Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!

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Everybody’s Looking for Some Action

There were big tables covered with comics standing upright in long rows.  A sign hanging from the ceiling said All Comics 5¢.  We began to flip through the comics.  Alan had a list with the titles and numbers of the comics he wanted.  It was slow work.  The only comic he found that was on his list of wants was a copy of Action Comics Number 1—but he didn’t buy it because there was a corner torn off the cover.  He said he only bought comics that were perfect.

That throwaway line, from Daniel Pinkwater’s young adult fantasy Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, is played for irony, of course: even in 1979, when Alan Mendelsohn was first published, a copy of the first issue of Action Comics—the comic book in which Superman made his first appearance—was something the average collector could only dream of finding, in any condition.  It also establishes Mendelsohn’s character: exacting to the point of eccentricity, and confident enough to pass up the find of a lifetime because it’s not exactly what he’s looking for.  Later, Mendelsohn sells his comic book collection to finance the greater adventure he and Leonard (the narrator) are on: Mendelsohn remains cool while his buyer goes increasingly crazy for the rare finds Mendelsohn has.  By the end, Mendelsohn has the buyer eating out of his hand, and he and Leonard get the money they need, and then some:

 “The difference between that man and me,” Alan Mendelsohn said, “is that I am a connoisseur, and he is a fanatic.”

Both scenes play into powerful fantasies for young collectors: finding a holy grail—there have been more expensive comic books, but few that are as recognizable as Action Comics No. 1—and being able to leverage our finds down the road, using our connoisseurship to get one over on the drooling fanatics who’ll pay any price for what we have.

Action-Comics-No-1

Sadly, for most collectors, the fantasies remain just that.  For the past few days, the comics blogosphere has been chewing over an article in Businessweek pointing out that you’re probably not going to be able to retire on the proceeds from your comic book collection.  As an example, columnist Frank Santoro offers an anecdote that stands in for the general trend:

He recently had to break the bad news to a friend’s uncle, who was convinced his comic collection—about 3,000 books—was worth at least $23,000. “I told him it was probably more like $500,” Santoro says. “And a comic book store would probably only offer him $200.”

When I read this, my first reaction was: “Well, duh.”  While auction prices for “key” Golden Age issues have continued to rise, it should be obvious that there is a big difference between Action Comics No. 1 and Secret Wars II No. 1, and the collections owned by the forty-something men in the article are likely to be more laden with the latter than the former.  I know, because I’m one myself, with a collection of bagged and boarded comics in the basement, and I doubt I’ll ever get much out of it in monetary terms.  Sure, it was disillusioning the first time I realized I wouldn’t get what I thought something was worth out of it, but I’m willing to settle on a realistic price for anything; it’s just that “realistic” can look very different depending on whether one is buying or selling. I’ve encountered my share of junk shops, garage sales and Craigslist ads run by deluded souls convinced that they’re sitting on a gold mine.  I’ve seen scratched-up Beatles albums for $40 or $50 (and not the rare ones) and highly-promoted but far from rare comics from the ‘90s with high price tags.  Anyone who has collected anything, or even tried to buy a used car or piece of furniture, could tell similar stories.

The seller may have an inflated idea of the scarcity of their item, or they may have been swept up in the hype of ever-rising prices for collectibles in general; they may even have a price guide to back them up, which only proves that someone was willing to pay a premium for the item (in mint condition, which is usually not the case) at one time.  Still, something is really only “worth” what someone else is willing to pay for it, so I imagine those albums and comics are still sitting on the shelf, or were marked down or put into storage—or found a buyer as gullible as the seller (leading to the description of the back issue market as a “Ponzi scheme” in the Businessweek article).

But clearly, the idea that your old comic book collection would put your kids through college is an old one, an article of faith (or folklore) that predates the speculation boom of the 1990s.  As Alan Mendelsohn shows, it was already alive and well in the 1980s, when I was collecting, and it didn’t only come from the publishers and retailers who had a vested interest in promoting “collectability.”  The belief among collectors that we were stockpiling a monetary investment for the future had a “revenge of the nerds” quality, like the stories we told ourselves that we would all become successful inventors or entrepreneurs, getting the last laugh on the jocks, the bullies, the “normals” who got in our way.  I guess it worked out that way for a few people, but for the majority it was a self-serving myth (and for the record, Alan Mendelsohn got a hundred and eighty-five dollars and a brass potato for his collection; he didn’t become a millionaire).

