Action Comics vol.1 #15 - Cover date August 1939
Action Comics takes a break from the menace of the Ultra-Humanite (“Ultra” to his friends) in order for Superman to return to his personal crusade for the less fortunate.
Made wise to the ill fortunes of an orphanage called “Kids Town”, the man of Tomorrow acts to raise a much-needed $2 million for the beleaguered institution - a charge which eventually leads him to a sunken treasure also being pursued by a criminal gang and a deep-sea danger zone filled with some admittedly optimistic Superman-hunting sharks.
This short break from Superman’s first recurring villain is rectified in a few issues - and, sadly, shortly thereafter wrapped up completely.

Action Comics vol.1 #15 - Cover date August 1939

Action Comics takes a break from the menace of the Ultra-Humanite (“Ultra” to his friends) in order for Superman to return to his personal crusade for the less fortunate.

Made wise to the ill fortunes of an orphanage called “Kids Town”, the man of Tomorrow acts to raise a much-needed $2 million for the beleaguered institution - a charge which eventually leads him to a sunken treasure also being pursued by a criminal gang and a deep-sea danger zone filled with some admittedly optimistic Superman-hunting sharks.

This short break from Superman’s first recurring villain is rectified in a few issues - and, sadly, shortly thereafter wrapped up completely.

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"Royal Deathplot"Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - July 24, 1939 to November 11, 1939
When Superman steps in to save the royal yacht Milan from enemy submarines, he becomes a target of infatuation by Nadia - the spoiled, fiery princess of Rangoria. Brash but clever, she not only treads on Lois’ toes in the romance department, but briefly suspects Superman’s dual identity! 
In subsequent years, Superman’s romantic vistas will abound with a coterie of largely chaste and generally alliterative beauties – Lana Lang, Luma Lynai, Lyla Lerrol, Lori Lemaris and (just to mix it up a bit) Sally Selwyn. At this stage in his development, however, any other potential inamorata besides Lois Lane - whether Superman returns her affections or no -  is still the exception …

"Royal Deathplot"
Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - July 24, 1939 to November 11, 1939

When Superman steps in to save the royal yacht Milan from enemy submarines, he becomes a target of infatuation by Nadia - the spoiled, fiery princess of Rangoria. Brash but clever, she not only treads on Lois’ toes in the romance department, but briefly suspects Superman’s dual identity! 

In subsequent years, Superman’s romantic vistas will abound with a coterie of largely chaste and generally alliterative beauties – Lana Lang, Luma Lynai, Lyla Lerrol, Lori Lemaris and (just to mix it up a bit) Sally Selwyn. At this stage in his development, however, any other potential inamorata besides Lois Lane - whether Superman returns her affections or no -  is still the exception …


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Action Comics vol.1 #14 - Cover date July 1939
The Ultra-Humanite proves to, once again, be the mastermind behind a seemingly pedestrian plot of criminal negligence and systemic corruption. Investigating the construction company which has used inferior building materials to construct a subway tunnel, Superman discovers his newly-minted nemesis behind the scheme (and also behind both the wheel of an invisible automobile and the trigger of a raygun which encases the Man of Steel in seemingly unbreakable crystal).
This battle - like the one before it and so many more to come - ends in stalemate.
Who is the Ultra-Humanite? It takes only a little imagination to link the comic book Ultra-Humanite to Siegel and Shuster’s 1933 story, Reign of the Superman, if you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to make such connections (and I am). In that story, a power-hungry scientist named Ernest Smalley recruits homeless man Bill Dunn as a test subject for Smalley’s experimental potion. Suddenly granted terrifying telepathic powers, Dunn turns to evil, apparently slaying Smalley before discovering - to his regret - that the potion’s effects are only temporary. With his powers wearing off, a deflated Dunn returns to his breadline, meek and helpless.
So who is the Ultra-Humanite? Could the brilliant and malevolent Smalley have survived his attempted murder at the hands of his super-human creation, crippled but still maliciously vital? Could he be the once-superhuman Dunn, left wizened and weakened by the failing potion but ironically gifted with a mighty intellect in the wake of his terrible telepathy? Could the Ultra-Humanite be the man who was once called - or the man who once created - The Superman?

