March 16, 2013

Superman Saturday: Someone put the word on you, and I hope my aim is true

I got my first feedback to this series last week from Faithful Reader Warren:

The thing that I always find fascinating about early Superman is that the villains are way more human than superhuman. The only one like that left anymore is Lex Luthor.

I've noted this as well, at least indirectly. Superman himself is more human back in the early years: he can't fly, he doesn't have special vision (like X-ray or heat), and while bullets will bounce off his skin, he's not invulnerable. (By contrast, on The Adventures of Superman radio program, he has been able to fly and see through solid objects right from the beginning.) Hence his foes have also been more human: gangsters, saboteurs, and various other ne'er-do-wells.

Superman's first recurring enemy in Action Comics was the Ultra-Humanite, a bald, mad-scientist type in a wheelchair: not only less than superhuman, but a damaged human at that. Ultra was designed to be the opposite of Superman; instead of a heroic strongman, he is a crippled criminal, albeit a superior intellect (which enabled him to escape death by transplanting his brain into another person's). Lex Luthor was introduced about a year later, and Ultra-Humanite was dropped from Superman's rogue's gallery, since Siegel and Shuster decided Superman didn't need two bald archenemies. Like the Ultra-Humanite, Luthor is a regular human being, though gifted with superior intellect, and motivated from time to time by world domination or revenge against Superman.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that Supe's more superhuman or non-human enemies began to show up in the comics, beginning with the Kryptonian android Brainiac in 1958, at the start of the "Silver Age" of comic books. Others soon followed, including the Kryptonite-powered Metallo and Bizarro Superman. (A notable exception is the magical supervillain Mister Mzyzptlk, who first appeared in the early 1940s.) At this time, Superman himself was also being written as an increasingly powerful hero. My personal theory is that this is a bit of a feedback loop: a more powerful Superman needs more powerful enemies to pose a credible challenge; conversely, more powerful enemies require greater powers to defeat. It's no wonder DC Comics tried to scale back Superman's abilities since the 1980s.

We, of course, have the ability just to travel back in time to a point where Golden Age Newbie Superman still punched out baddies. And so, without further ado, let us travel back to 1940, and a new Superman adventure . . .

Episode 40: Buffalo Hills, Part 1 (1940/05/13)


After returning to Metropolis following the mystery of Bridger Field, Clark Kent is sitting in Perry White's office. The giant national shrine of Buffalo Hills, a mountain carved into scenes depicting the nation's pioneers, has been completed and is to be unveiled the next week, and Clark is being sent to cover the story. Also, Buffalo Hills is in the state of reform-minded governor Alan J. Carson, who has made some enemies mad enough to take shots at him from time to time, and White thinks there's a possibility of someone making another attempt during the celebration.

Buffalo Hills is, of course, a fictionalized Mount Rushmore, which was still under construction in 1940.

Perry then introduces Clark to Asa Hatch, a renowned landscape photographer, scientist, amateur detective, and (as it happens) correspondent for the Daily Planet. (A fictionalized Ansel Adams, perhaps?) Hatch, who sounds just like Vincent Price, will also be travelling to the Buffalo Hills celebration, and White suggests that Clark can accompany him. Hatch is shaken, however, because 20 minutes ago, someone took a shot at him in the street: his hat has a bullet hole through it.

As Hatch tells his story, crash! another bullet crashes through White's window and embeds itself in his ceiling. White tells Clark to call the police, but instead Clark takes advantage of the general confusion to change into his Superman costume and jump out a nearby window in pursuit of the sniper.

From a window in an empty loft across the street, Superman spots the rifle emerging again. He bursts in the window and grabs the sniper, demanding that he talk. Instead, the gunman fights him and accidentally shoots himself with his own rifle. Before he dies, he confesses: "They sent me—Flores—Carson—get Hatch." With the police pounding on the door, Superman escapes out the window again and streaks back to the Planet building, where White and Hatch are wondering where Clark has gone.

