It seems like everybody’s got an idea of what Superman is or should be. He’s a guardian angel, he’s a big blue boy scout, he’s a Christ figure, he’s space Moses. He’s awesome, he’s lame, he’s relevant or he’s not. To a certain extent, everyone is right – over the course of 75 years of continuous publication, Superman has been a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In Superman – The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon maps the history of Superman – his publishing history, but also the evolution of his portrayal in comics, film, radio, and every other medium imaginable. In doing so, he distills and analyzes the essence of what makes Superman who he is and why he has resonated with readers in one way or another for three-quarters of a century.
Half of the book’s opening chapter is about how creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster developed Superman; the remaining half-chapter is devoted to a close read/analysis of the original, 13-page Superman story that appeared in Action Comics #1. And if that sounds boring or tedious to you, then I can do nothing for you because you could not be more wrong. It certainly could have ended up that way, but the exercise is anything but in Weldon’s hands. He provides valuable context and commentary that makes this chapter – and the entirety of the book, really, though it rarely gets as nitty-gritty again as it does in those opening pages – comfortable.
And comfortable is probably the best word to describe how the book reads. It feels like you’re out at a bar, having a beer, and talking about Superman with a smart friend. Weldon clearly takes Superman seriously, but he also acknowledges the sillier aspects of the character’s history (various colors of Kryptonite, new powers, and a certain regrettable hairstyle). Even those aspects, though, which other people might choose to ignore, are important to Weldon’s thesis, acting as indicators of how the Man of Steel has changed over time and reinforcing Weldon’s conclusions about what makes Superman important.
It’s worth mentioning that I spend more time than is probably healthy thinking about Superman. I’ve read nearly every Superman comic of the modern, post-Crisis (the first one) era, and quite a few from before then, so I knew a fair amount of the information that Weldon includes in the book going into it. Maybe that’s why it felt so comfortable to me. That said, it also felt fresh and I was never bored. The analysis that he provides is both insightful and entertaining, and it made me consider stories with which I am extremely familiar in a new light. I can also say confidently that, even if you’ve never read a Superman comic but are interested in the character and his cultural evolution, this book is perfectly accessible. If you’re interested in the book, but you didn’t know what “post-Crisis” meant earlier, don’t worry. This is not a book for insiders only, with winks and nods and references without explanations. The book, like Superman, is for everyone.
If you want a taste of what the book is like, check out this extra piece that Weldon wrote about Krypto the Super-Dog, a character and topic that was left out almost entirely from the book. That piece should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book (though it is played more for laughs, because, as he writes, it’s a dog in a cape). I would’ve read 15 pages about Krypto if they were written like that, but that’s just me.
Literary nerds (of which I am one) will enjoy the book for its well-considered analysis. Comic book nerds (of which I am also one) will enjoy the history and the respect paid to a character that has endured for 75 years. Honestly, I wish the thing had been 1000 pages longer. Such is my combined love of Superman and enjoyment of Weldon’s writing style.