Action Comics vol.1 #50 - Cover date July 1942
It’s been a frantic year for Clark, Lois and their mutual friend Superman, so this issue’s return to the old “guardian angel” motif is a welcome relief for the cast. Helping a wide-eyed, hayseed baseball wonder get to his major league debut ahead of the gold-diggers and crooked managers keeps Clark and Lois busy, and gives them plenty of time to spar verbally between quick costume changes and super-speed shenanigans.
Considering the fol-de-rol that surrounds 50th issue “anniversaries” these days, this story seems a very quiet way to acknowledge this particular landmark, but also terrifically appropriate – Superman began his career with escapades like these, letting Lois dress Clark down over every imagined slight and playing guardian angel to some deserving underdog…
World’s Finest Comics vol.1 #6 - Cover date Summer 1942
Jimmy Olsen debuts in the comics courtesy of this issue, name and all (an earlier unnamed copyboy is often credited as being Jimmy’s first appearance in the comic, but without having a name assigned to him, is he really Jimmy? Imagine his existential dilemma).
Also debuting in this episode is the malevolent Metalo, not to be confused with the later “man with the kryptonite heart” who spelled his sobriquet with two “L”s. Decked out in invulnerable armor and lurid purple cape, capable of flight and gifted with tremendous strength, Metalo undertakes a series of crimes across Metropolis of which the authorities understandably accuse the Man of Steel.
Superman is now no stranger to the super-villain, the world-conqueror and the mad scientist, so does Metalo represent anything previously unexplored in the genre? Well, for the first time, Superman is facing his equal but opposite number – possessed of all of the Man of Tomorrow’s mighty powers, decked out in a cloaked costume, masking his true identity behind a fanciful name. Admittedly he’s not quite the mirror duplicate that enemies like Bizarro, Ultraman or Super-Menace might eventually be, but he is, at least, the first.
Like so many villains before him, Metalo appears to die at the end of the issue, but unusually for the medium, the readers are shown that he survives – to vow and plot his revenge! In a wonderful sort of irony, though, Metalo thereafter vanished entirely, and didn’t return to the comics for three decades…
The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther
Superman missed out on becoming the first comic book superhero to appear live on the silver screen – that honor goes to his Fawcett Comics’ rival Captain Marvel by way of his very popular 12-part serial the year previous (technically, comic strip hero Dick Tracy beat both of them to the punch with a trio of popular serials between 1937 and 1939) – however he has the honor of being the first comic book superhero to make the leap to prose. In 1942, The Adventures of Superman debuted, written by George Lowther and featuring interior artwork by Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster.
The bulk of the story centers on Clark Kent earning his reporting credentials by way of exposing a freighter full of skeleton pirates and a Nazi plot, however the most interesting part of the book is the opening chapters. As the only other writer besides Jerry Siegel at this point to catalogue the adventures of the Man of Steel, Lowther effectively has carte blanche to extrapolate on Superman’s youth, from Jor-L’s impassioned plea to the ruling council of Krypton and desperate rush to save his child, to the adopted Clark’s difficult childhood on Earth.
Lowther’s vision of Clark’s childhood is a surprisingly complex one. Not yet a powerful man of determination and resolve, the young Clark Kent finds his powers a mystery and a burden. Guilty, embarrassed, unsure of himself, his growing powers actually undermine Clark’s confidence – although he finds spontaneous joy in suddenly leaping tremendous heights with only a gentle push.
Although writing a book which was ostensibly aimed at the juvenile market, Lowther wrote against type for boys’ adventure; His young Clark Kent suffered the insecurities and doubts of a deeply sensitive boy at that age. In many ways, it resembles the current iteration of young Superman with which we may find familiar from the motion pictures or the television show Smallville, and certainly must have resonated to some degree with Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel, whose own childhood must have been punctuated with similar insecurities.
