Monday, May 17, 2010

Superman Sunday on Miracle Monday: Origins (Part 5)

By my reckoning, today's the third Monday in May, which means (according to the Elliot S! Maggin Superman novel Miracle Monday) it's Miracle Monday1. I'd hoped to have read that novel and prepared a review by today, but I've been swamped with work and complaining about Ryan Choi, and I'm still not quite finished with It's Superman, so instead I figured I'd give you the second part of Superman's radio origin. Brace yourself, folks: this is where things get weird.

The opening narration this time is different:
And now, Superman: eighth wonder of the modern world! Visitor from a distant planet whose strength knows no limits, whose endurance is beyond anything the world has ever known.

I love this sketch, and I really wish it had been made into a cover before the '90s."Eighth wonder of the modern world" feels like the kind of thing you'd read on an old circus or show poster. It's even a little reminiscent of the early Shuster sketch that inspired this cover. The narrator gives us a brief recap of the previous episode's cliffhanger:
We have seen how the child of Jor-L and Lara was placed in the rocketship and sent on his way to Earth.

Nice, succinct, though it might have been nice to get the child's birth name in addition to his parents' names. Naturally, this leads to the familiar scene of the rocket crash-landing in a field somewhere in America, and the child's discovery. But will it be a passing motorist in this version, or the elderly Kents? Take a look:
During the long journey of the rocketship to Earth, the child has become a man. The rocket landed in the desert. Superman stepped forth full-grown, to explore this strange new world in which he found himself.

Kal-L aged in the rocketship from infancy to adulthood? That's not Superman's origin, that's Lion-O's2. This is, obviously, a pretty radical departure from what was established in the comics and comic strip. Clark's boyhood may only have been introduced in "Superman" #1, but every origin up to this point has agreed that he arrived on Earth as a baby. This detail also calls into question whether the last episode actually intended Krypton to be a Counter-Earth world, since I doubt even at this point before the space race that they'd think a journey of 186 million miles would take 20-plus years. This is the first instance of a superhero comic book being adapted for another medium, and thus this is the first instance of superhero Adaptation Decay, setting the stage for everything from 'Holy Noun, Batman!' to 'Spider-Sentai'.

So, why the drastic change? I suspect it's a matter of budget and time. Recording the Superman origin from the comics would potentially require actors for young Clark, Ma & Pa, and at least one worker at the orphanage. They could do some more narration to cover the gap, I suppose, but instead they choose to jump right into the action. It's a show for kids, after all, and while the kids might be confused by how different this detail is from the comics they've been following (if they've been following the comics), they probably don't care much about the details of Superman's adoption. Still, it's certainly an oddity, it's certainly worth commenting on, and it'll certainly raise some questions later on.

And it's not the last oddity, either.

The story proper opens with Superman, "hovering with his curious power above a quiet highway in Indiana." So that's episode two, and we've left "leaping" behind. Say what you will about Adaptation Decay, folks, but it'll make you believe a man can fly.

Indiana may be an odd place to start from a modern perspective, but remember that Superman's home state has never been given at this point. Kansas hasn't even been mentioned, let alone "Smallville," and there's no indication of where Metropolis is located. This is, in fact, the first time Superman is explicitly placed in the Midwest--although a little further East than usual.

Superman watches as a trolley picks up the Professor and his son Jimmy (not Olsen), but the car begins to move without the driver. The doors are jammed shut, so Jimmy breaks a window, but they can't jump out because the car is going too fast. To make matters worse, a tree has fallen onto the track! Just in time, Superman arrives, tearing the roof off the trolley and grabbing the two passengers--"one under each arm." He flies them to safety, just before the trolley car crashes, and lands in a field.

After recovering from their fear, Jimmy asks some pertinent questions: "Who are you? Where do you come from." Superman responds, "I have no name. I come from a world that no longer exists. Here in this world of yours, men would call me a Superman."

It's fair to say that we don't know how long Superman has been on Earth at this point. There's an exploitable gap between 'arriving as a full-grown man' and 'saving the trolley riders,' during which he might have observed humans and learned the language and so forth. Still, how does he know his planet no longer exists? And if he knows that, why doesn't he know that his name is Kal-L?

Superman makes the duo promise to keep his existence a secret, not yet ready for the world to know about him. After they agree (one wonders what he'd do if they didn't!), he asks for some advice:
Superman: You know this world; I am a stranger. You know the people in it, and I have still to find them out.

Professor: You want to meet men, is that it?

"I know just the place."3
Superman: Not meet them, professor, observe them, study them, see them at their best and their worst.

