Superman as Social Crusader, Outlaw, and Thug   1 comment

Hey, Comics Fan, how do you think of Superman?  Is he the big blue boy scout for you? Is he the most famous of all aliens living on Earth as super heroes and villains? Does he seem too good to be true? Do you think he spends all his time fighting super villains and stopping alien invasions?

He didn’t start out that way. It might surprise you to know that the early Superman of Siegal and Shuster was a thug, an outlaw, a bully, and a killer.

Yesterday I finished reading volume 1 of the Superman Chronicles–D.C.’s reprints of the earliest Golden Age Superman comics.  It was interesting and informative to see how the most famous superhero of them all got his start. The first story was in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics–Action Comics number 1. That’s the one with the famous Superman wrecks a car cover. 




In the first issue, Siegal and Shuster established the basic shape of most of the Superman stories to follow. Clark Kent was the star reporter of the Daily Star (not planet)–a great reporter, but a spineless coward and weakling. He wants to romance his co-worker, Lois Lane. Lois is not a fearless reporter, but is instead the Sob Sister for the newspaper. She covers the society pages and gives advice to the lovelorn. Clark takes Lois out dancing, but gets pushed aside by a thug who fancies her looks. Lois slaps the thug, tells Clark she hates him, and gets herself kidnapped. Superman chases down the fleeing kidnappers–they’re in the green car you see above, shakes them out of the vehicle, and destroys a perfectly good car. Having saved Lois from crooks, he pretends to be quite indifferent to her charms–the old hard to get ploy. Also in the episode, Clark saves the life of a woman about to be executed for murder. He does this by bullying the true murderess into a confession–you get to see that happen in Superman Comic #1 which would appear slightly over a year later, and be the first to actually show his origin on Krypton. He also breaks into the state Governor’s house by force, manhandles and terrifies the butler in order to get to the Governor who sleeps behind a locked steel door. I kind of doubt that any Governor in the world has a locked steel door on his bedroom.

Siegal and Shuster established the theme of their Superman in that first issue. His mission in life was to defend the helpless, and get a good story for Clark Kent in the process. In July, Superman goes to a South American country and stops a war –a war being fought solely for the benefit of a greedy munitions maker. Superman terrorizes the businessman into joining the San Marcos army and experiencing the terrifying life of a soldier. In the process of stopping the war, he strongarms the opposing generals and ignores the national rights of the nation. Superman did not make the front cover of Action #2.

In Action #3, Superman reforms a cruel mining magnate–a robber barion who runs an  unsafe mining operation and doesn’t care a bit for the safety or well-being of his workers. He is not the cover star here either.

Superman gets into sports to thwart a crooked coach and his gangster associates in Action #4. He does this by kidnapping and impersonating a scrub on the team–that scrub suddenly becomes a superstar. Of course, Superman cannot be stopped on the football field. The crooked coach is defeated. The kidnapped player winds up winning the hero worship of his girl friend, based on Superman’s exploits. Not being a man of particularly high moral character, sub Tommy Drake gleefully takes advantage of the girl’s infatuation, so everything works out all right. Having accomplished his purpose of defeating the crooked coach, Superman never gives the situation another thought.

In the October issue Lois Lane rashly gets into a situation where she should have died. A dam is breaking, and a valley will be flooded. Superman is not able to save the dam, but he is  there in the nick of time to rescue Lois from drowning when her car is carried away by the flood waters of the broken dam.

In November of 1938 Superman exposes the schemes of a crooked advertising promoter who is selling Superman’s name and image all over the place. Lois, who is by this time willing to do anything to meet Superman again, arranges to meet the promoter and his Superman, exposes the fact that there is a Superman imposter, and is threatened with death. Superman arrives in the nick of time to save her life. This is the third time in the first six issues that he has saved her life.

In December of 1938 Superman finally gets back on the cover of Action comics again. In this 13 page story he saves a small circus from crooks by becoming a circus performer to draw big crowds. Lois exposes the crooks, and Superman saves her life again. That’s four out of seven.

In January of 1939 Superman finally crosses the line. Attempting to help some tough kids who are being led astray by a petty criminal, Superman interferes with police officers who are attempting to capture the criminal kids, breaks one out of custody, and then gets the bright idea to demolish the slums where they live so the federal government will have to step in and build clean new modern dwelling places for everyone in the affected area. Naturally, the property owners object. The police and even the national guard come and try to stop the alien wrecking crew, but they can’t because he’s Superman. From that time on, Superman is actually a wanted man.

In the next issue a tough but somewhat crooked cop from Chicago arrives to capture Superman. He fails in a comedy of errors. Then Superman meets an escaped prisoner who tells of a brutal chain gang, in another state. All the while, Superman has been terrifying petty criminals by leaping around with them. Superman gets himself arrested, infiltrates the brutal chain gang, and winds up turning the tables on the cruel overseer. He also uses the whole setup to get a great story for his newspaper and save his own job there.

In the following issue Superman accidentally drops a criminal that he is trying to terrorize into confessing. The terrified man falls to his death. Well, he was a crook. Who cares if a crook gets killed, especially when it’s his own fault for resisting?

Two words–reckless endangerment. Superman has repeatedly used his leaping powers to try and intimidate people. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. The tough kids of a few issues back begged him for more. So does Lois when he tries to use that strongarm tactic on her.

A year after his first appearance, Superman finally meets a super-villain, the Ultra-Humanite.  This guy is an old bald man of super intelligence. Could the Ultra Humanite be the progenitor of Lex Luthor? At the end of the story, the Ultra-Humanite and a couple of henchmen try to escape in an airplane. To stop them, Superman leaps up and crashes into the plane’s propellor. It crashes to Earth, killing the two henchmen. Somehow the Ultra-Humanite escapes. Although these are bad guys, killers in their own right, they had no chance against Superman. What he does to them is cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder.

It’s easy to say that those were simpler times. The author of the stories, Jerry Siegel was still a teenager. What did he know of right and wrong? He saw Superman as a social crusader who used his great physical powers to redress the wrongs of society, without any regard to the rights of other people. He was, in effect a super bully. Nothing could harm him, and he did entirely what he wished to do, frequently indulging in the illegal destruction of property, crimiinal assault, reckless endangerment and other illegal acts including murder.

In the years to come other more mature and responsible writers would clean up Superman’s image. Judging from the stories of the first year, it was a job that badly needed doing.

Posted May 6, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

One response to “Superman as Social Crusader, Outlaw, and Thug

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  1. Thanks mate. Great blog you have here. Have some extra links to direct to which have a bit more stuff like this?

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