The 1940 Superman radio adventure of Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere finds reporter Clark Kent hiding not only his secret identity, but the very existence of Superman. In the process, unlike some comic and TV representations of the character, this Clark is a better role model for reporters: A smart and resourceful sleuth, willing to appear brave or take chances despite the “mild” adjective the announcer used to describe him at the start of the program.
He’s a reporter off on assignment who has fallen into a dangerous situation, and the people around him look to him for ideas and leadership — not for super-powers.
Like a lot of fictional reporters, he has a few too many abilities to be easily believed. We’ve already seen that he know how to fly an airplane. In this third of a dozen 12-minute episodes in the story, he announces that he’s also a capable deep-sea diver, but maybe that’s just a bluff.
Still, none of the other characters seems surprised that a reporter can do these things. Were kids tuning in to hear Superman in the 1940s getting another fantastic — but closer to reality — role model for future careers? Were readers getting some amazing expectations concerning the people knocking out their hometown Daily Miracle? Were reporters and editors getting their egos inflated?
In a way, the requirements of radio may make Kent appear a better newspaperman than Superman comic books and movies did. On the radio, with no visuals to help tell the story, journalist characters had to work harder at being storytellers — they conducted interviews, asked follow-up questions, and described scenes as they developed.
The announcer routinely identifies Kent as the paper’s “star reporter,” which is impressive, considering that this August, 1940, episode is only six months after the character walked into the Daily Planet newsroom for the first time. (Here’s my podcast item about Clark Kent’s radio origin.)
“It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds.” — typical response from Clark Kent, after the resourceful reporter appears to do things that would take a Superman.
The bathysphere adventure began last week when editor Perry White introduced Kent to a scientist who has invented a new deep-sea exploration vehicle, supposedly for ichthyological research. In this one, we find out it’s more than that — a fortune in gold. No wonder pirates are after the scientist and his ship!
The Internet Archive has several pages of the series, The Adventures of Superman, which was broadcast daily for more than a decade. That page includes the full 12-part bathysphere adventure, which I started posting here with last weekend’s two episodes.
In today’s second episode, Part IV of Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere… Kent learns why their destination is called “Octopus Bay…” He also invokes the name of editor Perry White — and his story expectations — to convince the scientist to let the courageous Kent join the bathysphere crew for a descent to the bottom of the sea.
Even at the bottom of the sea, Kent moves along the audio-only narrative by being a good reporter, full of questions for the professor as a diver leaves the diving-bell: “Professor, would you mind explaining how that safety chamber works? … Didn’t the water rush into the chamber when he opened the outer door?” Unfortunately, Kent’s curiosity may distract both of them from the oxygen-level gauge in their control-room.
(Toward the end of this episode, we also find out that 1940’s Superman didn’t have quite the strength and invulnerability of the versions of the character in later decades.)
Footnote: Come to think of it, Professor Thorpe isn’t the first professor or scientist Clark Kent has met. The first humans he encountered — after arriving on Earth fully-grown, a departure from the later “childhood in Smallville” storyline in the comics — were a professor and his son, and the first story he worked on with Lois Lane was another scientist-profile, one that she wasn’t very excited about.
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