Action Comics vol.1 #14 - Cover date July 1939

The Ultra-Humanite proves to, once again, be the mastermind behind a seemingly pedestrian plot of criminal negligence and systemic corruption. Investigating the construction company which has used inferior building materials to construct a subway tunnel, Superman discovers his newly-minted nemesis behind the scheme (and also behind both the wheel of an invisible automobile and the trigger of a raygun which encases the Man of Steel in seemingly unbreakable crystal).

This battle - like the one before it and so many more to come - ends in stalemate.

Who is the Ultra-Humanite? It takes only a little imagination to link the comic book Ultra-Humanite to Siegel and Shuster’s 1933 story, Reign of the Superman, if you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to make such connections (and I am). In that story, a power-hungry scientist named Ernest Smalley recruits homeless man Bill Dunn as a test subject for Smalley’s experimental potion. Suddenly granted terrifying telepathic powers, Dunn turns to evil, apparently slaying Smalley before discovering - to his regret - that the potion’s effects are only temporary. With his powers wearing off, a deflated Dunn returns to his breadline, meek and helpless.

So who is the Ultra-Humanite? Could the brilliant and malevolent Smalley have survived his attempted murder at the hands of his super-human creation, crippled but still maliciously vital? Could he be the once-superhuman Dunn, left wizened and weakened by the failing potion but ironically gifted with a mighty intellect in the wake of his terrible telepathy? Could the Ultra-Humanite be the man who was once called - or the man who once created - The Superman?

"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.

"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.


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Superman vol.1 #1 - cover date Summer 1939
Superman Comics debuts in the Summer of 1939, making the Man of Steel not only the first super-hero (in a rapidly crowding field of like-powered gents and ladies) but the first one to headline two ongoing comics simultaneously. (Since I’m listing its accolades, I should mention that it will also be the first comic to regularly feature a letters column, although that’s a couple of decades or so up the road)
With new adventures appearing in both Action and the newspaper dailies, Superman’s eponymous title becomes the home for reprints – here, the full adventures of Superman from Action Comics #1 through #4 are reprinted, including additional material which had been cut from his 1938 debut AND an expanded origin page (from which comes the above image – one of my absolute favorites – of an infant, unadopted superbaby cheerily hefting a dresser above his head).
Despite recycled contents, the cover to this issue becomes one of the medium’s most iconic, Superman leaping merrily over a far-recessed skyline …

Superman vol.1 #1 - cover date Summer 1939

Superman Comics debuts in the Summer of 1939, making the Man of Steel not only the first super-hero (in a rapidly crowding field of like-powered gents and ladies) but the first one to headline two ongoing comics simultaneously. (Since I’m listing its accolades, I should mention that it will also be the first comic to regularly feature a letters column, although that’s a couple of decades or so up the road)

With new adventures appearing in both Action and the newspaper dailies, Superman’s eponymous title becomes the home for reprints – here, the full adventures of Superman from Action Comics #1 through #4 are reprinted, including additional material which had been cut from his 1938 debut AND an expanded origin page (from which comes the above image – one of my absolute favorites – of an infant, unadopted superbaby cheerily hefting a dresser above his head).

Despite recycled contents, the cover to this issue becomes one of the medium’s most iconic, Superman leaping merrily over a far-recessed skyline …

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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)

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)

"The Most Deadly Weapon"Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - May 1, 1939 to June 10, 1939
I am sorry to say that this does not end well for Ambrose.
In this installment of the newspaper dailies, Clark is sent to interview Professor Runyan, who has invented a deadly airborne toxin which permeates gas masks. No worries, he’s only giving it to the government if they promise only to use it in a defensive war (the men who later steal his plans aren’t quite as ethical). Thankfully, at the end of the story, Superman destroys the gas and the notes used to create it …
Notably, this arc finally gives a name to Clark’s boss - George Taylor, a name which probably remains in continuity today (it’s hard to say, you know?) After Earths 1 and 2 are rolled out during National’s silver age, George continues to sit at the editor’s chair over at Earth-2’s The Daily Star (in contrast to Earth-1’s Perry White - whose debut is still a ways down the road - at The Daily Planet), while post-Crisis stories generally have Taylor preceding White as the Planet’s chief. 

"The Most Deadly Weapon"
Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - May 1, 1939 to June 10, 1939

I am sorry to say that this does not end well for Ambrose.