As an extreme example, consider “Gather Ye Acorns,” a 1986 episode of the anthology series Amazing Stories.  In it, Mark Hamill (in one of his few post-Luke Skywalker, pre-voice acting roles) plays Jonathan Quick, a dreamy young man growing up during the 1930s, obsessed with comic books, pulp magazines and toys.  Pushed by his parents, who urge him to “grow up” and cast off his childish belongings, Jonathan is approached by a mysterious, gnome-like figure, a folkloric wild man (played by David Rappaport), who encourages him to keep the things he loves, to hold onto the magic of childhood.  What the world needs, the troll tells him, “is a few more dreamers.”  Over the years, Jonathan turns down the prospect of a normal life, descending into poverty and eventually living in a pitiful shack with his shabby old car and all his old junk; just when he has lost faith, he encounters (at the “Last Chance” gas station!) a knowledgeable (and wealthy) collector.  It turns out that the world has come around, and his belongings, which for so long were precious only to him, are now highly collectible.  The owner of a comic book shop is shown going through his treasures in disbelief: why, that’s Action No. 1, the first appearance of Superman!  The episode ends with an auction of Jonathan Quick’s collection; now wealthy, he encounters the troll one last time, and while trying to thank him, makes the acquaintance of an attractive lady.  Perhaps it’s time for Jonathan Quick to finally settle down.

In the broadest sense, that of allegory, “Gather Ye Acorns” is a story of holding on to the magic of childhood, of not letting others define you or devalue your passions. But I doubt I was the only viewer who took the story’s moral literally, as a vindication of the collecting lifestyle: “See?  All that stuff had value, and he ended up rich!”  It’s probably also a middle finger to the parents of Baby Boomers (like Steven Spielberg, who produced the series, and whose story Stu Krieger’s teleplay is based upon) who threw out all their kids’ baseball cards and comic books, and who, like the overbearing parents in “Gather Ye Acorns,” probably never saw that junk as anything but a waste of money in the first place.

Looking back at actual history, however, there was more than just the ever-present Generation Gap at work: the social upheaval and increased mobility of the Depression and World War II made the maintenance of big collections an unlikely prospect, even for those who might have been so inclined.  It’s hard for us nowadays to imagine how few possessions most families had compared to the present (and forget about renting extra storage space, as so many of us do now!).  Remembering the adage “every move is like a fire,” it’s also likely that in the migrations of the war years (from the Dust Bowl to the West; from the deep South to the factories of the North; from rural areas to cities, and from cities to the suburbs), preserving ephemera like comics was simply not a high priority for most people.  Finally, the war effort included paper and shellac drives that undoubtedly consumed thousands of comics, magazines, and records.

It’s for all the above reasons that the “key” issues from the Golden Age command such high prices, and why, barring a similar national upheaval, later issues probably never will.  Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that if everyone was saving their comics (and baseball cards, and whatever else), they would never become as scarce as material from the 1930s and ‘40s (or ‘50s, when a great number of comics were destroyed as part of the moral panic that led to the creation of the Comics Code).  In some cases, it was now parents who enabled the preservationist instinct, Baby Boomers themselves who didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of their own parents.  And of course, scarcity is only part of the equation: it has to be something people want in the first place, or low supply will do nothing to drive up demand.  Even if all those variant-cover comics from the ‘90s disappeared, it’s unlikely they would ever be as sought-after as historically important issues like the first appearances of Superman or Batman.

Since we don’t know what will be scarce and desirable in the future, should we save everything, just in case? Interestingly, at the midpoint of “Gather Ye Acorns,” when Jonathan Quick is squatting in a shack in the desert, he resembles a figure that has become much more visible since this episode was broadcast: the hoarder.  His anger at the troll, his disgust with the “treasures” he’s spent his life hanging onto, and above all his despair—“I have nothing!” he howls—are the flip side of the usual narrative, and are a frighteningly real moment in a story that otherwise has the broad outlines of a fable.  Even with the happy ending, the story seems to stretch things when it suggests that his years of struggle were worth it, because he lived life on his own terms; this comes awfully close to romanticizing poverty, as if there were no middle ground between his parents’ rigid standards and life as a “bum.”  As writer Noel Murray asked when examining two current portraits of Americans’ relationship with our possessions, the TV shows American Pickers and Hoarders, “So which is it? Are we supposed to hang on to all of our old crap just in case it turns out to be valuable, or is that kind of packrattery the sign of a disordered mind?”

Mark Hamill as you, the reader

Mark Hamill as you, the reader, on Amazing Stories

Of course, you could still read your comics.  When I was a kid, I had a friend, Jason, who often came around to trade comics.  On the one hand, he was always interesting to talk to, and had a knack for digging up unusual books I’d never seen; on the other hand, he’d drive me crazy by going through my stacks, getting things out of order, and wanting to trade for issues that would break up continuous runs.  Condition didn’t matter much to him; it was the stories that were important.  Jason was a throwback, the kind of comic book reader who had supposedly disappeared with Leave it to Beaver: he didn’t bag his comics—he’d even roll them up to stick in his backpack, to my horror.  (In retrospect, I wasn’t much more careful, but I could be an awful snob.)

Despite my efforts to preserve my comics like a good investor, my best memories of being a comics reader in the 1980s are of getting together with friends to read and discuss comics, and even those marathon trading sessions that left me cleaning up and reordering my collection for the rest of the afternoon.  Similarly, some of the comics I most fondly remember finding at garage sales were reprints, some with the covers missing, of no monetary value at all.  I tried valiantly to be a connoisseur, but I guess I was really a fanatic all along.