Clark Kent’s Nuclear Meltdown

Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent in 1950 film

The 1950 movie Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn) wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet when racing off to investigate the Atom Man in his official Daily Planet press car, but at least he didn’t have to face a radioactive Nazi juggernaut. Radio’s Superman did, five years earlier in an eight-week battle that inspired the movie’s title, but little else.

There isn’t a lot of journalism in the epic 39-part Atom Man vs. Superman radio story, but it did provide a glimpse of employee relations at the Daily Planet — when Clark Kent was twice suspected of having a mental breakdown.

Today, the news industry is conscious that traumatic stress can affect reporters as well as military personal and disaster early-responders. There are innovative programs for helping reporters who cover war zones, mass-murders and other emotionally troubling stories. But the Atom Man story took place long before those innovations.

Atom Man radio plot summary: World War II has just ended, but not all Nazis have given up the cause. A “brilliant, half-mad Nazi scientist” has gotten his hands on some Kryptonite, the recently discovered radioactive mineral from Superman’s home planet. He injects it into a young Nazi true-believer to make him “a creature more deadly than a dozen atom bombs.” Flashing green lightning from his fingertips, this “Atom Man” may be able to destroy Superman “and all of civilization,” or so the announcer frequently reminds us.
The combined story took Superman to Germany and back to Metropolis, fighting Atom Man in two forest-leveling battles. The Internet Archive’s old-time radio collection includes both month-long daily serials, “The Atom Man,” and “Atom Man in Metropolis”, a total of 39 episodes of the 12-minute program. (The “story arcs” also have been edited into single-file versions by a mild-mannered Internet Archive volunteer.)

By featuring a world-threatening super-powered villain, “Atom Man” and “The Atom Man in Metropolis” are more like later Superman movies. The two serials together spanned 39 daily episodes of the “Adventures of Superman” radio series in late 1945 — after Germany’s World War II surrender, but as “one last try” by a deranged Nazi scientist.
While aliens and mad scientists became mainstays of Superman at the movies, the radio serial made more use of the Daily Planet staff to frame newsroom-driven plots. Clark Kent and friends investigated news leads, went to exotic places “on assignment,” solved mysteries, and confronted conspiracies. They didn’t just stand by while Superman took on world-threatening super villains.
But that movie-like plot is what happens in the Atom Man adventures — with the radio narrator and sound-effects staff providing battle scenes far beyond the abilities of 1945 Hollywood films.

However, the Atom Man adventures do offer some insight into life back at the Daily Planet. For example, Kent and Lois Lane obviously have a special relationship with their newspaper. Both rate private offices, rather than desks in the newsroom. Editor Perry White is fiery and stubborn, but tolerant of Kent’s unannounced absences from the newspaper — up to a point. And the reporters take their blustering boss with a grain of salt.

In fact, Lois mentions to a newcomer that White has fired and rehired both her and Clark “at least 15 times in the past year.”

In this story Kent’s unexplained three-day disappearance (to Germany, as Superman) pushes White over the edge — just as a job applicant walks into the office: Henry Miller’s job interview.

The tempermental White hires “Henry Miller” on the spot, and tells him to move right into the absent Kent’s office. The editor isn’t exactly diligent about checking the young man’s references: He takes his word that Miller has worked for papers in Denver and Chicago, and infers from his reference to “I’ve been overseas for a number of years” that he is a returned World War II veteran. White’s assumption, in late 1945, is understandable, along with his response:

“You boys deserve all the breaks… Any man who risked his life fighting for me deserves everything I can give him.” — Perry White to “returned soldier” Henry Miller

Actually, the affable young man who charms both White and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen is the story’s Nazi super-villain in disguise, the Atom Man. While he looks like a normal person, his blood has been infused with kryptonite, the alien element lethal to Superman, introduced in a previous radio story.
Miller’s conversation with Jimmy Olsen reveals the young cub’s impression of Kent as a reporter:

Miller: Who is this Kent fellow? What does he do, go on three-day drunks?

Olsen: Are you kidding? Kent wouldn’t touch a drink with a ten-foot pole. He doesn’t smoke either. He’s the best reporter on the paper, the best in the country.

Olsen also introduces Miller to Lois Lane, as “our star girl reporter,” clearly using “girl” in a 1940s manner — Lois was already a veteran reporter when Kent was hired in 1940 at the start of the radio series.

After Kent from overseas to the Daily Planet, just the presence of Miller in the same room leaves the “Man of Steel” weak in the knees and babbling about having been to Germany — seeming irrational to his colleagues, since he has only been gone a few days.