In this installment of the newspaper dailies, Clark is sent to interview Professor Runyan, who has invented a deadly airborne toxin which permeates gas masks. No worries, he’s only giving it to the government if they promise only to use it in a defensive war (the men who later steal his plans aren’t quite as ethical). Thankfully, at the end of the story, Superman destroys the gas and the notes used to create it …

Notably, this arc finally gives a name to Clark’s boss - George Taylor, a name which probably remains in continuity today (it’s hard to say, you know?) After Earths 1 and 2 are rolled out during National’s silver age, George continues to sit at the editor’s chair over at Earth-2’s The Daily Star (in contrast to Earth-1’s Perry White - whose debut is still a ways down the road - at The Daily Planet), while post-Crisis stories generally have Taylor preceding White as the Planet’s chief. 

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Action Comics vol.1 #12 - Cover date May 1939
Sharing the comic racks with Superman during March 1939 (cover dated May 1939) was Detective Comics #27, the comic book which would launch the career of National Allied’s second great break-out character – Batman.

Although it would be several years before Superman and Batman teamed up outside the confines of cover appearances, the pair have been commonly compared and contrasted since the beginning – super-powers versus mortal muscles, bright sunlit streets versus brooding dark alleys, brash dynamism versus meticulous cunning and so on.

A real study in contrast, however, might be better had between their creators. Bob Kane and Jerry Siegel represent almost polar opposites in personality and drive – Kane was outgoing, opportunistic and cannily personable, while Siegel could be introspective, mercurial and difficult. Kane famously relied on ghosts to create his comics, while Siegel spread himself paper-thin to write as much of the original Superman comic material as time would allow. Much like their creations’ civilian alter-egos might do, Siegel slaved away at his typewriter while Kane socialized easily.

When rights and ownership issues plagued Both men, Siegel alternated between appealing to Jack Liebowitz’s sense of fair play and berating his National Allied boss in scathing personal letters – it was Siegel’s opinion that “fairness” was at the core of the conflict. Kane, however, walked away from an impromptu late Forties contract re-negotiation with partial ownership in his Batman character- a sweetheart deal all but unmatched in that era – after a clever fib told bluntly (See Gerard Jones’ excellent Men of Tomorrow for the details).

The greatest difference between the creators of two of the most famous orphans of the twentieth century (apologies to Annie, Little Orphan, of course) may be their fathers; Siegel’s was dead, having been the victim of a robbery turned violent when Siegel was still young. Kane’s father, however, was omnipresent, and helped influence and guide his son’s lucrative career - the irony being, of course, that Kane’s Batman was violently orphaned while Siegel’s Superman owes his powers and mission to the guiding hand of his father (both human and alien) …

Action Comics vol.1 #12 - Cover date May 1939

Sharing the comic racks with Superman during March 1939 (cover dated May 1939) was Detective Comics #27, the comic book which would launch the career of National Allied’s second great break-out character – Batman.

Although it would be several years before Superman and Batman teamed up outside the confines of cover appearances, the pair have been commonly compared and contrasted since the beginning – super-powers versus mortal muscles, bright sunlit streets versus brooding dark alleys, brash dynamism versus meticulous cunning and so on.

A real study in contrast, however, might be better had between their creators. Bob Kane and Jerry Siegel represent almost polar opposites in personality and drive – Kane was outgoing, opportunistic and cannily personable, while Siegel could be introspective, mercurial and difficult. Kane famously relied on ghosts to create his comics, while Siegel spread himself paper-thin to write as much of the original Superman comic material as time would allow. Much like their creations’ civilian alter-egos might do, Siegel slaved away at his typewriter while Kane socialized easily.

When rights and ownership issues plagued Both men, Siegel alternated between appealing to Jack Liebowitz’s sense of fair play and berating his National Allied boss in scathing personal letters – it was Siegel’s opinion that “fairness” was at the core of the conflict. Kane, however, walked away from an impromptu late Forties contract re-negotiation with partial ownership in his Batman character- a sweetheart deal all but unmatched in that era – after a clever fib told bluntly (See Gerard Jones’ excellent Men of Tomorrow for the details).

