“Superman and the Runaway”
Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - June 12, 1939 to July 22, 1939
In both his guises as Superman and Clark Kent, our hero is inspired by a brave orphan to investigate and then combat the inhuman conditions at a state orphanage operated by a corrupt overseer. Apparently not content with merely starving and working his wards to exhaustion while skimming from their milk money, the cruel headmaster – under threat of exposure – attempts to burn the orphanage down with all souls trapped inside!
The orphaned hero is a common theme in fiction, particularly in comic books, for some very good narrative reasons. A child hero – Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, to name a few – must develop survival skills quickly without a parent to protect them. Likewise, being freed from an insular parental pair, the young character is free to absorb a makeshift family unit from whatever disparate and distinct souls are available – the young Batsons, having no parents, are free to build a ‘family’ out of their kindly old friend Dudley, a friendly talking tiger, their peers and well-meaning satellite adults, as a for instance.
For the adult orphan, the character has tragedy and loss built directly into their backstory, adding depth. More appealing, however, is that the adult hero – having sprung from a parentless well – is liberated to develop their own moral order and code of behavior. The early Superman’s as-yet-unnamed human father, for instance, only appealed to him from his deathbed to “help mankind” – how Superman does that is entirely up to him, and as we’ve seen he does it with unbounded enthusiasm and grim regard.