"The Superman Truck"
Superman Sunday Newspaper Strip - June 14, 1942 to September 20, 1942
Superman enters the lexicon of his fictional world much in the same way he entered the lexicon of the real world – as advertising. A “Superman Truck” is unveiled, a tremendous transport vehicle which, five years prior, might’ve been called merely Colossal or Titanic. It’s tough to decide if Jerry Siegel is presaging the preponderance of “Super-“ this and “Super-“ that’s which would be marketed in the wake of his enormously popular co-creation, sneering at the common acquisition of the term which propagated in his own day, or is merely building his hero’s in-canon reputation.
Action Comics vol.1 #49 - Cover date June 1942
The Puzzler, who debuts in this issue, remains one of the Golden Age Superman’s most well-remembered foes, despite having only made a handful of appearances, often only in cameo – very possibly his inclusion in the character catalog Who’s Who In The DC Universe helped, particularly as repeat villains were so few and far between.
A serious and callous gamesman who plays for mortal stakes and rigs his victories, the Puzzler is one of a pair of villains who will debut this year and who use bald-faced trickery to battle the Man of Steel, despite their lack of super-powers. Unlike his more ambitious peers, like Luthor or Ultra, the Puzzler’s goals falls far short of world-beating and are simply matters of personal pride.
What makes Superman’s underpowered villains work so well against him are these otherwise modest goals – the tremendous power wielded by the Man of Tomorrow arms him well against would-be world conquerors, but he’s comically overqualified to stop a puzzle, prank, toy or magic trick.
Superman vol.1 #16 - Cover date May-June 1942
The Daily Planet staff provides much of the forward momentum in three of the four stories in this issue; Perry White champions the building of a wilderness camp for underprivileged kids, but faces opposition from a masked figure dubbed “The World’s Meanest Man”. Later, Clark takes on the phony science of astrology, and then he and Lois face down a gang racketeers who are attempting to monopolize Metropolis’ shipping lanes.
In more traditional superhero fare, however, the Man of Steel meets another member of the super-villainous Class of 1942, the interdimensional gargoyle Mister Sinister (no relation to the steel-belted glam rocker who bedeviled the X-Men in the Nineties, of course). Employing a ray-cannon which abducts buildings – include the Daily Planet – into the fourth dimension, Mister Sinister leads Superman on a weirdly warped chase through the traditional three dimensions before facing his ultimate destruction – all that remains of the gray-skinned ghoul in the end is his shadow…
"The Steel Mill Poet" Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - May 25, 1942 to August 8, 1942
Taking a rest from the seemingly tireless parade of Axis saboteurs invading Metropolis under his watch, Superman embarks on another whimsical – but eventful – adventure involving a henpecked husband who needs a guardian angel of steel. The Canby Steel Mill is being driven into the ground, courtesy of the owner’s overbearing wife and her poetry-spouting cousin, the latter of whom seems intent of driving factory morale into the ground with interminable open-microphone nights on the production floor.
On top of this, there’s a budding, star- crossed romance mixed with a false accusation of embezzlement and a few thugs storming around the place for good measure, indulging in a bit of industrial espionage. In the end, Superman straightens everything out and gets the steel mill back on track, complete with a government contract, since the war continues to be much on the public’s mind…
"The Champion of Democracy"
Superman Sunday Newspaper Strip - May 31, 1942 to June 7, 1942
With the popularity of the Superman strip growing (at its peak, the Sunday strip would appear in 90 papers), the McClure Syndicate (which owned the distribution rights to the strips) had the creators reintroduce the public to Superman with a bookended pair of “origin pages”. Given Superman’s media immersion at the time, it may not have been actually necessary – at the very least, the average man on the street probably recognized the blue tights, red cape and bold pseudonym from advertisements and movie posters.
An interesting note worth revisiting in regards to McClure: The syndicate neglected to add appropriate copyright notices to many of the strips, rendering some of them as public domain – some of the only Superman material which is public domain, alongside the Fleischer cartoons.