World’s Best Comics Vol.1 #1 - cover date March 1941
Superman debuts in his third ongoing title for National, an adventure anthology book based on the formula established by the company’s earlier “World’s Fair Comics” experiments. Sharing the page count with Superman were Detective Comics’ gun-toting mystery man Crimson Avenger and Flash Comics’ magically gifted Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt, among other such colorful types as The King, the military trio Red, White and Blue and lesser-known tough guys with the appealing names of Punch Parker and Lando, Man of Magic.
Of course, the most high-profile of Superman’s co-stars was Batman, still relatively new to the scene but a popular enough character to warrant tying the Man of Steel for the number of ongoing appearances. While neither character had yet met, this was their second appearance together, and they’d share this book in one manner or another for the better part of the next forty years.
Inside the book, Superman receives an Action-sized parcel of adventure pitting him against The Rainmaker - a disaster-engineering baddie armed with a machine to manipulate the weather. The story goes much as expected, with the Man of Tomorrow triumphing against nature’s rawest fury and saving another town from a wrecked dam with such clean precision you’d think he majored in Wrecked Dams in college.
One key scene underlines Superman’s early ruthlessness; we’re familiar with our defender of the underdog threatening crooks with bodily harm of all varieties, and we’ve seen him unperturbed by the sudden death of the deservingly corrupt. In this debut episode of World’s Best, however, we see Superman willfully send someone to their death – while the Rainmaker’s storms rage and the burst dam’s terrible floodwaters roil below, Superman kicks the villain’s house, occupant and all, off the cliff and into the tumultuous deluge.
The Rainmaker emerges unhurt, luckily, only to perish by his own actions later in the story, but his survival certainly owes nothing to Superman…
Superman vol. 1 #9 - cover date March 1941
By 1941, there’s a huge demand for Superman stories and the pace is bound to exhaust the creative teams. Besides the two regular titles which Superman headlines, there’s another on the horizon, alongside an animated series waiting to get into the nation’s movie theaters. In fact - thanks to the radio serials and both iterations of the newspaper strips - Superman is thrilling the nation on a daily basis, seven days a week, without a break.
It’s inevitable – practically a matter of statistics – that Superman would occasionally enter a dry period, notably bereft of the frenetic and imaginative quality which typified these early years. The four stories which make up this issue have Superman dealing with fifth columnists, murder rings, alligators and steel-helmeted crooks - sounds good, but it’s actually pretty rote.
Luthor takes an achingly obvious break from menacing the Man of Steel, as do any of the robots, giants, deadly gases and other science fiction story elements which are becoming the occasional avenue for the book, leaving behind Superman getting his knuckles dirty against some otherwise unexemplary examples of the kind of bad guys he’s been slugging in better stories for the last few years …
Action Comics vol.1 #33 - cover date February 1941
It wasn’t all that long ago – Action Comics #25, in fact – that Superman found himself totally vulnerable to the hypnotic power of the hateful Medini. A year later and Superman has added his own brand of super-hypnotism to his bag of tricks – to the detriment of the character, I might argue.
Clark Kent and Lois Lane are investigating what appears to be a deliberate slow-down in production at a nearby lumber camp – the owner’s late brother had promised to donate all proceeds from the camp to charities for needy youths, but the current owner doesn’t intend to follow through on the promise. In the course of their journalistic snooping, Lois and Clark are captured, tied up and left to burn to death as the cabin surrounding them is set on fire!
Clark, naturally, wracks his brain – how to change to Superman and save the day, but not reveal his dual identity to Lois? It’s the stuff of literally hundreds of Superman stories, a chance to pepper the action with a story-specific brain teaser; sometimes comic, generally dependent on specific circumstances, often the result of white-knuckle timing between life, death and chance.
Despite the possibilities that present themselves in this scenario – smoke hides Clark’s transformation, Lois passes out from lack of oxygen, a crashing timber divides them – what happens is that Clark hypnotizes Lois. By his mental command, she will not remember what she is about to see.
With that, Clark changes to Superman and saves the day, a briefly amnesiac Lois remains none-the-wiser to her meek co-worker’s dual identity, and this gimmick is ruined forever; If Superman can simply hypnotize potential witnesses into forgetting his dual identity, then why doesn’t he do that all the time? A world without worry awaits the Man of Steel and his powerful mental commands.
Super-hypnotism remains on the books, albeit used infrequently, through the remainder of Superman’s career, for the better.
Action Comics vol.1 #34 - cover date March 1941
By 1941, Lois in near-constant peril has become a staple of the Superman stories. Kidnapped by crooks, imprisoned by petty tyrants, threatened with poisonous gas, death traps and super-scientific raybeams of all varieties and not to mention nearly becoming the victim of everyday tenement fires and collapsing buildings any given day of the week, threats to Lois’ life and limb happen so frequently that it runs the risk of becoming so much white noise in the background – ho-hum, she’s fallen off a building again.
To keep Lois’ danger fresh, Superman’s writers had a few tools at their disposal; most often, they chose to simply replace Lois with another damsel they could conveniently distress. Having just engineered some timely escapes in a rustic setting for Miss Lane in the last issue of Action, it would have been repetitive to have Lois wander from trouble in the logging camp to trouble in the mines. Enter Doris Laurey, daughter of a coal magnate and recent inheritor of his profitable mines.
