Random Musings: A look back at Superman’s early years

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Action Comics #1

    The Jim Croce song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” includes the line, “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape.” In the Oct. 2, 1992 edition of Comics Buyer’s Guide, Peter David wrote in his column that, according to writer Kurt Busiek, Superman would simply say “please don’t tug on my cape.” It’s Batman’s cape you don’t want to tug.
    That may have been true of more recent incarnations of the Man of Steel, but not the Superman who first appeared 75 years ago in Action Comics #1. You didn’t mess with that guy if you were smart.
    In Action Comics #1 alone, Supes tears down the steel door of a governor’s bedroom to deliver proof an innocent woman is about to be executed; hurls a wife-beater into a wall; smashes a car against some rocks (and deposits one of the occupants (who’d abducted Lois Lane) high atop a telephone pole); and leaps across Washington, D.C., holding “the slickest lobbyist in Washington” by the heel.
    In Action Comics #2, Supes forces the lobbyist to cough up the name of the munitions magnate behind a threatening war in the South American republic of San Monte. Then he forces the magnate, a man named Norvell, to enlist in the San Monte Army.
    Soon after, Supes himself joins. “I couldn’t bear being parted from you.”
    When Norvell— who’d previously declared that “men are cheap— munitions expensive”— finds himself trying to avoid shell fragments, he declares, “this is no place for a sane man! I’ll die!”
    Supes looks over at him. “I see. When it’s your own life that’s at stake, your viewpoint changes.”
    Supes also finds time to save Lois from being executed as a spy and throws a torturer well beyond a grove of distant trees.
    No, sir, Mr. Superman, sir. I won’t tug on your cape.
    Oh, and he stops the war.
    He kidnaps the heads of the two opposing armies and orders them to fight each other.
    They insist they’re not angry at each other; and when Supes asks why their armies are battling, they have no idea.
    “Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions,” Supes says. “Why not shake hands and make up?”
    And they do.
    He does something similar in the Superman newspaper strip storyline “Superman Goes to War” (Feb. 9- March 2 1940), which concerns the conflict between the European nations of Blitzen and Rutland. Supes makes Amork, the Dictator of Blitzen (who looks a lot like Hitler), and General Gotha, head of Rutland’s military forces, fight it out one-on-one. And they look ridiculous.
    “Laughter sweeps the trenches like a gale, as the duped soldiers observe the cowardly comic behavior of their leaders,” the narration tells us. “Simultaneously, both sides toss away their weapons.”
    Other examples of Superman being anything but a “big Blue Boy Scout” in his early years include deliberately trapping the owner of a mine which lacks necessary safety devices in said mine, along with his party guests, to teach him the error of his ways (Action Comics #3); tossing a thug through a (closed) window (Superman #5); throwing a criminal who’d ordered a henchman to shoot a young woman into the path of the bullet (Superman #9); holding a racketeer over an industrial chimney and saying, “Let’s play Xmas. You be Santa Claus, and I’ll drop you in!” (Superman #10); and tearing an airplane’s wings to shreds (after those on board had thrown Lois Lane out) in a 1939 newspaper strip entitled “Victory and Danger.”
    Yeah, you’d better not tug on his cape.
    According to Superman The Complete History by Les Daniels (page 35), Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reached out to their audience by dealing with the social problems of the day.
    “He [Superman] was very serious about helping people in trouble and distress, because Joe and I felt that very intensely,” Siegel was quoted as saying.
    In those early years, Superman also took on fixed college football games, juvenile crime, slum housing conditions and abuses on a chain gang.
    He also helped a down-and-out, suicidal ex-boxer reclaim the world championship.
    Superman #1 (dated Summer 1939) reprinted the 13-page stories that appeared in Action Comics #s 1-4; but also expanded on the initial story by showing that prior to getting that governor to stop an execution, Superman prevented a lynching.
    An amusing side note: One man, presumably some law enforcement official (though he’s not wearing a uniform), says to Superman, “I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve my thanks. Who are you?”
    And Superman, who could have said, “a friend”, or “someone who believes in the rule of law” or even “just someone passing by”, replies, “a reporter.”
    Not getting off to a good start with that secret identity thing, are we, Clark?
    He was also misrepresenting himself, given that he hadn’t yet been hired by the Daily Star.
    So, what changed with respect to Superman’s “don’t tug on my cape; you wouldn’t like me when you tug on my cape” attitude towards bad guys?
    His popularity, ironically. By the early 1940s, Superman was becoming a valuable property for the nascent DC Comics, so, according to Daniels (page 42), publisher Harry Donenfeld was “anxious to avoid any repetition of the censorship problems associated with his early pulp magazines… Henceforth, Superman would be forbidden to use his powers to kill anyone, even a villain.”
    In the 2006 documentary, Look, Up in the Sky- The Amazing Story of Superman, DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz said Superman becomes a substitute for mythology.
    “Superman is the mythology of a hero,” Levitz said. “This is what a hero can do. This is perhaps what you can do if you choose to be a hero.”
    Despite the almost blatant Christ allegory in the movie Superman Returns (2006), a stronger Biblical parallel is Moses. Both were placed in small containers as babies and sent away from danger. And both were raised in other cultures.
    DC Comics recently “re-launched” its fictional universe with “the New 52” in which all titles started over with #1. While much of DC’s fictional history still happened, the Superman who appeared in the re-numbered Action Comics (set five years before the “present day”) was like his 1938 incarnation in some respects. He was newly-arrived on Earth, viewed as an object of suspicion and more than willing to work outside the law.
    Over the past 75 years, Superman has been both of the times and out of touch with the times. But when done right, he can be an almost inspirational character. I’ve no doubt he’ll be around, in one form or another, in another 75 years.
    For more about Superman’s early years, check out my blog entry from this past summer about the Adventures of Superman radio show at http://michronicleonline.com/2013/06/04/random-musings-recommended-listening-superman-vs-the-atom-man/

Copyright 2013 Patrick Keating

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