by Bob Stepno
For most of the 20th century, Clark Kent and Lois Lane may have been the first “newspaper reporters” American children could identify — brought to them in comic books, newspaper strips, radio, television or movies before they knew the by-lines of any real journalists. And, if they were listening to “The Adventures of Superman” on the radio, they may have noticed that Clark Kent wasn’t particularly mild-mannered when working as a reporter, no matter what the announcer said.
Clark had a nose for news along with his super powers; he dug for facts and he asked tough questions. So did Lois, Perry White and even Jimmy Olsen. Sometimes their journalistic skills or ethics were a bit shaky, but that has been true of a lot of reporters in popular culture, from Walter and Hildy in “The Front Page” to Mikael Blomkvist and his friend “Wasp” in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
From the beginning, Superman had newspaper roots. Young writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joseph Shuster worked for their Ohio high school newspaper, the Glenville Torch, before beginning their collaboration on newspaper comic-strip ideas, according to Superman historian Michael Hayde. In apparent homage to Glenville, the 21st century incarnation of the young Clark Kent in television’s “Smallville” wrote his first stories for a high school paper called the Torch.
Comic, TV and movie fans will be surprised by Superman’s story on the radio, which is quite different from the later versions. All had reporters Lane and Kent, editor Perry White and copyboy Jimmy Olsen, but the radio Superman’s origin was as streamlined as a 1940 locomotive.
He did not grow up in Smallville, but in that experimental rocket launched from the dying planet Krypton in the first 15-minute episode. In the next episode, he arrived on Earth fully grown and, somehow was already educated about where he was from — “a planet that no longer exists.” A February 1940 newspaper ad for the radio series explained, “He traveled to Earth in a space-ship whch took 1,000 years. Deathless, he merely achieved maturity in that time.” (See the ad on page 34 of Hayde’s Flights of Fantasy, 2009.)
But the newly arrived Kryptonian did not know much about Earth. He didn’t know human beings. And he didn’t know where his great powers were needed. He did — somehow — know a runaway trolley car when he saw one. Listen to the second 15 minute episode in the Adventures of Superman series with the questions “What is journalism for?” and “Why be a reporter?” in mind.
What advice might today’s version of “the professor” in the story give? What do he and his son tell the big guy in blue tights about journalism in the 21st century?
Clark Kent, Reporter (Click the title to download, or if a player button is not functioning in your browser.)
Getting a Newspaper Job
When a young man identifying himself as Clark Kent appeared at The Daily Planet, “a greenhorn” as the editor put it, just landing the job could be considered one of his first super-feats.
He had no clips. He had no experience. What was he doing there? One thing he had was an idealistic motivation, “to know which to help and when help is needed.”
That’s what he had told a college professor and his son, the pair Superman rescued from that runaway trolley on his first day on Earth. The alien visitor said he wanted to observe and study human beings. The professor had a suggestion:
“To mingle with people, to see men at the highest and lowest, if that’s what you want… How about a newspaper? A great metropolitan daily… Join their staff. Be a reporter.”
An academic job reference might have done Kent some good, but he didn’t mention the professor to editor Perry White when he got to that job interview. He wasn’t even asked to demonstrate the skill Jackie Cooper’s version of Perry White commended in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, calling Kent the fastest typist the old editor had ever seen.
Instead, radio’s Clark just gave the boss what he wanted — a promise of a hard-to-get story about threatened railroad sabotage.
Getting that story idea is where some ethical fog rolls in. Superman’s super-hearing apparently let him eavesdrop on all the details of editor White’s previous telephone conversation before the job interview. Kent’s story pitch was a winner. White’s response:
“You’re either clairvoyant or the luckiest guesser alive… Either way I can use you.”
Was that fair? White’s secretary didn’t think so:
“You’re pretty lucky, I’ll say. A hundred good newspapermen walking the streets and you step right into a job.”
(Stealing stories is a common theme in more than 50 years of Hollywood’s portrayals of journalists, from the eavesdropping reporters in “The Front Page” to Michael Keaton in “The Paper,” swiping a story idea off the desk of an editor interviewing him for a job.)
Press Has Power Too
You be the judge of whether Clark Kent delivered the goods as a reporter in “Keno’s Landslide,” the next episode from the original three-day-a-week Superman radio serial. Both identities were voiced by star radio actor Clayton “Bud” Collyer, who could say “This is a job for…” in one register and drop his voice an octave to say “… Superman!” (Usually followed by “Up, up and away!” and a rush-of-air sound effect to indicate super-flight.)
Actually, Clark underestimated the power of the press at one point in this episode. Just saying he’s a reporter kept a conductor from putting him off a high-speed passenger train for not having a ticket. “You’re liable to write up a story about getting kicked off our train…” said the conductor. Ironically, Kent wanted to get off the train, but you can hear what happened for yourself in the middle of this episode, “Keno’s Landslide”…
You also can pick up more of that story in the Superman collection at Archive.org if the audio player doesn’t work for you, or if you want to follow more of the series.
