Action Comics vol.1 #13 - Cover date June 1939
At the end of his first consecutive year in publication, we find Superman pitting his strength against The Cab Protection League (not precisely “The Legion of Doom”, but from such seeds do mighty forests grow) in what appears to be a boilerplate story of the model hashed out in the previous twelve issues of Action – Superman versus systemic corruption against the common man.
However, here we have a milestone; the introduction of Superman’s first recurring villain. Despite being of the bald-headed, world-conquering mad scientist variety which modern audiences would associate with the Man of Steel’s nemesis Lex Luthor (whose carrot-topped debut is still a ways down the road), this is The Ultra-Humanite who first menaces our hero.
Ultra – as he prefers to be called (and who can blame him with that mouthful of a name) – turns out to have his fingers in quite a few criminal pies, including the aforementioned Cab Protection League. Helming a budding criminal empire means that Ultra has good cause to cross swords with the crusading Superman repeatedly in upcoming issues.
Ultra burns brightly, if briefly – he’ll soon be overshadowed by the more dynamic Luthor and crowded out by a small legion of hypnotic hustlers and fang-toothed world-beaters in his rush to kill the Man of Tomorrow. Nonetheless, he’s an inspired choice for Superman’s inaugural nemesis.
Siegel and Shuster have, at this point, spent a year promoting Superman as a peerless powerhouse, possessed of a strength and vitality unmatched by mortal man. Heck, they went and invented a completely cosmic explanation just to rationalize their hero’s super-human powers. With all of that in mind, they couldn’t very well immediately pit Superman against his physical equal – there were no physical equals to Superman
Rather than being an athletic marvel, therefore, Ultra is trapped in a feeble, crippled body – we see him confined to a wheelchair, he’s attended to by his assistants, he shows the physical signs of great age (and more than a passing resemblance to the title character in Siegel’s and Shuster’s early-1930s science fiction story, Reign of the Superman). Ultra’s power is housed in his unfettered, wholly malevolent intelligence – a mental marvel to Superman’s herculean frame.
It’s a brilliant solution to the question of how you create a villain to go toe-to-toe with the most powerful human being on Earth – you downplay the physicality. This goes a long way to explaining the popularity of the early Superman’s many seemingly sillier foes – The Toyman, The Prankster, Mister Mxyzptlk, The Puzzler – none of whom were his physical match but all of whom had him deadlocked in wit and wiles.
(Naturally, more about Ultra to come, as he - or “he”, I should say - makes appearances in upcoming issues)