The blonde Miss Laurey stands in well enough for Lois in terms of stepping blithely before her insidious uncle’s attempts to have her snuffed out, but substituting for Lois only seems to accentuate the unique qualities Lois brings to the table; the quick lip, the defiant chin, the stubborn self-reliance and her unsettling forwardness. More than that – in these early years, particularly – Lois has the luxury of becoming somewhat jaded about Superman, so while substitute women are fainting and gasping in their peril, we lose Lois’ easy quips in the face of danger…
Superman vol.1 #8 - cover date Spring 1941
A trio of largely pedestrian menaces dominate the page-count in this issue of Superman; The Man of Steel battles fifth columnists, carnival con men and the gun-toting operatives of an insidious heroin ring, but it’s the book’s first tale - The Giants of Professor Zee - which stands out for its science fiction and gonzo body horror motifs.
Zee (not to be confused with post-Crisis Superman villain Mister Z, nor - I’m informed by Wikipedia – the scientist who invented Justice Society baddie Per Degaton’s time machine) and his associate Dr.Cardos invent a device which turn men and animals into terrible giants. Sending his unstoppable, idiot colossi on bank-raiding missions into civilization, the mad scientists ultimately attract the attention of the Daily Planet and the Man of Tomorrow. Following a deathtrap ultimatum in which they threaten to turn Lois Lane into a mindless giant (for some reason they choose not to, but fake the transformation with a trick mirror), the scientists are shut down by Superman and die ironically at the hands of their own invention.
It’s a shame Zee didn’t survive or, like Luthor, only seemingly die and return later. He had the bonafides for a good mad scientist villain – an ominous name, a specific gimmick (even if he was preceded there by the Sunday strip’s Dr.Grout and his Giants of Doom Valley), and a wonderful habit of communicating with Superman by way of a powerful loudspeaker which rang bold, black letters off the sides of mountains…
Action Comics vol.1 #32 - Cover date January 1941
From the mercantile perspective, there’s always been something missing from the Superman equation, and that was accessories. Sure, you could slap Superman’s face or insignia on anything from paddle-ball games to roller skates, you could roll out tee-shirts and wind-up toys, but what about all that sweet dough from accessories?
If you wander down the toy aisle at your local megastore, you’ll see the opportunities that assorted geegaws provide a franchise; Captain America’s shield and helmet, Thor’s hammer, even Hulk hands – and then there’s Batman. A souped up car, a utility belt full of gadgets and weapons, a cave HQ, and a variety of costumes in every color of the rainbow for every specialized need, Batman’s got it all – In action figures alone, you could line up a dozen variations on the basic theme and never repeat so much as a seam.
Superman, though, gets through life in one costume, no mask, no vehicle, no weapons, and a cape most kids are happy to duplicate with a red towel. This may be why Action Comics #32 introduces THE KRYPTO RAY-GUN, a device which Superman invents and employs against criminals.
Despite its impressive handle, the Krypto Ray-Gun is basically a glorified all-in-one camera and slide projector, and its real-world analogue – for which the gun’s in-canon appearance was undoubtedly the impetus – did even less. On the toy shelves, kids could pick up a Krypto Ray-Gun of their own and flash pictures of Superman’s daring deeds onto the walls of their homes, for as long as its battery and light bulb lasted anyway.
The Krypto Ray-Gun, as you might expect, never made another appearance, and additional toy-etic additions to Superman’s arsenal against crime remained exceptionally few and far between.
The Howling Coyote
The Adventures of Superman Radio Serial - December 1940
Clark and Jimmy are sent off by Perry White to investigate strange – and seemingly supernatural – happenings at the oil fields of Perry’s good friend Comanche Joe (who’s not SO good a friend that he doesn’t prank Perry with a death threat and a water pitcher-centric take on the old William Tell routine).
Comanche Joe’s properties are under secret assault from a pair of crooks trying to scare him into selling his land cheap, rigging avalanches and disasters and utilizing an old myth about a banshee-like coyote spirit who howls in advance of certain death. What follows is a mash-up of Native American practices so generalized as to effectively be made of whole cloth, including Jimmy and Clark being ceremonially inducted into the local tribe (Jimmy’s “Comanche name” is appealingly “Little Laughing Squirrel”, and Clark’s is essentially “Ol’ Coke Bottles”).
Excepting the cultural portmanteau, the portrayal of native culture in this serial stands head-and-shoulders above the previous portrayals of Incas, Mayans and Inuits, owing in no small part to the fact that the Comanche are the good guys this time around (Joe himself is one of the nation’s richest men, for that matter). Still, it’s far from complete redress of the ethnic excesses of the serial to date.
Prior to that, Jimmy suffers a serious injury and becomes the second cast member (after Lois, in the comics) to receive an emergency blood transfusion from Superman himself. Nothing except sudden health and vitality results from the transfusion – Jimmy isn’t leaping over tall buildings or anything – but still Superman’s blood appears to harbor some pretty spectacular curative properties.
Luthor, Master of Evil
Sunday Newspaper Strips - December 22, 1940 to March 2, 1941
Terrible storms assault the city of Metropolis, masking a crimewave of epic proportions. Behind the flooding, robbery and ruin, Superman finds the malevolent LUTHOR - making his second exfoliated appearance as a gaunt, leering figure of abject menace.
With two shorn and shaved appearances under his belt, we don’t see the shaggy red-headed version of Lex Luthor again until he returns as an “alternate Earth” Luthor another thirty-plus years down the road…