"Ah, that might cost you extra."4
Know which to help, and when help is needed. If you could tell me that--

The professor thinks for a bit and suggests that the best place Superman could go to see what he wants to see is "a newspaper, a great metropolitan daily." Eventually, Superman decides to take this advice as literally as possible. The Professor suggests that he join their staff and be a reporter. This generally fits with the Golden Age justification for Superman's civilian career--in the earlier stories, he saw working at a newspaper as a way of keeping abreast of crime and trouble (because the newspaper would know of those things before anyone else--oh, how the times change). But Jimmy sees a glaring problem with that plan:
Oh, but you can't do it in those clothes, not that blue costume with the cloak and shield on your breast! Gee, you couldn't!

Though we might have guessed, this is our first indication that Superman is wearing his traditional costume. It's a brief description, and I suspect that the scriptwriters were banking on their audience being familiar with the costume already from the comic books, comic strips, and promotional campaign. In any case, this raises some further serious questions, namely where did the costume come from? Was he dressed in the costume when launched from Krypton? The Silver Age held that his costume's fabric was super-stretchy, so it fit him as well when he was Superman as it did when he was Superboy, but for the fabric to still fit him as a baby? And wouldn't that mean (in either case) that his cape was once much longer in proportion, because why would it stretch (and hold its shape)? Again, there's an unknown period of time between Kal-L's landing on Earth and rescuing the trolley, so I suppose he could have learned to sew and acquired fabrics for a costume in that span, but it's still odd. Wouldn't it be far easier to acquire normal clothes, then make a flamboyant costume? In any case, Superman explains that his primary-colored garb is the costume of Superman, and that he'd dress like a normal man if he became like one of them.

The Professor says that Superman will need some kind of a name, and asks what people call Superman. Superman says that he has no name, and I've got sudden déjà vu. The Professor apparently wasn't paying attention earlier when Jimmy asked that question and Superman gave basically the same answer. That's okay, he's just had a traumatic experience. He deserves a little slack. The scriptwriters, on the other hand...

Jimmy, ever the helpful sort, says this:
Well, how about 'Clark Kent'? That sounds all right.

Really. That's how Superman gets his name in this version. I remember reading "Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating Superman" years ago, thinking that it was ridiculous for having Clark pick his name from looking at a truck and a street sign, but this is worse. Why that name? Why was Jimmy able to supply it with so little hesitation? It'd be better even if they went with the real-life logic that produced his name: "How about Clark, like Clark Gable? And Kent, like Kent Taylor? 'Clark Kent'!" But for Jimmy to just have that name on the tip of his tongue is fairly odd.

The Professor says the name is "usual enough, won't attract attention." That's probably true, in-universe. Here on Earth-Prime, where Superman and Clark Kent are household names, I can't help but wonder how much the decreasing popularity of "Clark" as a first name has coincided with the popularity of Superman. It's kind of odd to be naming your kids after fictional characters, you know, and I suspect that's a lot of why you don't meet many Clarks, Bruces, or Lukes these days. Unfortunately, we don't have a "control" Earth where the characters never existed, so we could see what the popularity variations would be in their absence. Superman decides to follow their advice, to become a reporter by the name of Clark Kent (which, strangely, Superman says twice each time he says it). Having lingered too long, he bids the duo goodbye, then takes off.

I could end the post here, since it's really the end of the "origin" part of the story, but I might as well stick it out for the last six minutes. We're quickly introduced to Perry White for the first time ever (the newspaper editor in the comics is George Taylor), and he doesn't object to being called "Chief." He receives a phone tip about a railroad story, warning him specifically of a man called "The Wolfe," who will ultimately be one of the main villains for this arc. Perry's secretary, Miss Smith (no Betty Brant, but she'll do) informs him that there's a man still waiting for an interview, and Perry realizes he doesn't have anyone available to take the railroad story. He tells Miss Smith to send the man in, and we get our first auditory glimpse at Clark Kent.

While Bud Collyer's characteristic inflection and accent is present, he's raised the pitch of his voice and softened it significantly to portray Clark, which would become a pretty standard tactic for future portrayals of the Man of Steel. Collyer played Superman for decades, on radio, animated movie serials, and television, so it's not surprising that he set the bar. Collyer walks the careful line between making the voices distinct and making it clear that they're the same person; it's really quite impressive.

In any case, Kent runs into an unsurprising problem: he has no experience whatsoever. I'm glad they addressed this, because anything else would have been a pretty big stretch of the old disbelief suspenders. Perry doesn't have time or patience for rookies, so Clark plays the only trump card he has: offering to bring in a big story, specifically about The Wolfe. This is the first indication in the radio show that Superman's senses might be more acute than a human's, though the comics described his "sensitive ears" over a year ago5, making super-hearing one of the first new powers Superman would gain over the decades.

