Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Curious Case of Giant Superman Album #1

Giant Superman Album #1 is one of my favourite vintage K.G. Murray reprint comics. Published in time for the Christmas period in 1961, it’s a very scarce issue, and also a noteworthy item in the K.G. Murray DC reprint catalogue for a number of reasons, not the least of which is for inaugurating the popular and longstanding line of “Giant Albums” (which included Batman, Flash, Supergirl, Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern varieties).

Paradoxically, it is also an anomalous rather than a typical "Giant Album".

The format - cover style and contents - is modeled on the US Giant Superman Annual series. This series had been in publication since mid-1960 - indeed, the “annual” in the title notwithstanding, by the time Giant Superman Album #1 appeared on Australian newsstands, the 4th issue of Giant Superman Annual to be published in the intervening 18 months or so would have already been on sale in the US.

Clearly the editors at K.G. Murray decided to replicate the format established in Giant Superman Annual. For example, Giant Superman Annual #1 was sub-titled “An All-Star Collection of the Greatest Super-Stories Ever Published!" It was basically a bumper collection of previously published key ‘Superman family’ stories, such as “Superman's First Exploit”, “The Supergirl from Krypton!” “The Girl in Superman's Past!”and “The Super-Key to Fort Superman”, all presented behind a bold new anthology-style cover.

Based on their own back-catalogue of Superman stories, The K.G. Murray editors settled on a new theme, writ large on the cover - “An All-Star Collection of Stories featuring The Mysterious Powers of Superman!” – and, sporting a specially commissioned new cover illustration by Hart Amos, also based on the Giant Superman Annual template, a new Australian anthology series was born.

The contents are pre-Silver Age Superman material:

The Golden Superman
Al Plastino
(Action Comics #193, June 1954)

The Super-Hallucinations
Otto Binder/Curt Swan/Ray Burnley
(Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #22, August 1957)

Superman Loses His Powers
Jerry Coleman/Wayne Boring/Stan Kaye
(Action Comics #230, July 1957)

The Soundproof Superman
Jerry Coleman/Wayne Boring/Stan Kaye
(Superman #114, July 1957)

The Man With the Triple X-Ray Eyes
Wayne Boring/Stan Kaye
(Action Comics #227 April 1957)

The Boy Who Saved Superman!
Wayne Boring/Stan Kaye
(Action Comics #190, March 1954)

The New Superman
Wayne Boring/Stan Kaye
(Action Comics #181, June 1953)

Also included is some filler material, such as Moolah the Mystic (0.66 pages); Professor Eureka (1 page); and Superman says "Lend A Helping Hand!" (PSA).

All of the feature material – and presumably the filler material too – had previously been published by K.G. Murray. I assume the Superman stories were sourced directly from the 32-page Superman issues which K.G. Murray published before Superman Supacomic (originally Superman’s Supacomic) was launched in 1958. As such, any editing, corrections or adjustments made in the initial prints would be evident in these reprints.

This may sound like an odd observation to stress, but it’s all part of the curious and idiosyncratic publishing history of these comics.

The line of DC comics which K.G. Murray reprinted and published in Australia were broadly contemporaneous with their US counterparts, which were otherwise unavailable in Australia. They were generally published within a few months of the US publications. This also applied to material which itself was being reprinted in the US. In other words, a reprint appearing in the US in a current title would be likely to also find itself reprinted in Australia from the same source.

Parallel to this – and, come to think of it, quite possibly contra to the license agreement - some pre-Silver Age K.G. Murray material, which had already been published in the relevant Australian title, was being routinely recycled in the Colossal Comic series through to 1970. (To this day this series is a great repository of a wide range of pre-Silver Age DC material, a period which is still somewhat under-represented in DC’s reprint programs which, understandably, tend to focus on the beginning stages of the Golden Age and Silver Age periods – a topic to be discussed further in a forthcoming blog!).

By the time Giant Superman Album #1 was being compiled, the practise of recycling material previously published for the Australian market was well and truly institutionalised, whether or not it was sanctioned by the DC’s licensing department.

Indeed, “The Golden Superman” had already been recycled before, in Colossal Comic #13, circa April 1960, and it appears the version in Giant Superman Album #1 is sourced directly from Colossal Comic #13, as the same two pages have been reduced to fit on the one page in each copy. I have yet to confirm whether the same edit appears in the original K.G. Murray print in Superman 88, circa September 1954, or whether this was a new edit required in Colossal Comic #13, but it is most likely the same version in all three instances.

“The New Superman” was also recycled, for Colossal Comic #51, but this was published late in the life of the Colossal Comic series, circa November 1969. This story was originally published as a 12 page story, but some panels have been enlarged to make it a 14 page story in its Australian incarnation, and I can confirm that the print in Colossal Comic #51 is the same 14 page version as the one which appears in Giant Superman Album #1. I expect “The New Superman” appeared in the K. G. Murray Superman series circa 1953, but have yet to confirm which issue, or whether it appears as a 12 page or 14 page story, so if anyone has a copy of this story in an Australian edition apart from Colossal Comic #51 and Giant Superman Album #1, please send me an email advising the title, issue number and page count so I may update my records.

