Being on the side of truth and justice appears to have justified some “might means right” tactics in Clark Kent’s early reporting repertoire, including burglary, threats, assault and kidnapping.
For example, in this sequence from the second year of the “Adventures of Superman” radio series, Kent’s alter-ego breaks into an elderly lawyer’s office to find out the beneficiaries named in a will that the lawyer refused to make public. The lawyer pulls a gun, which Superman smashes. Then he forces the man to open his safe and reveal the confidential information:
“Now look Mr. Quincy, I’m not fooling. You recall how I got rid of your gun? I can get rid of you just as simply.”
When Quincy signals the police, the costumed character defies both their orders and their bullets, as indicated in the simulated Daily Planet “clipping” above on the right. (At this point in the second year of Superman’s decade-long radio career, the newspaper was not convinced of the flying man’s existence, which he was still keeping secret from all but a few selected criminals and the people he had rescued from them.)
Back in his Kent clothes, the reporter joins copyboy Jimmy Olsen in what amounts to a getaway car, breathes a sigh of relief, and says “That neighborhood wasn’t very healthy.” He tells the boy the lawyer “gave me the information I wanted.” He later tells Editor Perry White, “I talked him into it.” Neither puts two and two together when The Daily Planet carries the headline, “Costumed Burglar Defies Gravity… Red caped second-story man leaps out window as police guns blaze…”
That’s the fifth in the 15-episode radio story titled “Metropolis Football Team Poisoned,” which we began discussing last week, a catalog of ethical missteps. In the episode after the burglary, Jimmy sees a cook adding something to the football team’s milk pitchers and tells Kent. Even before the milk is analyzed, Kent chases the cook to another town, knocks him out and (as Superman) flies him back to Metropolis, intending to get him to confess to poisoning the team. The reporter doesn’t even switch to his super-suit to knock the man unconscious.
It’s as if someone edited the “Superman” introduction to read, “Leaps to conclusions faster than a speeding bullet.”
|Episode 5: Superman burglar!||Episode 6: Kent kidnaps cook.|
|Episode 7:”Everything went to pieces.”||Episode 8: Capture, escape & pursuit|
Later in episode six, when the cook is shown to be innocent and the reporter is told he “bungled stupidly,” Kent admits his mistake and says he will find some way to make it up to the man. He is doubly embarrassed to learn that the man’s son has infantile paralysis — the disease Metropolis University doctors are trying to cure. The whole reason Kent is breaking so many ethical rules, in “the end justifies the means” mode, is to help the football team win enough games to get a promised $3 million bequest for medical research to fight the disease.
The script writers don’t show Kent acting on his brief statement of remorse, not even going back and apologizing — much less being punished for breaking the law. The same is true in the case of Superman terrorizing the lawyer, whose only offenses were having an annoying tone of voice, protecting his client’s privacy, and pulling a gun on the “red-caped burglar.”
Comic readers and radio listeners probably had no problem with Superman’s frequent tactic of flying a criminal into the air to scare him into confessing, but I wonder if they noticed that in this story the cook and the lawyer were not criminals in any way.
By the end of the decade, “The Adventures of Superman” was much more prone to teach and preach — against America’s World War II foes and against racial and religious prejudice.
In episode seven of this footall story, before joining Kent on his next assignment, editor Perry White confronts the reporter with the “Costumed Burglar” story:
“A man with wings visited Metropolis today, broke into the 14th floor offices of John Quincy, senior partner of the law firm Quincy, Garner and Scott, forced Mr. Quincy to open his wall safe, and then amid a hail of police bullets calmly leaped out of the open window and vanished from sight.”
“That sounds like a fairy story,” Kent replies. Not exactly a lie. He doesn’t even point out that no one has said the flying man literally has wings. White doesn’t say who wrote the story, which was presumably based on a sketchy police report.
In any case, Kent admits “everything went to pieces” when he leapt to the wrong conclusion about the football team cook, then he and White head off to confront the real poisoner — and wind up falling into a trap that it will take all of episode eight to escape from, followed by a dangerous high-speed car chase with Kent in full vigilante-mode, dragging a woman into the car and telling her, “There’s nothing we can’t do… You’re going to dislike a lot of things before we are through.”
I haven’t made a careful analysis of the hundreds of archived “Adventures of Superman” stories on radio — the program was broadcast for 11 years, initially as a daily 12-minute serial, later in a one-half-hour-story format. However, I wonder how often Superman’s Green-Hornet-like law-breaking approach to gathering information appeared — and whether it diminished after the U.S. entered World War II. This football team plot was broadcast three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put America in the war.
After December 1941, did Superman script writers — and Americans in general — come to see “might makes right” as having Nazi or Fascist overtones, especially when combined with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “übermensch”? That might be a good master’s thesis investigation for someone!