Back in his guise as Clark Kent, he lies about the sniper's death, saying he shot himself when he was discovered by the watchman, and repeats his final words. White is incredulous that Al Carson would be sending people east to assassinate Hatch. However, Hatch recognizes the name "Flores" as Pete Flores: "I know him well."

Just then, another reporter bursts into the office and hands White a news story: in Boulder City, Governor Carson's car has been wrecked in a collision. Carson himself escaped with only a few scratches. As the episode closes, Hatch remarks wryly to Clark that his trip to Buffalo Hills will be anything but dull: "And as far as celebrations are concerned Mr. Kent, I think—I say, I think you can prepare more for something something like the Fourth of July."

What does Asa Hatch mean by that cryptic remark?

Who is Pete Flores, and why does he want Hatch killed?

Did anyone think to ask Clark Kent how he happened to be in the room with the dying sniper?

Episode 41: Buffalo Hills, Part 2 (1940/05/15)


Well, in answer to question #2, the narrator gives it away: Pete Flores is a "Western badman." Sorry, did I miss an episode? No? Well, thanks a lot, Mr. Spoiler.

It is now two days later, and Clark and Asa Hatch are en route to Boulder City on the train.

As their train approaches a small way station, two men are waiting for it: Pete Flores, Western badman, and Dutchy Ganz, one of his gang members. Flores cautions Dutchy to be careful with the suitcase he's holding, because it holds a "pineapple" that will "blow you sky-high." It seems that Flores knows Clark by reputation, having heard what he did to the Donelli gang. Not wanting a repeat performance out West on his gang, he plans to rid himself of Clark and Hatch pre-emptively. He instructs Dutchy to take the "pineapple," ride underneath the train, affix the device to Car 384, then get off the train at Island Falls and meet him again in Boulder city.

As the train stops at the otherwise insignificant way station of Little Forks, Clark and Hatch are enjoying a lemonade together. "Down the hatch," jokes Hatch, poorly. Clark remarks on how dusty it looks outside, and how glad he is to be inside the train instead of riding the rods. Ha ha! Dramatic irony! (See, that high-school English education was good for something.)

The train gets underway again, and Hatch starts to regale Clark with tales of his travels, including a "very curious experience" he once had in Boulder City, but he notices that Clark isn't really paying attention. His super-hearing has picked up a "metallic clinking" underneath the train. Hatch doesn't hear the sound, but suggests it might just be a "tramp changing his false teeth." Clark gets up and announces that he is going to the smoking car, to, you know, smoke. Hatch elects to stay at his seat and nap.

In reality, the suspicious Clark changes to Superman and, skimming the ground alongside the train, discovers Dutchy underneath Car 384—their car. He pulls him out from underneath and takes him "for a ride" into the air. When Dutchy refuses to talk, Superman drags him through a lake until he confesses that Flores told him to plant the bomb. It's set to go off after the train leaves Island Falls.

Leaving Dutchy behind, Superman speeds after the train. He catches up just as the train is passing through Island Falls. With no time to lose, he locates the "pineapple," tears it loose from the underside of Car 384, and throws it into a river just in time!

Reassuming the persona of Clark Kent, he returns to his seat, where Asa Hatch asks if he enjoyed his smoke. "Yes," he replies. Because Clark Kent smokes now. Hatch also remarks on the explosion he just heard. "Blasting down by the river," suggests Clark. He asks Hatch whether he believes Pete Flores has it in for him and Governor Carson. Hatch answers "yes," but says nothing more. Clark suggests that when they arrive in Boulder City, they need to pay a visit to Carson and let him know what happened back East. "I'll tell you something else, too," he adds, "I hope we are on time."

What danger awaits the governor?

Does Flores' enmity towards Asa Hatch have anything to do with his "very curious experience"?

How many juvenile fans of The Adventures of Superman just took up smoking to imitate their hero?

Stay tuned!

Since I editorialized at length at the beginning of this post, I'll say little more, except that this is a good start to this story, with plenty of Superman action and (so far) no silly plot holes. Also, if nothing else, Clark's fake smoke break is a better excuse to don Superman's tights and cape than most of the ones he's used so far.

Until next week, True Believers, keep watching the skies!