(Note: There are at least three stories titled “The New Superman”, each clearly distinguishable by the artists: 1.Action Comics #181, Boring/Kaye, as above; 2.Action Comics #291, Plastino, reprinted in Superman Supacomic #40; 3.Superman #172, Swan/Klein, reprinted in Superman Supacomic 66).

I can only speculate as to why the K.G. Murray editors decided to print their own version of Giant Superman Annual rather than to reprint the US edition. As I mentioned above, there were a number of issues of Giant Superman Annual already published in the US by the time the Australian version was published.

It may have been due to the unavailability of the material, but this seems unlikely.

It seems more likely that a conscious decision had been made to stall publication of the Giant Superman Annual material. It may have been deemed an excessive cost to pay the license for a new compilation of material K. G. Murray had already published in other issues. If this was the case, then it makes sense that faced with the popularity of the Giant Superman Annuals in the US, a decision was made to test the market in Australia with a similar product, but based on existing material which had already been purchased, and foregoing the costs associated with licensing ostensibly new material via the US compilation.

Another factor may have been that the Giant Superman Annuals actually made their way into Australia, so K. G. Murray’s license may have prohibited them from issuing a local version at the same time as the US edition.

This is all just speculation on my part.

Regardless of the reason, for the follow-up issue, Giant Superman Album #2 in 1962, the editors at K.G. Murray opted to offer a facsimile reprint of Giant Superman Annual #1 (at least, the cover and main features are all reprinted from Giant Superman Annual #1 – the source of the filler material is yet to be confirmed) rather than to fashion their own compilation.

This would set the general pattern for the duration of the Silver Age Superman Annuals and 80-Page Giants. The Australian Giant Superman Album series would henceforth effectively be the local version of the US edition, allowing for occasional variations in the contents, often instigated to pad out the page count.

This general rule also applied to the other “Giant Album” series, with some notable exceptions to be discussed at a later stage.

The Giant Superman Album series ran for 20 years, winding up with issue #44 in 1981. By this time, Giant Superman Annual and the 80-Page Giants had gone through a few phases, such as being superseded by 100-Page Giants and other similar titles, and cancelled altogether.

Towards the end of its tenure Giant Superman Album was once again a local compilation, but rather than showcasing choice cuts from the glory years of the Silver Age, or even notable stories from the earlier Schwartz era, it mainly comprised ‘leftover’ contemporary Superman stories from Action Comics, Superman or Superman Family which had not made the cut in the regular Superman titles.

By 1981 Superman Supacomic itself had been cancelled and replaced with other short-lived Superman series and one-off titles which carried the then-current US Superman stories. Given the similar contents of the two series, the rationale for an intermittent companion series of specials like Giant Superman Album alongside the regular titles must have seemed rather redundant. And, truth be told, by this time, Giant Superman Album was a pale imitation of its former self, and did its legacy little justice.

Much of the allure of this comic stems from the Amos cover. Amos was recognised and beloved for his superhero covers on anthologies such as Mammoth Annual, Gigantic Annual, Colossal Comic and Century. For all their charm and whimsy, these covers were generally generic images rather than content-related images, featuring a group of superheroes at play, and apart from certain seasonal images, or a concession to including particular characters on the cover image which appeared within a particular issue, say Robin Hood or Nighthawk, the images could be used at random within particular series.

However, as mentioned above, the cover for Giant Superman Album #1 is clearly commissioned with set guidelines as it reflects the contents by name in the panels on the cover, and reflects the emergent house style for the US Annuals.

Just to get a bit psychoanalytical, I believe Giant Superman Album #1 also appeals to the nostalgia of collectors of vintage comics as it is presented as a virtual alternate issue of Giant Superman Annual from the 1960’s US canon.

Nostalgia is all about ‘lost objects’, and in the recent past DC has appealed to this desire to reclaim a ‘lost’ object with a variety of ‘facsimile’ editions of ‘lost’ specials which could have appeared in the nostalgic past, such as the 1975 Justice Society 100-Page Super Spectacular published in 2000, or the 1969 Brave and the Bold 80-Page Giant published in 2001.

Similarly to these editions, yet with a twist, I believe Giant Superman Album #1, whether consciously or unconsciously, taps into this desire for ‘lost’ or ‘alternate’ objects, and its manifestation all the way from the true past of Christmas 1961 lends this found object an aura of authenticity not quite granted to the recent facsimile editions.

Rather more prosaically, it is also a "#1", which to the collector of vintage comics automatically bestows upon it an aura not afforded higher numbered issues.

It also happens to be a particularly scarce comic, which certainly helps in the mystique stakes – I know of only one other copy apart from mine, and I also know of quite a few collections whose status would be greatly enhanced with a copy.

So there you have it – a short overview and speculative account of the rather curious case of an anomalous yet key issue in the K.G. Murray stable.

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