When Kent collapses at his first office meeting with the mild-mannered Miller, Lois Lane is convinced that her old friend is having a nervous breakdown. She makes a single phone call and soon muscular attendants arrive to take Kent away to a “rest farm.” They almost take the spluttering White instead (episode 12).

Kent, recovering his strength and senses, goes along with the orderlies to preserve his secret identity, but quickly escapes the rest farm and flies off to investigate the missing Nazis and try to find a solution to his kryptonite problem.

Eventually, Miller uses Jimmy Olsen to lure Superman into a trap — and an almost fatal battle with the Atom Man. (episode 16, Oct. 31, 1945)

Title screen, Atom Man movie serialThere isn’t much journalism involved, but the episode illustrates the enormous special-effects possibilities of radio: No miniature models or CGI required, just a talented sound-effects person and descriptive writing for the narrative announcer. (For comparison, even five years later the motion picture serial “Atom Man vs. Superman” had to resort to cartoon animation just to make Superman fly, and its “Atom Man” was just Lex Luthor in a glittery helmet, with a lab full of electrical gadgets in place of super powers.)

Although the Atom Man vs. Superman serial-story arc took 16 episodes to get to their first battle, it offered action-radio at its best, with impressive audio effects of massive explosions and electric crackling, a narrator describing the green energy bolts “like devils’ pitchforks,” the villain shouting “Die, Superman!” and Superman’s agonized moans of “No! Stop it! I can’t stand it!” until he was buried deep on a sandy beach.

The battle leaves Superman stripped of his costume and, unrecognized, hospitalized in a coma. As he recovers, he wanders from the hospital in a daze (and in pajamas) until he is given a pair of overalls by a friendly farmer and makes his way back to the Daily Planet. There, editor draws a quick conclusion about his mental state from his mumbled comments like “couldn’t get into the air”:

Perry White: “Kent wouldn’t listen to me and he worried himself into a nervous breakdown.”

Despite his earlier temper tantrum, White concludes the best thing for his star reporter will be to take him to Florida for some rest in the sun, another example of the Daily Planet‘s approach to employee health care without the formalities of a Newspaper Guild contract or a detailed medical plan.

In addition to several MP3 versions at the Internet Archive and elsewhere, the Atom Man stories are available on audio CD, including a library-quality boxed set from RadioSpirits.com (which may already be at your library).

I won’t fill weeks of blogging with all the nuances of “The Atom Man” and “Atom Man in Metropolis,” but they are worth a listen for reasons beyond the few journalism lessons. The sound effects, narrative writing and descriptive announcing for the fight scenes are impressively over-the-top. Also, it’s fascinating to hear how Superman’s script writers handled an “atomic threat” just three months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Protection from radiation? While Kryptonite is described as the world’s most powerful radioactive substance, Clark Kent advises Jimmy Olsen only to handle it with a handkerchief, not his bare hands, to avoid burning himself.

The 1950 movie serial titled “Atom Man vs. Superman” is loosely based on the successful radio adventure, but 1950 was more distant from the Nazi threat of World War II. In the 15 film episodes, Germany was never mentioned. The atomic threat was not from a fantastic Nazi villain turned into a human monster. The villain was just the usual bald mad scientist Lex Luthor, at times disguised in a robe and sparkling “Atom Man” helmet to hide the fact that he was able to teleport himself out of his prison cell. Luthor had no super powers, just “atomic powered” weapons — including his teleportation device, a disintegrating ray and, at the climax of the serial, a missile with a nuclear warhead aimed at Metropolis. Heavily foreshadowing that final development, each week’s opening credits ran over a backdrop of real-life mushroom-clouds — presumably stock footage of government bomb tests.

Lois on camera in movie serial

Lois Lane became a TV person-on-the-street interviewer during the Atom Man movie serial — an ironic sign that radio’s days were numbered, although the Daily Planet’s presses would keep rolling for decades.

The movie serial made one other nod to the threats of new technology: Temporarily free from jail, Luthor starts a TV news station — and hires Lois Lane away from the Daily Planet. Coincidentally, this was just as “The Adventures of Superman” producers were beginning to think about replacing the radio serial with a television series. The radio version shifted formats and networks between 1949 and 1951, then (after one more movie serial and a change of leading men from Kirk Alyn to George Reeves) gave way to Superman’s live-action television adventures from 1952-58.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, Clark Kent, editors, Lois Lane, Perry White, reporting, Superman, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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