The greatest difference between the creators of two of the most famous orphans of the twentieth century (apologies to Annie, Little Orphan, of course) may be their fathers; Siegel’s was dead, having been the victim of a robbery turned violent when Siegel was still young. Kane’s father, however, was omnipresent, and helped influence and guide his son’s lucrative career - the irony being, of course, that Kane’s Batman was violently orphaned while Siegel’s Superman owes his powers and mission to the guiding hand of his father (both human and alien) …

24 notes

"Skyscraper of Death"Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - April 3, 1939 to April 29, 1939
The Superman of yesteryear - grim, determined and unmoved by death. In this brief but fast-paced serial, Superman investigates a series of accidents plaguing the construction of the Atlas Building, uncovering sabotage on behalf of a rival builder. 
His investigation racks up a serious body count - a night watchman-cum-saboteur succumbs to heart failure after being saved from what would have been a fatal plunge with only inches to spare (Superman - at this point in his career not yet able to fly - plummets alongside the doomed man, catching up to him and using some curious physics to reverse his terminal descent at the last possible moment).
Witnessing a man dying of stress doesn’t give the Man of Steel a moment’s pause in terrifying his next suspect into confession, although the crook survives - unlike his boss, who is fatally shot while fleeing a police officer, and the criminal mastermind of the affair whose misdeeds earn him a trip to the electric chair.
The early Superman doesn’t directly take lives, but he doesn’t stand in the way of the guilty getting their mortal comeuppance - even if they literally do so at his very feet.

"Skyscraper of Death"
Superman Daily Newspaper Strip - April 3, 1939 to April 29, 1939

The Superman of yesteryear - grim, determined and unmoved by death. In this brief but fast-paced serial, Superman investigates a series of accidents plaguing the construction of the Atlas Building, uncovering sabotage on behalf of a rival builder. 

His investigation racks up a serious body count - a night watchman-cum-saboteur succumbs to heart failure after being saved from what would have been a fatal plunge with only inches to spare (Superman - at this point in his career not yet able to fly - plummets alongside the doomed man, catching up to him and using some curious physics to reverse his terminal descent at the last possible moment).

Witnessing a man dying of stress doesn’t give the Man of Steel a moment’s pause in terrifying his next suspect into confession, although the crook survives - unlike his boss, who is fatally shot while fleeing a police officer, and the criminal mastermind of the affair whose misdeeds earn him a trip to the electric chair.

The early Superman doesn’t directly take lives, but he doesn’t stand in the way of the guilty getting their mortal comeuppance - even if they literally do so at his very feet.


11 notes

New York World’s Fair Comics #1 - April 1939
National Allied Publication is still finding their feet with Superman’s skyrocketing success in early 1939, and the second ongoing title featuring Superman is still a couple of months away when New York World’s Fair Comics (#1) debuts. A single issue released to coincide with the wildly popular event, it only made sense for The Man of Tomorrow to make an appearance at the celebration of the world of tomorrow.
It’s a largely sub-par story – possibly the first official dud of Superman’s early career – involving as did most World’s Fair Comic stories a cursory and mandatory tour of the highlights of the Fair (Although, in Superman’s case, this involves a lengthy bit of side-business in helping finish construction on the infantile paralysis exhibit) and a bog-standard political corruption case.
Most interestingly, though, for those who wonder where Superman’s sense of fair play ends – we see here for the first time Superman using his powers to gain an unfair advantage over other reporters (Specifically, he leaps to a second-story window in order to eavesdrop for a scoop, while his competitors mill helplessly by the front stairs)!

New York World’s Fair Comics #1 - April 1939

National Allied Publication is still finding their feet with Superman’s skyrocketing success in early 1939, and the second ongoing title featuring Superman is still a couple of months away when New York World’s Fair Comics (#1) debuts. A single issue released to coincide with the wildly popular event, it only made sense for The Man of Tomorrow to make an appearance at the celebration of the world of tomorrow.

It’s a largely sub-par story – possibly the first official dud of Superman’s early career – involving as did most World’s Fair Comic stories a cursory and mandatory tour of the highlights of the Fair (Although, in Superman’s case, this involves a lengthy bit of side-business in helping finish construction on the infantile paralysis exhibit) and a bog-standard political corruption case.

Most interestingly, though, for those who wonder where Superman’s sense of fair play ends – we see here for the first time Superman using his powers to gain an unfair advantage over other reporters (Specifically, he leaps to a second-story window in order to eavesdrop for a scoop, while his competitors mill helplessly by the front stairs)!

29 notes