With the new “Man of Steel” movie opening today, I have to point out that the keepers of the Superman flame have seen fit to “reboot” the storyline many times in its history, and the role of journalism in the series has waxed and waned as a result.
For comparison, try The Mystery of the $10,000 Ghost, broadcast in 1949.
The successors of the 1938 Action comic book, the 1939 Superman comic (right) and the 1940 radio serial frequently added to and transformed the child-from-Krypton’s origin story, his family, his friends and their personalities. Case in point: The radio series that began as a 15-minute cliff-hanger serial in 1940 was transformed in 1949 to a longer, full-story half-hour version. (In comparison, some serial “story arcs” ran for more than 20 episodes, plenty of room for journalistic storytelling and a bit of crusading.)
Like the earlier series, the “$10,000 Ghost” story kept Clark Kent working for Perry White at The Daily Planet, along with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and other reporters who never made it into the movies — including Horatio Horn, a comic-relief rural correspondent, telegrapher, postmaster and amateur detective, who is featured in this story.
White, as I mentioned last time, was elected mayor of Metropolis in 1947, but continued his editorial duties. Now, still wearing both hats in 1949, White assigns Kent to investigate a series of missing person cases, giving him another reporter to assist while Lois is off with Horatio.
As in many of the earlier serial episodes, the newspaper investigative reporting is the motivation for the whole plot. The “Man of Steel” isn’t out to fight some threat to the city, the planet or the universe, he’s essentially the reporter’s ace in the hole. Kent at first switches to Superman to fly to distant locations “on assignment,” and he uses his super hearing, X-ray vision and other powers to help get the story… and, of course, Superman is ultimately on the spot to help Lois and other reporters get out of the trouble that covering crime and disasters almost inevitably leads them into.
In this tale, although Lois and Horatio wind up in need of rescue, they are portrayed as curious, smart and cool-headed reporters. They are just out-numbered and out-gunned by the villains.
Not all the Superman scripts were as kind to Lois, as we’ll hear in a separate episode, “The Mystery of the Little Men.”
In this 1949 single-episode story, Lois is literally hysterical, panicked by strange creatures that appear outside her window. Except for her screaming, the story reminds me of some of the weaker comic book plots from the 1950s, complete with “twist” endings — dream sequences, practicsl jokes, magic, or misunderstandings — that were often a letdown. Maybe by this last year of the radio series, producers and writers were putting more of their creative energy into the new “Adventures of Superman” television series.
“The Mystery of the Little Men” episode should not be confused with an earlier multi-part story, “The Tiny Men,” featuring a much better picture of Lois’s ability to handle stressful situations. Perhaps that was an example of the war years teaching strength in the face of adversity. She is in England — at first believing Clark Kent to have been lost at sea. Despite her loss, she consoles Jimmy Olsen and sets about her assignment, interviewing Londoners about their almost superhuman abilities to carry on while under German attack.
For example, listen to Lois’s interview with a bus driver in the middle of “The Tiny Men” episode 4 from Sept. 18, 1942.
The archive has seven episodes of “The Tiny Men,” unfortunately lacking the first and last of the series.
It was the second multi-part story after the original syndicated series took a summer off, then resumed on the Mutual Broadcasting System, starting with a retelling of the Superman origin. The revision apparently brought the radio episodes more into line with the comic book’s version of Superman’s life. The original radio episodes had Superman arrive on Earth fully grown. The version that relaunched Aug. 31, 1942, had him grow up with the Kent family, then come to Metropolis when “Eben Kent” died. Unfortunately, those two episodes are not in the public old time radio archives, which hold only fragmented collections for some World War II era stories.
From later in September 1942, the Internet Archive has two episodes of the retold version of Clark Kent’s first newspaper assignment. In 1940, the first dozen episodes had involved Superman’s origin and Clark Kent’s investigation of a railroad mystery, taking on a criminal called “The Wolf.” In the 1942 rewrite, the plot is similar, but “The Wolf” is not just a criminal — he’s a German saboteur out to destroy a troop train as it crosses the U.S. As in the earlier telling, Superman saves the day — and Kent’s version of the story convinces editor Perry White to put him on the full-time reporting staff at The Daily Planet.
The transitional episodes are missing (See radio reviews at the Superman Homepage), but Kent and Lois Lane apparently were handed a new assignment as foreign correspondents — since the next story finds them on their way to Europe, perhaps with Jimmy Olsen as a stowaway, and the one after that has them in a “Mystery in Arabia,” involved with Polish refugees.
More sources about Superman on the radio and the “Man of Steel” movie:
- The Internet Archive has 15 sequenced pages (among others) of downloadable Superman radio episodes. The ones above are on the last page of the collection, including some 1948 serials and later half-hour episodes.
- Man of Steel movie home page.
- NPR on “Man of Steel”
- Christian Science Monitor on “Man of Steel”
- The encyclopedic “Superman Home Page” by Andrew J Gould and Steve Younis
- DC Comics’ Superman page
- The Superman wiki page at wikia, with more than 160 incarnations of Superman in visual media.
- ComicVine’s collection of more than 9,500 appearances of Superman
(Footnote a week later: After seeing the “Man of Steel” film, I’m happy to say that the latest version of Lois Lane is not presented as soley a “love interest,” or comic relief, or a damsel in daily distress. In fact, she is identified as a Pulitzer Prize winner before Superman appears on the scene.
And, unlike all previous incarnations, this Lois has the solid reporting skills to track down Superman’s biggest secret even before Clark Kent can hide behind his famous glasses.
I’m hoping for a sequel in which Kent explains how he landed even a “stringer” job on a major daily with no apparent reporting experience. Superman’s first radio incarnation might provide a model.)