With another attempt to reboot the Superman movie series coming up, it’s time to return to old-time radio to hear how the “Adventures of Superman” radio serial constantly reminded young listeners that newspapers were an important part of their communities.
The movies have always pitted Superman against villains in his own weight class: Aliens, Luthors and other would-be world conquerors. On radio, Superman took on his share of super-villains, but he also faced more realistic foes — hate-mongers in white hoods, smugglers, criminal masterminds, and corrupt politicians. Much of the time, newspaper reporter Clark Kent, was the driving force in the story, assuming his Superman identity only when the skills of an investigative journalist (assisted by X-ray vision and super-hearing) couldn’t do the job.
Like other radio dramas “The Adventures of Superman” mirrored the presence and power of the press in mid-20th century America, riding on the popular support of World War II patriotism. This 1947 example, “The Ruler of Darkness,” is from the daily 15-minute Superman serial that ran through most of the 1940s. (The program was rebooted in 1949 as a single-story, half-hour series, before being discontinued after commercial broadcasting shifted its attention to television.)
The serial adventures featured long story-arcs with room for secondary plots and character development, and plenty of educational value for its intended youthful audience. “The more you know about Freedom, the tighter you’ll hang onto it,” listeners were told in one of the Freedom Train promotional messages during this story. Its announcer told school children to be sure to study their American history and to visit the traveling National Archives exhibit of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In many ways, the 1947 story “Ruler of Darkness” was a civics lesson in 24 episodes — more than three hours of storytelling after you subtract recaps, previews and commercials — about government corruption and a reform campaign launched by the newspaper. It has echoes of nineteenth century newspaper campaigns against Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, including physical descriptions of a corpulent and corrupt political boss that sound like Thomas Nast’s Tweed caricatures.
The episodes discussed below demonstrate plot themes suitale for several “newspaper culture” or “media ethics” discussion, from civic journalism and reform crusades to the pros and cons of a journalist seeking public office, and the similarities between investigative reporting and the work of a private detective.
If you want to listen to the whole “Ruler of Darkness” story, it can be downloaded from page 13 of the Internet Archive collection of Superman episodes. A few episodes are missing, but the daily catch-up synopses bridge the gaps. However, after the novelty wears off, you may want to fast-forward past the “It’s a bird…” introductions, Kellogg’s Pep (“the super cereal!”) commercials, and promotional premium offers.
From the start of the serial, we are in the newsroom, being reminded of the who’s who of The Daily Planet, from character’s names to job titles.
In the first episode, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen announces that HE is now the newspaper’s publisher. He names Clark Kent managing editor and demotes editor Perry White to the police beat. If Jimmy sounds delusional, it’s only because he is — suffering from a concussion inflicted by thugs at a political meeting. The family feeling of a news organization comes through when White publishes a page one plea and offers a reward for donors with a rare blood type to save the boy’s life. The daily program summaries brought listeners up to date:
“When cub reporter Jimmy Olsen was seriously injured by henchmen of Mike Hinkey, political boss of Metropolis, editor Perry White swore he would drive Hinkey and his corrupt political machine out of power.
“White opened an attack on Hickey in the Daily Planet and chose Joe Martin, war hero and brother of Beanie Martin, the Planet’s copy boy, to run for mayor against the machine candidate in the approaching election. Enraged, Hickey swore he would nip this reform movement in the bud…”
Unlike the compact crew depicted in the Superman TV series a few years later, radio’s Daily Planet has a substantial staff, and we meet the whole family — from copy boy to star reporters, editor, publisher, press room foreman and newsstand operator. At one point, White puts four reporters to work on a single story.
But even the investigative team of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and two more reporters can’t block the political boss’s attempt to frame a competing mayoral candidate or two, defy the governor, or unseat the polce commissioner. When the police are added to the corrupt administration, Kent resorts to calling in a private investigator to help track down witnesses, and later protect White from assassins.
Newspapers and political campaigns
By episode five, Perry White has thrown the Daily Planet’s support behind a reform mayoral candidate, only to be sabotaged when the corrupt government officials who have the health department quarantine a ship bringing in the newspaper’s supply of paper. It seems the civic-minded Daily Planet, in a sign of journalistic camaraderie, has let its paper supply run low by loaning paper to a competing newspaper that had a fire.
Of course Superman comes to the rescue (chapter 5), flying down a freight-car full of paper from Canada, but the corrupt politicians quickly frame the reform candidate’s newsstand-operator father, with lying “witnesses” accusing him of being a bookie. The old man is shattered, he may lose his business, and the scandal endangers the health of his aged wife, so their son the candidate apologetically withdraws from the race.
It’s not Superman who comes to the rescue this time — in chapter 6, editor Perry White reluctantly agrees to run for mayor himself, after delivering a lecture to leading merchants and civic leaders who agree to form a Reform Party, but all claim to be too involved in their businesses to consider elective office.