Clark plays coy with the story--likely because he only knows as much about it as Perry does, since he heard the same phone call--but Perry takes the bait and describes the situation: The Wolfe has sent threats to "tie up every railroad in the country"--threats which went unheeded until one train went off a bridge. The warnings are being kept secret until they've been thoroughly investigated. With impeccable timing, The Wolfe chooses that moment to call in, warning Perry that the Silver Clipper will not make it from Denver to Salt Lake City.

Clark is really terrible with his secret identity here, tipping his hand to Perry that he could hear what the voice on the other end of the phone was saying. Perry finds it odd at first, but mostly brushes it off so he can take a chance on Clark and send him on the story.

Miss Smith takes Clark around the building, ultimately leading him to the anteroom to the cashier's office, so she can get him an advance for a plane ticket. When she leaves, Clark goes out the window, twenty stories up. Miss Smith returns and panics, realizing that Clark has jumped out. Clark's taking a very cavalier attitude toward his secret identity, and I suspect that this won't be the case for very long in the radio program (we already know it's not the case in other media).

So ultimately, a fairly conventional ending to what started (or more accurately, middled) as a very unconventional version of the Superman origin. The drastic changes deal only with the sort of thing that needn't be mentioned ever again, and that's about the same time I think we'll hear about Jimmy and the Professor. The end scene, where Clark gets a job by pitching a story that no one else could get, shows up frequently in these origin stories (although usually the story involves an interview with Superman). This whole segment is particularly interesting because of what's been left out. I mentioned the Kents (and any childhood) earlier, but more significant, I think is that there's no Lois Lane. Four new characters are introduced, two of whom will likely never show up again, and yet the one major mainstay is nowhere to be found. She'll turn up eventually, it's just interesting that the scriptwriters left her out of this "introduce the main characters" episode. There may have been behind-the-scenes reasons for this, since there was apparently some difficulty in nailing down an actress for the part of Lois.

It's a good pair of episodes, especially the Krypton segment, and it's the strength and intriguing interpretations of these early programs that got me hooked on the "Adventures of Superman" radio program when I first started listening to it a couple of years ago. The cast is top-notch, especially Collyer, and I highly recommend taking a listen to further episodes. I'd especially like to track down some of the ones that aren't in the commonly-available sources, especially the first appearance of Kryptonite and the revamped origin story from a few years down the road.

As a final point, since I didn't know it in time for the last post, it's worth mentioning that even though this origin didn't have Lois, it did have a Lane. Lara was portrayed by veteran actress Agnes Moorehead, famous now for her roles in Citizen Kane and Bewitched, but at the time this was recorded, her most notable role was Margot Lane, confidante to The Shadow. I have read that Margot Lane was a major influence in the development of Lois's character, right down to the surname, but not only can I not find a reference for it, but it seems unlikely given the account of her creation in Les Daniels' Superman: The Golden Age. I'll amend this if I can find a source, otherwise it remains an interesting curiosity.

1. Also notable: Tomorrow is the 71st anniversary of the release date of "Superman" #1.

2.Interestingly, there's a lot of Superman in "ThunderCats," largely because I think both were particularly influenced by Judaism. While Superman can be seen as the story of Moses's birth--the child set adrift to be raised by outsiders, who would become a great hero--the ThunderCats story is the other side of the Moses tale: the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land. Jaga plays the role of Moses (most of the time) in the latter, appointing the new leader and guiding his people safely to their new home, but dying before they arrive. There's an incredibly geeky dissertation in this, I think.

3. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

4. I have no willpower.

5. In "Action Comics" #8, cover-dated January, 1939, which means it was probably released in November, 1938.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List


shadzane said...

"It's kind of odd to be naming your kids after fictional characters, you know, and I suspect that's a lot of why you don't meet many Clarks, Bruces, or Lukes these days."

But then how do you explain all the young Madisons around today? Madison (as a girl's name) comes directly from the movie Splash.

And Luke has been climbing in popularity since the 1970s (as can be seen here: )

Tom Foss said...

I'd guess that the vast majority of people naming their girls "Madison" don't know the tail (ha!) behind that name.

There is a subculture of people who will name their kids after fictional characters--I heard recently that the name "Isabella" is gaining popularity thanks to the Twilight books--but I still think that's kind of odd.

But it could just be that Clark and Bruce have fallen out of favor due to entirely natural circumstances, the way names like Agnes and Irma have. They may just sound antiquated (or in Bruce's case, may be perceived undesirable).