Superman is a unique character in a number of ways. He is, of course, the very first real American super-hero as we define the term, and he embodies something very uniquely American in his steadfastness, his good humor and his endless pursuit of "truth, justice and the American way." The Man of Steel is also unique because he's been in print continuously since the day Action Comics #1 came out and therefore has a tremendous amount of material that is grist for the essayist's mill.
As such, he's the perfect subject for a book like The Ages of Superman. This 225-page softcover contains 18 essays on the history of the Man of Steel.
Many of the pieces of writing are interesting and the best are fascinating. Louie Dean Valencia-Garcia delivers an intriguing piece on how that Superman was seen during the fascistic reign of Francisco Franco in Spain(http://www.fordham.edu/images/academics/graduate_schools/gsas/student/louie_valencia_essayshort.pdf). I knew nothing about the culture of Spain under Franco before I read Valencia's article, and I was spellbound by his exploration of how a very specific sort machismo was the formal ideology of the dictatorship, an ideology that excluded Superman. But though the Man of Steel was banned in Spain during those years, kids still read his comics and idolized the hero who seemed to be so free and so able to make his own decisions about his life. I had never thought of Superman as a force for liberation, but this essay educated me on these amazing facts.
Maybe the most fun piece in The Ages of Superman is Christopher Zeichmann's exploration of race in the early 1970s DC Universe. Zeichmann spends a long time discussing maybe the most infamous Superman story of all, "I Am Curious (Black)"( http://mutantstarr.blogspot.com/2012/01/they-really-made-that-into-comic.html) in which Lois Lane magically turns herself black and then is accepted by her dashiki-wearing, James Brown-listening, separate society-embracing friends in the Little Africa section of Metropolis. Yes, that actually happened in a Superman comic and it was actually even worse than it sounds here. I wish that Zeichmann had spent more space on the fact that black people were seldom referenced in any DC comics, either before or since, but his essay was interesting reading regardless.
Jack Tiewes and the team of Daniel and Morgan O'Rourke both deliver wonderful essays about how John Byrne's revisions to the Superman legend(http://whatculture.com/comics/superman-the-man-of-steel-volume-1-review-john-byrne.php) both reflected and shocked the sensibilities of Reagan-era America. Tiewes spends most of his article describing the media frenzy that coincided with John Byrne's reboot of the character with Man of Steel, a reaction that was filled with absurd overreactions, a complete ignorance of comics and comic history and a huge amount of editorial self-aggrandizement. It all comes across as a hilarious indictment of the media, especially considering that (as the O'Rourkes remind readers) the reboot was essentially a reflection of American's perception of itself during the 1980s.
Several other pieces in this book are also intriguing. Thomas Donaldson's discussion of how comics systematically rejected second-wave feminism is stimulating, though I think he misses a few points about Supergirl that would make his essay more persuasive. Randy Duncan's look at J. Michael Straczynski's "Grounded" storyline starts out promising but quickly wanders off topic – a lot like the text that it discusses, I guess! And Todd Munson's presentation about Superman's treatment of race during World War II is a fascinating, little-discussed topic.
Many of the essays just didn't strike me as very thought-provoking, though. First and foremost, we get three different looks at the Death of Superman storyline – far too much repetition in a book this size. I was disappointed that Matthew Smith's treatise on the triangle cover era of the Superman titles didn't go more into the aesthetic issues around creating interlocking continuity; instead, he spends most of his space on the mechanics and details of that process. I also wanted more detailed thought on John Darowski's essay on what the DCU was like without Superman during 52, Trinity and "New Krypton"; that article is more about the nuts and bolts of the storylines than about its impact.
This was a well-written and often very intriguing book. The good essays in The Ages of Superman redeemed it in my eyes. But too much of was too shallow for me to have loved it completely.