"The Secret of Kryptonite!" from Superman #136 (1960)
Written by Jerry Coleman
Art by Al Plastino

Superboy! One of our attendants stole all the meteors! A check of his fingerprints has revealed that he is really ‘Silk’ Smith, an ex-criminal!”

Here’s a gross thing from old comics that doesn’t have to do with sex or gender! These Superman comics have a tendency to treat criminality like it’s in somebody’s nature. Tons of plots hinge on one character or another recognizing a guy who was in prison and realizing they’re up to no good, and I can remember barely any instances of rehabilitation, and certainly none of someone breaking the law and remaining sympathetic. The conflicts simply run on a parade of normal human men who are greedy evil jerks for no clear reason.

The example quoted above particularly struck me. Since as far as we can see, there’s no ulterior motive for this guy to work at the planetary as an attendant. But as soon as he sees an opportunity to weaken and murder Superboy, he jumps at the chance and he’s “revealed” to be an ex-con, as if underneath his real nature was always there. It’s a simplistic and dangerous lens to use when looking at crime, and one that diminishes anyone who’s been in jail to a criminal waiting to break free.

I’m not saying kid’s comics necessarily need to tackle complicated and messy social issues, or that stock characters don’t have their place. In the 60s Batman show, for example, similarly irredeemably characters play a lot better, mostly because they’re henchmen, an inherently unreal and fantastic archetype, as opposed to the regular criminal joes of Superman. Rather I just think it’s important to remind oneself that this simplistic idea of an inherently criminal, irredeemable crook has no bearing in reality.

"The Man Who Married Lois Lane!"  from Superman #136 (1960)
Written by Robert Bernstein
Art by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye

Meet X-Plam! He’s an alien-lookin’ dude from Future Earth who showed 1960 up with superpowers and a bit more attentiveness than Mr. “I might marry you…. someday” over there. With that, a suddenly handsome face, and the power of fate on his side, Lois married him and went off to the future to have a happy life.

Until he died the next day sacrificing his life to send Lois back to her time when it turned out Future Earth air made her weird-looking too.

"I’m sure your normal appearance will soon return in this atmosphere! Funny, though! Tomorrow, history will record your marriage! IT’S TOO BAD X-PLAM NEVER READ THE NEXT EDITION WHICH REPORTED HOW YOU BECAME A WIDOW!

"The Trio of Steel!" from Superman #135 (1960)
Written by Jerry Siegel
Art by Al Plastino

"You typed the story backwards!Who do you think you are, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the silly sprite from the 5th dimension who goes back to his own world only if he says his own name backwards?”

That’s A+ exposition right there.

"Superman’s Mermaid Sweetheart!" from Superman #135 (1960)
Written by Jerry Siegel
Art by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye

Honestly, for all of Lois’ fame, at this point the real romantic lead in these books is totally Lori Lemaris, Superman’s telepathic mermaid ex-girlfriend. The only time you see Superman display romantic interest that isn’t part of some ruse or mind control is with her, and if it weren’t for a hunky alien merman surgeon with a sweet v-neck winning her heart by saving her life, Clark would have totally abandoned the dry life and come to live with her in Atlantis.

"Mighty Maid!" from Action Comics #260 (1960)
Written by Otto Binder
Art by Al Plastino

Later, as Lois accidentally falls off a new building she has been inspecting…”

I’m a huge fan of how regularly and nonchalantly Lois manages to topple off of buildings.

"Mighty Maid!" from Action Comics #260 (1960)
Written by Otto Binder
Art by Al Plastino

"Please, cousin Superman! Can I leave Midvale Orphanage now? I’m tired of mild, secret adventures! I want…!”

Here’s your regular reminder that when his fifteen year-old cousin showed up on Earth, Clark stuck her in an orphanage and made sure no one knew she existed so he could use her for needlessly intricate ruses when he needed someone with superpowers to make out with a bunch:

That’s her in a wig.

Action Comics #259 (1959)
Writtten by Jerry Siegel
Art by Al Plastino

He’s just so gleeful.

Action Comics#259 (1959)
Written by Jerry Siegel
Art by Al Plastino

I’m falling for Al Plastino’s Gleeful Lex Luthor Face almost as hard as Sal Buscema’s Startled Bruce Banner Face.

And believe me, that’s saying a lot.

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Action Comics #259 (1959)
Written by Jerry Siegel
Art by Al Plastino

So this one time Superman ran into some red kryptonite, which caused Superboy to get pulled out of the past, but for some reason he was really stupid and Superman was really angry, so Lex Luthor captured them and made them fight to the death and it was really tense until Superman woke up and it turned out it was all a dream.

Yeah. “The Revenge of Luthor!” is a total mess. But at least we got some great panels to take out of context:

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"LUTHOR TRAP TO CAPTURE SUPERBOY - ENTER HERE PLEASE"

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"Curiously… well, let’s face it…. Stupidly, the Boy of Steel enters the trap!”

Superman #132 (1959)
Written by Otto Binder
Art by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye

Something I’m noticing a lot with these Silver Age stories is that the themes and mythology used in later classic Superman stories are all developed surprisingly full-formed by Binder, Plastino, Boring, Swan and others in the Silver Age.

Take this story, for example. “Superman’s Other Life” is a special 3-part novel taking up all of Superman #132 (all these comics normally contain 3 full stories each), and it’s basically Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “For the Man Who Has Everything.”

Sure, there’s no Mongul, but Batman and Robin swing by to give Supermana a gift, but what to give a man who has “everything under the sun” in his collection? So they develop a computer simulation of what Superman’s life would have been like had Krypton not exploded.

Now of course, in practice it’s mostly a weird framing device for zany (if surprisingly grim — Kal-El’s family still all die, including a brother who never lived) space stories on Krypton, and “For the Man Who Has Everything” has the freedom to explore the themes involved a lot more thoroughly, and makes quite a bit more sense (why would Batman and Robin think watching a simulation would make Clark happy? Does Bruce sit around the Bat Cave watching simulations of himself as a happy child with his parents all day? Never mind. I answered my own question), but I’m still surprised that these themes are there at all.

I mean, look at that panel. That’s not the standard “wink to the camera” ending, that’s an acknowledgement in just a few facial expressions of some pretty heavy, bittersweet emotions about loss.Yeah, the Silver Age is filled with a bunch of kooky drivel and terrible gender politics, but it’s not a coincidence that almost every great Superman story I’ve read so far is rooted heavily in ideas introduced in the 50s.