Superman. A Historical Perpective.

11 Sep

This is a short piece I put up on my favorite Old Time Radio forum, Relic Radio.

September 10, 2013

Many people here comment on what they learned about society from the OTR era through radio shows. Listening to an episode of The Adventures of Superman brought home the economic realities of today, as well as yesterday.

I’m currently listening to the Scarlet Widow arc. (In a nutshell, she has stolen a chunk of kryptonite and is going to sell it to the four most dangerous criminals in Metropolis. This leads directly into the famous Atom Man story.) Every show ends with the announcer stating that for more Superman, you can check your daily newspaper and, almost as an afterthought, that Superman is also published by DC Comics.

Superman GANow today, the last place you’d go to find Superman is the newspaper. In fact, newspapers are a quickly dying industry. But then, pre-internet, more people got their news from newspapers than from television (a large percentage of homes had no televisions), and newspapers were likely ahead of radio in terms of where people got their news. Sure, people turned to radio for up-to-the-minute and breaking news, plus of course war reports from the front, but newspapers were still cemented in culture and remember- this was still a time when upper-class men would go to clubs and actually sit in an easy chair and read the paper, at times. Superman was syndicated across the country and while adults may or may not have listened to the radio show, I wouldn’t doubt that they stopped on the comics’ page to see what Clark Kent was up to while they flipped between business and sports.

In addition to OTR, this was also the era of the classic comic strip, with Alex Raymond’s gorgeous Flash Gordon art and Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates (and later, Steve Canyon) gracing the page alongside Popeye, Blondie, and Archie.

I have no statistics, but I am sure that more people knew Superman from radio than newspapers, and I know for sure that more knew him from radio than comics. Remember- radio, not comics, introduced Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White, not to mention “Look! Up in the sky!”  Comics took their lead from radio.


Alex Ross art

We think of Superman as a comic book hero today, but although he started in comics, it was nothing to be proud of back then. Comics from the OTR era today fetch good money, but there was no collector’s market back then. Comic books were routinely tossed around, stuffed in back pockets, buried in backyards, and not one person thought you could sell them for big money someday.  In fact, that would have been a laughable idea. Comics began as cheap reprints. Reprints of newspaper comics. While decades later gorgeous artwork from the likes of Alex Ross would grace comic covers, Jack “King” Kirby and Will Eisner were  a couple of decades away from becoming comic superstars. Even in the era when Captain Marvel was selling 1.3 million copies each month, far more than Superman, comics were looked down upon, far more than they are today. (By comparison, last month’s Superman Unchained sold 165,754 copies. That’s about 1.15 million fewer than Captain Marvel. This in an era when comics are acknowledged as art and literature!) And lurking ahead in the next decade, Fredric Wertham was ready totally wipe out comics. He nearly did, too.

Just as an aside, in terms of movies, the Superman serial had not quite hit, though the amazing Fleischer cartoons were in theaters, and TV? No George Reeve show yet.

OTR-era giveaway

OTR-era giveaway

So from one line of promotion at the end of an episode of Superman, you can extrapolate a whole vision of society, and contrast it to the realities of today. Superman has outlasted his radio and newspaper roots, and he’s likely to outlive his comic book history too. Chalk one up for truth, justice, and the American way.


superman float 1940


14 Responses to “Superman. A Historical Perpective.”

  1. zathra September 11, 2013 at 12:47 am #

    Superman has certainly changed with the times. But I wish they’d stop trying to change him in the movies. The 1st 2 are the BEST.


    • bmj2k September 11, 2013 at 8:49 am #

      I just caught them on cable. They still hold up, especially 2.


      • zathra September 11, 2013 at 9:41 am #

        Superman & Superman 2 were pretty much shot back to back, I understand. Superman 3 was primarily a comedy vehicle for Richard Pryor & Superman 4 was too heavy – handed with its anti – war ” message “. I wanted, REALLY WANTED, to like Superman Returns, but it was really ” off ” to me. Superman 4 – The Quest for Peace – It was like Christopher Reeve had seen the success of ST : IV , The Voyage Home, & decided to make a message picture. Too heavy handed, with none of the ” fun ” moments like ST : IV had.


        • bmj2k September 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

          3 turned me off so badly I never bothered to see 4.


          • zathra September 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

            Christopher Reeve told the actor who played Lex’s nephew ( Jon Cryer ) in ” Quest for Peace ” that the movie was going to be ” terrible “. Superman III was a joke, a parody. 20 – something years ago, I remember Robert Vaughn being a poor man’s Lex Luthor.
            Superman Returns, I watched for sentimental reasons ONLY.


            • bmj2k September 11, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

              I thought Superman Returns was, at best, not bad. Kevin Spacey was pretty good, doing a nice Gene Hackman impression with some evil added in. But the film wasn’t so hot. The latest one, Man of Steel, I liked.


              • zathra September 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

                Haven’t seen MOS, & I have no plans to, honestly. ( I’m a movie purist ) What is with all the remakes, from Man of Steel to Spider – man, Star Trek / Into Darkness, etc ? Nostalgia or no originality ?


  2. Mac of BIOnighT September 11, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Awesome post! The radio show is still the closest to what Superman should be, but with the exception of Superman 3 and the ugly 4, and a few other things, I like more or less everything else.


    • zathra September 11, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

      What about Lois & Clark & Smallville ? They both aimed at different demographics.


      • bmj2k September 11, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

        Good points. And both were very popular. Never watched Lois and Clark, and only watched Smallville when the JSA guest starred.


        • zathra September 11, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

          Lois & Clark had a lot of good guest stars – Adam West & Frank Gorshin, & a lot of cast members from ST : TNG ( Gates Mcfadden, Denise Crosby, Jonathan Frakes among others ) & so did Smallville. I heard that Michael Shanks ( ” Daniel Jackson “, Stargate ) appeared as Hawkman, but I missed it. The actor who played Chief Galen Tyrol on BSG was on 1 episode, too. I never really became a devotee of either series, but they were okay.


      • Mac of BIOnighT September 11, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

        I haven’t seen either – I don’t have a TV antenna, I only use my TV set to watch DVDs – so I can’t express any opinion about them. I’m also missing the third and fourth seasons of the 50’s TV show, and I haven’t seen Man of Steel, yet… got some catching up to do 😉


        • zathra September 12, 2013 at 1:06 am #

          I get cable & I still remember the re – runs. The only opinion I have about Man of Steel is that they should stop making new versions of the Superman story. Same goes for Star Trek. 🙂


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