Action Comics vol.1 #19 - Cover date December 1939
The Ultra-Humanite’s final arc begins in earnest as the mad genius unleashes on Metropolis a fatal, fast-moving “Purple Plague”. His goal - to wipe humanity from the planet and make way for a subsequent race of his own design.
It’s a surprisingly grim episode, even considering that it revolves around the deadly promise of genocide - citizens barricade themselves in their homes, starving themselves even as fear of the highly contagious bug drives them to hunker down in their homes. The hospitals fill with the dead and dying, children collapse in the streets, and the hollow rattle of hoofbeats echo along the abandoned buildings as horse-drawn carts carry away the dead and stricken.
I found that last image to be surprisingly permanent in my imagination - this is bustling Metropolis, a vital urban center in fast-paced 20th century America, but when the streets begin filling with the dead there are no sleek ambulances or comandeered busses to be seen. Instead, there’s only the Victorian clatter of the black carriage on pavement pockmarked with unmoving shadows.
It’s worth remarking, though, that neverminding his intentions to fully annihilate humanity in its vast multitude, Ultra won’t sink so low as to steal the library book which contains the deadly details of the plague; he dutifully returns once he’s done developing the virus…
Superman, in the meantime, is a very busy man. Just about every element of a typical Action Comics adventure is in play in this issue - crusading Clark Kent uncovers the disease and races to research a cure, a seemingly unstoppable physical menace overcomes the city, meanwhile Superman helps clear the name and reputation of a disgraced scientist who can save humanity from the plague. In between the crusade and redemption, Ultra’s super-scientific deathtraps emerge, Superman briefly succumbs to the scientist’s sinister inventions, and finally there’s ironic comeuppance - even as the cure to Ultra’s Purple Plague are being distributed to the city, Ultra himself dies, the victim of his own malfunctioning super-weapons.
It’s a testament to the menace of the Ultra-Humanite - and the appeal of having a true nemesis to menace Superman - that the death of Ultra’s feeble, aged, physical form is only the beginning of his final Golden Age arc …