“Everyone is too busy with his private affairs to take part in his own government, so we leave it to professional politicians, and then we squawk at what they do… And you know the only way you can have a decent government is to see that good, honest men are nominated — and elected.” — Perry White
Kent points out to White that The Daily Planet is well-organized and can run well enough without its chief for a while, and that White himself is a well-known and respected public figure who owes it to the community to get the rascals out of office. Newspaper executives may have shunned political office in recent years, but historians will remember that Hearst and Pulitzer (and Citizen Kane), ran for national office.
Perry White’s “hyperlocal” goals are more modest than those Washington-bound publishers; he only runs for mayor to unseat a corrupt machine politician. But editor White isn’t immune to attack. The plot roars along, with the political boss framing White on a hit-and-run driving charge — in the first 15-minutes of his candidacy!
By chapter 9, Kent’s X-ray vision has revealed the hit-and-run fakery, and the reporter convinces the governor to send his personal physician to examine the man. The city hospital director, appointed by the corrupt mayor, insists “this is municipal business and doesn’t concern the state government,” and has Kent and the doctor thrown out. When Kent turns to his old friend the police inspector for help, he finds that the mayor has cut him out of the chain of command too, unless Kent comes up with enough facts to prove the fraud.
Like many radio newspapermen, Kent turns detective to track down the doctor who “witnessed” the hit-and-run, while a friendly private investigator steps in to help find the fake “accident victim.” Presumably Lois Lane is back running the newspaper until Perry White is out on bail. But a few episodes later, the “girl reporter” is the one working side-by-side with the detective to track down where the “victim” is hiding. They go undercover, claiming to be representatives from the political boss, but wind up needing rescuing by you-know-who.
“Blue costume and brilliant red cape” not withstanding, it’s startling how many journalism scenes and issues were featured in the 1940s Superman episodes. Kent’s news assignments turn into adventures, he files stories on deadline, and plots revolve on iconic social issues, such as the anti bigotry campaign launched in 1948.
Press ethics & superhero ethics
Unlike today’s journalists, these reporters have no qualms about helping with editor White’s election campaign. Clark is the one who nominates White for the mayor’s job in the first place, and he mentions writing campaign slogans in chapter 15; Lois gives a speech in chapter 20, and is attacked by thugs.
There is even some cross-media cooperation. At one point, Superman takes to the airwaves, attacking the political boss on a special radio broadcast, and (we knew he would, eventually) takes direct action protecting reform party meetings from political gangsters.
Alas, the power of the press does have its limitations, but Superman’s professional ethics in the 1940s did not keep him from using less-than-subtle methods to coerce cooperation or confessions from bad guys. One of his favorite techniques was to fly an evil-doer into the sky, implicitly threatening to let him fall, or at least leaving him faint from the speed of flight.
The approach was more effective than water-boarding on the corrupt doctor who conspired in framing White, and who knew where his friends were being held at gunpoint at the edge of a deep, dark quarry, their hands and ankles tied…
“…This appears to be the end for them. How will Superman, who is not yet at hand, be able to save the gallant girl reporter and the loyal, likable private detective? What will happen now to Mike Hinkey’s corrupt machine that flourishes in Metropolis like an evil weed?” — and that’s only chapter 12.
The Planet: an institution worth saving
In this story both Kent (as sharp reporter) and Superman (using muscle when needed) eventually come to the rescue of The Daily Planet itself, when the corrupt city officials manage to condemn the newspaper building to keep it from publishing. During the discussion, listeners are reminded of the mechanics of news publishing, from those freighters loaded with paper to the Linotypes, presses and delivery trucks.
Young listeners also found out about chain ownership of merged city and suburban papers — portrayed as a good thing, and of a downtown “newspaper club” where journalists could gather (and even spend the night under police guard when they are threatened by assassins).
Later, the Adventures of Superman introduces a new character — John Grayson, publisher of the Planet, who breaks the news that the city has condemned the Planet building itself, corrupt engineers insisting that the rock beneath the building’s foundation has cracked. Fighting the ruling might take months, and the election is only four weeks away.
Kent points out that Grayson also owns a chain of small town newspapers, including one just 40 miles away. Its press run is only a tenth that of the Planet’s half-million a day, even though the new suburban building has room to expand and publish the Planet, as listeners learn in chapter 15.
“We can put in all the Linotypes and presses to print all the papers we need!” offers Kent. The relocation would take a month or two, Grayson and White say, but Kent goes off “to see a man about a moving job” — and his alter-ego provides the muscle to relocate machines overnight, with help from press room foreman Pat Murphy, disconnecting machines as Superman works through the night flying presses and Linotype machines one after another out the delivery doors.
“Mother of mercy, he lifted it right off the floor… Saints alive! He flew away with that 10-ton press like a bird with a straw!… I must be dreaming; he done it again!”
The next morning, the Planet crew is on the job at the new plant and the presses roll to triumphant chords on the studio organ…
As for the election and the questions raised by having a newspaper editor double as mayor of the city, I’ll leave that discussion for a future article here.