Action Comics vol.1 #20 - Cover date January 1940
Superman collects more than a handful of iconic images during his first few years in action, from the sedan-smashing panic of his first appearance and his smiling, soaring form over the skyline of Metropolis in the first issue of his own magazine to potent in-story images such as his first meeting with Lois Lane, or speeding ahead of the rushing waters of Valleyho Dam…
Not the least of these is the above set of panels - Superman recognizes in the striking eyes of actress Dolores Winters the blazing, hate-filled glare of his old enemy The Ultra-Humanite, given a new lease on life, vitality and strength!
This issue marks the penultimate appearance of the Ultra-Humanite - for a good few decades, in any case - which means there’s a lot to discuss. Ultra was Superman’s first nemesis, his first recurring foe, and frankly the first human being capable of going toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel and live to tell about it - in whichever body he chooses to occupy.
Taking a working vacation to Hollywood, Clark Kent saves beautiful young starlet Dolores Winters from an assassin’s bullet. Taking her up on an offer to interview her at her home later that night, Clark is instead rebuffed by the once-grateful actress turned suddenly cold and cruel.
Before long, Winters has abducted dozens of Hollywood’s leading personalities aboard her private yacht, holding them ransom for a small fortune in exchange for their safe return (Of course, she plans to murder them all once the money is received). Superman interrupts her plans, but also uncovers her secret - her young, strong body now houses the brain of The Ultra-Humanite, believed to be deceased, no longer crippled and confined to his wheelchair! Deadlier than ever!
Although it’s not directly addressed in the comic - with his biologically male mind in the biologically female body of Dolores Winters - Ultra is technically the first transgendered character in comics. None of the obvious questions are addressed by Superman or his deadliest foe in this particular instance, but one has to imagine that there were plenty of popular, young, healthy, wealthy and male actors in Hollywood whose body would have suited Ultra’s needs as well as Dolores’. Ultra’s impetus for switching genders might provide much grist for modern-day writers retelling the tale…
On the creative side at the time, it most likely had to do with not wanting to pit handsome, strong and visibly masculine Superman against an enemy with similar qualities - Ultra’s success as a nemesis had much to do with his withered body and cruel, ugly appearance.
And while Superman had any number of tough thugs and an increasing number of mad scientists lining up to battle him, he lacked one thing which many other pulp and four-color heroes - The Spirit, Sargon, Conan, and particularly his pal Batman, for instance - would have in abundance: the femme fatale. With Ultra’s burning hatred for Superman and all he stood for, their relationship might have lacked the undeniable attraction that was the hallmark of those situations, but a deadly woman had a sufficient appeal as a villain that it was the first resort of the movie serial many years down the road.
More intriguing to me, in regards to this particular issue, is why Ultra’s men initially staged a very public, highly visible assassination attempt against young miss Winters when whatever they needed to do to engineer their boss’ body-switch was done quietly between panels before Clark Kent even had time to pay a visit. Some genius…