback meant a lot to me, but somewhere between middle school and college, I lost my copy. I’ve been tempted to just buy one off eBay, but I’m relatively sure I’ll find one sooner or later.

I tell you all that to put my utter surprise into some kind of context when, out of the blue a few days ago, I found this paperback in the remaindered section of our local outlet mall:

The Superman Story follows the same narrative pattern as the Batman paperback I so loved as a kid.

It’s a quick retelling of the superhero’s origin story, couched in a larger narrative wherein he fights a big bad guy. The Superman Story was published in 1983, a tumltuous time for Superman’s publisher, DC Comics. DC was being soundly thrashed sales-wise by it’s Marvel-ous competition and although it was the home to some of the most recognizable characters in the world, many of the DC heroes were then seen as being old-fashioned and stodgy. 1983 was also the year that the horrendously awful Superman III hit theaters. You remember that one, right? It was more a vehicle for comedian Richard Pryor’s transition from comedian to actor than anything resembling a competent Superman movie.

I can only imagine that The Superman Story was released in conjunction with that movie, although my copy looks like it came from the printer’s only yesterday, it’s so pristine.

The story in a nutshell: Metropolis has decided to honor Superman with a Man of Steel exhibit at their World’s Fair. Superman takes a bunch of lookie-loos on a tour of the exhibition and recounts for them his past, including the destruction of Krypton (which he remembers in detail despite being an infant at the time, thanks to his “super-memory”) and early career as Superboy.

Here’s one thing that always bothered me about Superman and he talks about it in the Superboy wing of the exhibit, and explains to the crowd why there’s so few pieces on display:

Here’s what I never understood as a kid: If Superman was so smart, why did he ever let people KNOW he has a “secret” identity in the first place? Does that even make sense when you think about it? How secret this identity be can it be if everyone knows that he has one? It’s like he’s inviting problems into his life by letting everyone know that he COULD be any average joe on the street. I mean… why bother advertising your double life? Just don’t say anthing!

I suppose this IS the same guy who also wants the world to know he has a Fortress of Solitude that nobody but he can get into… because he leaves a giant freakin’ KEY sitting out front that can only be lifted by someone as powerful as Superman is.

Honestly, I’m joking a bit there. Some of these ideas are silly… but it’s important to note that there’s a distinction between silly ideas… and stupid ideas. The giant key to the Fortress of Solitude and Superman’s double identity are just goofy entertainments that might capture a young comic reader’s imagination. I don’t see anything wrong with them… they’re really charming!

Case in point: Krypto the Super-Dog. Here, in one of those awkwardly laid-out two-page panels, Superman talks about his super-pooch.

Personally, I love the idea that Superman has a super dog… but I can see where middle-aged Comic Book Guy like fans would look down their noses at the idea as being too immature. I think you can see in this story that Marty Pesko, the writer of this comic, is trying to rectify the fun goofy aspects of the Superman character with the modern sensibilities of the comics readers of the 1980’s. Case in point, here he dispatches Krypto’s whereabouts and gives superman a little Super-ennui at the same time:

As the origin continues, it soon becomes clear there is a “mystery” villain is making trouble for Superman throughout the exhibit… and although Superman only really has one good villian, I’ll leave it to you to suss out the identity of this nefarious individual. I mean come on… was Supes really going to be challenged by the Toyman? LOOK at that guy!

A mere three years after this book was published, DC Comics would clean house with the groundbreaking Crisis on Infinite Earthsmini-series which effectively hit the “reset” button on many of its’ most popular superheroes. Superman was more realistically reimagined for the 1980’s and much of the kitschy fun of the origin story detailed here would be tossed out the window. Like, I can’t imagine the Superman of the Eighties learning how to fly like this:

(I think about my hand as ailerons and my feet as flaps all the time, and I can’t even fly.)

Sure, the book has its problems. As you can see from a couple of pictures above, it has quite a few of those panels that stretch over two pages and are just really unsightly… and I spared you from the number of panels that were altogether too zoomed in on or zoomed out from in the book to make it fit into a paperback. It’s pretty clear that this wasn’t a story written specifically for the paperback, and that’s OK… but it does make from some weird shoehorning in of panels.

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9 Responses to “thrift store finds: the superman story”

  1. I’m getting all nostalgic–I used to read that stuff when I was a kid, and never notice the silly things you point out. Also, I got my first issue of the cut-rate Slickdeals MAD mag this month. It’s fairly terrible, worse than I remember its imitators back when it was something worth imitating. Odd they can’t do better than that, or maybe the format has just gone stale or something.

    • Christopher Pearce Says:

      I was thinking of saving if for a Saturday post sometime in the future, but man oh man… I got my new issue of MAD in the mail last week and even giving the fact that the things you love as a kid have a way of diminishing in stature when you revisit them as an adult… not so great.

      I was shocked at the amount of navel-gazing in the book! For an institution that prided itself on tackling the biggest and newest stupidity in pop culture, there sure was a LOT of stupid filler in the book! Like six pages were just old comics!

      Anyhow, I still love MAD, but maybe its time has passed… especially when whatever new movie that comes out can be satirized immediately after its released by people on the internet.

  2. […] thrift store finds: the superman story « Teachable Moments […]

  3. Well—I remember those satires being funny. The most interesting thing, I thought, was the rehashed Dave Berg comics, which relied on clever observation. It’s hard to imagine they can’t find anyone else to do clever observation. For example, you do it all the time, which is why I keep coming back here.

  4. You can probably find what you are missing at AbeBooks.com, where your search links to thousands of indie bookstores – some online only – around the globe.
    Your blog is a joy, and I am so tickled to think of the legacy your lucky students will carry with them on into the future.

    • Christopher Pearce Says:

      Thanks Mary Mac! I’ve actually looked at AbeBooks and they have a ton of ’em for less than $3 dollars. I’m holding off though… I’m hoping if I’m patient, I’ll run across one in my own thrift store. It’s the thrill of the hunt!

  5. If my memory serves me correctly, this was also part of Action Comics #500.

    • Christopher Pearce Says:

      I always feel like a bit of a phony writing these, as I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable about comics as so many other people are… but at the same time, not being very worldly is kind of what makes it fun. Thanks for letting me know!

  6. […] some of these comics are when reprinted in paperbacks. You can look at my Howling MAD post or my Superman post for visual evidence to […]

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