Clark, meet Lois
For discussion of Clark as journalist, I’m going to skip to episode 7, “The Atomic Beam Machine,” which literally makes The Daily Planet the center of the plot: A mad scientist has threatened to blow up the newspaper.
Half-way through the episode, Clark meets Lois Lane for the first time. She’s not impressed.
She calls him “the boy wonder” and “the white-haired boy” and “mister star reporter.”
“They tell me you talked yourself into a job went out west and came back with the biggest story of the month, all in less than a week,” she says. “You’ve got the old man hypnotized. He thinks you’re Horace Greeley.”
(Did the average school-age listener to Superman in 1940 know who the 19th century New York Tribune editor? Apparently so. I’ve heard other references to Greeley in unrelated radio series. Maybe a Greeley centennial had him in the news.)
Lois even suggests that Kent made up the threat to blow up The Daily Planet, which he is investigating, and she’s not very impressed by her own new assignment, to interview an atomic scientist. Even editor Perry White suggests that it’s a soft story.
White: “Oh, I’ve got a job for you Lois.”
Lois: “A good job?”
White: “No. Go out and interview a scientist. Human interest stuff… Leading American investigator in the field of atomic energy.”
Lois: “Must we, chief.”
White: “Yeah come on, get going, Lois… This paper has always been tied in with science… He said somebody stole a new machine he invented… Sounds cracked, but it may make a yarn… “
You can get the rest of the yarn in the Superman collection at Archive.org. In another contrast with the movie and TV versions, in episode number nine, the thrilling conclusion, Clark Kent reveals a skill that surprised me: He knows how to fly — not as Superman, but by taking the controls of an airplane in an emergency attempt to rescue Lois.
As that episode ends, reports of a fire and a woman trapped on a 20th floor comes into the newsroom, and Kent is begging White for the assignment, “maybe I can do something.” This newspaper job certainly seems to be everything the professor predicted.
Clark and Lois weren’t the only journalism heroes in the series. Perry White really stepped up as a crusading editor of the Daily Planet in stories like the Clan of the Fiery Cross, where he devoted the front page to a plea for citizens to identify hooded bigots. The first result of the editorial was a burning cross on the editor’s lawn.
Before the tale was over, White came close to being tarred and feathered by a clan mob, or shot by a deranged sniper.
The Daily Planet itself played a big role in the series, being threatened with destruction in retaliation for Kent’s first big story, and providing assignments that led Superman to most of his adventures. Even the most mundane with features, a reader “define these foreign words” contest was used by Kent to stop a nuclear attack on the U.S., with the help of one or the paper’s rural correspondents, “Horatio F.Horn, detective.”
On assignment: A deep-sea adventure
The 1940 Superman radio adventure of Professor Thorpe’s Bathysphere begins with Clark Kent being called to editor Perry White’s office to get his new assignment — covering a scientific discovery. This Bathysphere tale was originally broadcast in August and September, 1940, about eight months after the start of the series.
No Earth-destroying calamity is approaching from outer space; no mad scientist is threatening civilization; no shout of “This is a job for… Superman!” sets things in motion. Like many of the early adventures of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, this one begins simply with a reporter going off on assignment.
“Do you know anything about icthyology?” editor Perry White asks Kent, introducing him to a scientist who has invented a new deep-sea exploration bathysphere.
From there, of course, the excitement builds in a hurry. In the first 10 minutes, there’s a mysterious report of a stolen ship, cannon fire, possible piracy, a rescue at sea and a need for that blue-and-red uniform. But I’m always impressed that there’s some “newspaper journalism” getting the ball rolling in these early Superman episodes — more than I remember seeing in Superman movies or comic books as I was growing up.
Yes, it’s a “juvenile adventure” designed to sell breakfast cereal. But that’s part of the reason I’m interested. For young listeners to the 1940-1951 radio series, the message may have been that reporters — not just superheroes — are “the good guys” who meet interesting people, go to exotic places, confront wrong-doers, solve mysteries, and tell the story to the world.
The point I want to make is that this early version of Superman used Daily Planet reporters, Clark and Lois, as the center of the adventures. Lois wasn’t always the reporter, or “damsel in distress” either. Clark’s assignments became Superman’s adventures, not the other way around. Being the reporter was the gateway to excitement, “Man of Steel” or not.
In addition, in this episode we learn that The Daily Planet has its own seaplane ready and waiting for its reporters’ adventures… and that Clark can pilot the plane as well as he can fly in blue tights and red cape. Looks like we’ll have to expand the journalism school curriculum again…
The reporter and scientist work together to investigate a mysterious prisoner onboard a stolen ship, a case of impersonation, and a good possibility of piracy. It would help if all reporters had Kent’s super hearing and could twist a steel door off its hinges to get at information. (But would it be ethical?)
Blog posts about series episodes:
- Superman and friends at JHeroes (more than 20 posts)
For more about Superman’s transitions from print to radio and screen:
- Flights of fantasy: The unauthorized but true story of radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman, by Michael J. Hayde; Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2009.
- Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, NY, Random House, 2012; by Larry Tye
For more of the Superman radio series: