I’m possibly Silver Age Superman’s biggest fan. Before getting into the Silver Age mythology, I was not really a Superman supporter at all. Sure, I bought The Death of Superman story arc as a kid because I was swept up in the hype along with everyone else. In general I felt Superman was too much of a boy scout and a defender of the status quo to really interest me. I was more interested in the X-Men, the Hulk, and later on the Vertigo characters like Shade and John Constantine. Those heroes had a bit more edge and charisma, in my opinion. Then, a few years ago, something changed. Amid a long stint as a comic book store clerk in two different locations (both of which have closed down since), I read two Modern Age stories that changed my mind completely about Superman: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Alan Moore’s Supreme. Both of these stories paid direct homage to the Silver Age version of Superman that formed under the editorial direction of Mort Weisinger. After that I was hooked and wanted to read as many Silver Age Superman stories as I could get my hands on to see if the character was that interesting. After a few years of picking through convention bins and garage sales, I can tell you that Silver Age Superman is my favorite character to read. The stories reach the philosopher and literature junky in me and gave me a new view on superhero comics as a whole. Now, I understand that many of you may not believe me and some of you have strong prejudices against the Silver Age in general. I’m hoping this post helps change your mind.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite Silver Age Superman stories. I'm being pretty liberal with what I consider "Silver Age" so I picked stories from the mid-50's when Mort took over as editor to 1970 before Denny O’Neil was asked to revamp the character. I would recommend picking up the Superman in the 50's and Superman in the 60's tpbs if you're interested since they contain some of the stories I'm about to list as well as a bunch of other fun ones (Turtle Boy, Superman Meets Kennedy, Bizarro World). I’m including a brief plot summary and a personal interpretation along with each story I list. If you’re worried about Silver Age spoilers, just make note of the story names without reading further. Anyway, here are 12 of my favorite Superman stories along with an issue number where you can find them. In no particular order:
"The Girl who Didn't Believe in Superman" (Reprinted in Superman in the '50's). This story is about standing up in the face of ultimate cynicism. Superman meets a blind girl who doesn't believe he has powers. Since all of Superman's deeds are visible things, a smart, blind girl doesn't buy them because she can't see them (and if you think about it, most people have trouble believing in things they can't see). The ending is WAAAY too happy and a bit of a celebration of the nuclear family, but this story is powerful and thought provoking.
"'Lois Lane's Super-Daughter" ( Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane #20; Reprinted in Superman in the '60's). This is the imaginary story where Superman and Lois get married and adopt Supergirl. Lois is forced to quit her job to make the adoption work, and has to stay at home bored while her Super husband and daughter go off to do their great deeds (like watching your husband go to work and your daughter to school). I really do think it makes a feminist statement by showing you what happened to many housewives in the 50's and 60's. A generation of American women languished in suburban depression without the opportunity to pursue their interests or exciting lives of their own. In the 60's women would be actively stepping out of that role and this story reflects on why that was happening.
"The Impossible Mission " (Reprinted in Superboy #85 and Superman in the '60's). This is the story where Superboy goes back in time to try and prevent the Lincoln assassination. We learn the hard lesson of how you can't change the past and we learn that even Luthor has respect for the great emancipator. I love how historical and mythical figures come and go in Silver Age stories.
"The Showdown Between Superman and Luthor" (Superman #164; Reprinted in Superman in the '60's). This is the greatest Superman vs. Luthor story. They battle on a planet with a red sun so Superman has no powers just like Lex. By the end, we see how heroic Lex can really be when he gives up his own selfishness and petty desires to save a civilization (we could all be great if we did those things).
"The Day Superman Broke the Law" (Superman #153). It asks the question of what do you do when the law is unfair and petty. Superman gets put behind bars a number of times due to some funny legal interpretations. Then he uses the law to his advantage to trap the corrupt politician that framed him. A pretty universal message since everyone feels hard done by the law at some point. Superman teaches you that the sword cuts both ways.
"The Sons of Superman" (Superman #166). An imaginary story where Superman has two boys: one with powers and one without. The son without powers gets depressed and discouraged next to his super-brother and Superman struggles to find a way to raise his son's confidence like any good father. Here Superman is dealing with the direct consequences of how powers like his make normal people feel. The dynamics here do reflect real families. How do you boost the confidence of a child who is less naturally gifted than his brother?
"Clark Kent's Incredible Delusion" (Superman #174). This is my favorite Superman story of all time. Clark wakes up with no powers, no super suit, and with another man claiming to be Superman. He goes to a therapist who tells him that he's delusional and only imagined himself as Superman because he feels disappointed at his mild mannered life as Clark Kent. It's a story that asks the question: "What if the rest of the world sees me differently than I see myself?" What if I wake up one day knowing who I am, knowing that I'm really Superman, but the rest of the world doesn't believe me and tells me I'm someone else. That I was delusional for ever thinking I was Superman. Would I be able to continue believing that I am the man I know in my heart I am? It's a powerful question and one that even Superman struggles to answer.
"Super-Mxyzptlk...Hero!" (Reprinted in Superman #174). This is among a series of stories that ask the question of what happens when Superman gets shown up and doesn't look like the greatest hero anymore. I've read quite a few of them (including the first "Mon El" appearance "Superman's Big Brother" reprinted in Superman in the '50's), but Super-Mxyzptlk is my favorite of them. Mxyzptlk decides to prank Superman in this story by becoming a better hero than Supes is and he succeeds since he has magic powers that bend reality instantly to his whim. Superman has to admit that Mxy is a more effective hero and steps aside. Unfortunately for Mxy, Bizarro pays a surprise visit to Metropolis and decides to erect a statue in honor of Metropolis’ new hero. Doing everything the opposite way, Bizarro spells Mxyzptlk’s name backwards on the statue tricking the imp into sending himself back to the fifth dimension. Think about that. Superman’s jealousy problem is solved by the version of Superman who does all the things the real Superman would never do. Hmmm… There’s definitely a psychological statement there.
"The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue" (Superman #162; Reprinted in the 1973 100-Page Superman Spectacular and a lot of other places). This story was billed as "The Greatest Imaginary Story Ever Told." It asks the very basic question of: What if there were two of me? Superman splits himself into two equally-powerful Supermen designated Red and Blue to solve all of the problems Superman can't normally solve on his own. Possibly the ultimate happy ending for Silver Age Superman and a hopeful story for anyone who has ever wondered what life would be like if they were twice as capable.
"Punishment of Superboy" (Reprinted in Superman Annual Vol.1 #7). This story shows Pa Kent struggling to properly punish Superboy who is more powerful and clever than Pa in almost every way. It speaks to any parent struggling to deal with a gifted child who may intimidate them in certain ways (you can see this happen in grocery and department stores across America). The end of this story might come off as a bit cruel and dysfunctional if you take it too seriously. I've always liked this view of Superman's childhood better than the Post-Crisis childhood of Clark. It makes more sense to me that an extraordinary guy like Superman would be a particularly brilliant and strange kid.
"Lois Lane, the Supermaid from Earth!" (Superman #159). In this imaginary tale, Earth blows up instead of Krypton and Lois is sent from Earth to Krypton where she grows up with Super-powers and constantly has to rescue powerless Kal-El. This story shows young, male readers how to act when you feel dependent on your more capable spouse which would happen to young men more and more as Women's Lib. gained steam. Critical feminist readers might not take kindly to the end of the story which sees a kind of return to status quo (perhaps wishful thinking from a male view?), but I would argue that this story is a step in the right direction as you get many examples of Lois saving and looking after a hapless, but well-meaning Kal-El.
"Leave Us...or We Perish!" (Superboy #168). This is the latest story on this list as it came out Sept. 1970 which I consider to be the final year of the Silver Age for Superman (as the more sweeping Bronze Age changes would take place by Jan. 1971), but we can see the origins of the Bronze Age start to creep in as Superboy is drawn in a more defined way and the story attempts to reflect on a specific real world problem. In this story, Smallville is invaded by the Nazis shortly before America joins WWII (this is poor continuity work by the writer who I assume is taking Superman in the late 60's early 70's as the same Superman who fought in WWII) and is held ransom against Superboy who is given the order to leave Smallville or the Nazis will destroy it. Instead of standing up to the Nazis to help the boy who has saved them on so many occasions, the people of Smallville become scared and give in to the Nazi demands by turning on Superboy to try and chase him out. This is a wonderful metaphor for what happened in Nazi Germany and many of the Nazi-occupied countries during WWII. The fear of Nazi power was so great that people would rat each other out or stay silent and hope they would be passed over instead of fighting back. A true statement on what happens when good men do nothing (except Superboy of course).
So that's it or at least it's enough for now. I really do love these Silver Age stories because I think they are making some real statements about real people and lives albeit in a fantastic and more universal way. For anyone to enjoy the Silver Age, I tell them to try and keep an open mind and try to concentrate on the basic message of the story rather than getting hung up about the politics of 50's and 60's society or the poor dialogue and funny plot holes. Maybe even think of Silver Age Supes as Everyman instead of Superman because I think many of these stories reflect on the problems of normal men in an exaggerated fashion. Instead of taking the Modern approach of here's a story about one man with powers and his continuing saga, the Silver Age says here's a story about everyone using one man with powers. Of course, there are a lot of just crazy, fun science fiction stories from the Silver Age as well and I hope you like those just as much.