"Champion of the Oppressed": The Superman Stories of Jerome Siegel

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Quinlan58

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INTRODUCTION

During the past year, I got interested on a subject that I had only briefly entertained before: comic books. Sure, I read my share of manga before, and some stories sold by my local newpaper: "Batman: Year One", "The Long Halloween", "Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America", some of J. Michael Straczynski's Spiderman run; but I had never really explored the subject of superheroes. So I borrowed some of Wolfman/Perez New Titans run, some more Batman stories, Geoff Johns Green Lantern run, several Alan Moore stories, Daredevil: Born Again, etc. Eventually, I bought stories from a character that never interested me growing up: Superman. My first memories of the guy came from the Justice League cartoon, a show that never attracted me and that I once caught changing channels only to see Superman getting knocked out by a supervillain throwing a car. I thought that was lame. Anyway, I got my hands on a story called "Up, Up and Away", by Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek and Peter Woods. What attracted me about it wasn't that Superman was depowered, but rather the personality of most characters: Clark Kent was a happily married man who was a courageus reporter even without his powers and strongly identified himself as "just Clark" despite also finding great joy in using his powers, Lex Luthor was a noticeably tired man who seemed to continue being a supervillain simply because he didn't know what else to do, Lois and Jimmy were fun to read, too. So I got my hands on Busiek's Superman run, and fell in love with his characterization of Clark, Lois and Chris Kent, and the continuing story of Superman, Arion, the prophecy that he would eventually cause humanity's destruction due to saving it so much, the other alien who also crashed down on Earth as a baby but had the misfortune of ending up in the military's hands: it was all fascinating. So I got Secret Identity, I got Johns run, I got the Alan Moore stories, the Azzarello stories, Red Son, Man of Steel, Birthright, All Star Superman, Action Comics #775, and several others. Everyone seemed to have a different take on this archetype, this perfect man who fell from the sky and did only good, seemed to explore different layers to this character that I once considered boring, and he grew to be increasingly fascinating to me. After a while, a glimpse of who Superman must be appeared in my mind, but the funny thing was that I had never read a story that included him. Some came closer than others, but none were the exact same one.

Now, depite having read some stories, I am far from an expert on the character. So the purpose of this blog is to learn more about this character, or rather this set of characters who fall under a single concept, that of a seemingly Godlike man who desires to do good. I've pretty much given up on finding the one run that will fully satisfy me (though stories like "Must There Be A Superman" and "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel" are so ridiculously close to it the doubt still exists), so I've decided to try my hand at writing that story myself. But first I need to know more about Superman, so I've decided to explore the takes different writers have of his personality, his morals, his mission, his supporting cast, villains and setting, and take those ideas that interest me the most. I plan on exploring the following writers: Jerome "Jerry" Siegel, Dennis O' Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Alan Moore, John Byrne, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek and Brian Azzarello. Feel free to suggest others.

The Superman Stories of Jerome Siegel

Action Comics #1

No Caption Provided

The first thing one notices about this comic is, of course, the cover. Now, this is iconic enough it hardly needs any more explanation, and it's indeed probably the most iconic example of misleading advertisement, but notice the yellow glow that surrounds Superman and the car here. It gives him a sort of grandeur that tips you off there's more to this story than meets the eye.

Anyway, we open the book and the very first panel presents us the familiar backstory: doomed planet, desperate scientist(s), last hope. Of course, the kindly couple hadn't been created yet, so this version of Superman grew up in an orphanage and astounded everyone there with his strength as a baby. Why no one reported this to the authorities is beyond me.

No Caption Provided

Next we see this group of three panels, in which his abilities are established. The important thing about this abilities is, of course, that they are far beyond those of a normal person: they are the impossible. It also emphasizes movement, and through it action. Lastly, the fact that he is jumping between buildings and racing a train indicates this is a man who wants to find his limits, and enjoys using his powers.

No Caption Provided

Here we have the basic concept of Superman: A man who can do extraordinary things and decides the best use for those abilities is helping humanity. The only motivation he has are his morals, which are apparently firm enough to make him dedicate his existence to this cause. This is the reason why trying to tie Superman’s motivations to tragedy or redemption simply does not work: the character was not built like that. Also notice he didn't need the Kents for this.

Next follows a little "scientific" explanation to Superman. The most important thing about it is the idea that Clark Kent's people were millions of years ahead of us, thus the title of "Man of Tomorrow": this is what humanity is destined for. Also important is that he is identified as "Clark Kent", not as "Superman".

Next comes the first part of the story: Superman is soaring through the skies with a bound woman on his arms. He is worried he is running out of time, and leaves the woman outside the house, telling her to "make herself comfortable". He knocks on the door and is answered by the butler, who tells him to get lost. Superman simply destroys the door, terrifying the butler. This scene tells us that Superman is willing to play by the rules, but will ignore them if they don't work for him. He continues to intimidate the butler and rips out an steel door that leads to the governor's bedroom after the butler boasts that he couldn't get past it. This, again, establishes his disregard for rules, and his snark towards the butler establishes his sense of humor.

The governor wakes up and Superman reveals his reason for breaking in: he is trying to stop the execution of an innocent person wrongly convicted for murder. The true murderess is the woman he left outside. After some further conflict between Superman and the butler, the governor stops the execution, but when he turns around, Superman is no longer there.

The next page establishes two things: Superman is a news reporter and he does not wish to be mentioned in the news. He is secretive, and does not wish to cooperate with the government.

On the Daily Star, Clark Kent is assigned the task of investigating Superman. Clark claims: "If I can’t find out anything about this Superman no one can!” This establishes several things. Clark Kent is proud of his skills as a reporter, and such declarations are ordinary for him. He is also a great reporter, or else his editor would not have given him the task. It could also be a cover-up: he is so good a reporter that, once he inevitably comes up empty-handed, it will prove there is no such thing as Superman.

Later we get a scene of Superman stopping a wifebeater, during which he uses unnecessary force and taunts his enemy. He changes back to Kent before the cops arrive and tells them maybe Superman did this. Feeding the rumour goes completely against the desire for secrecy established before, but OK.

We then start the second plot of this comic: Clark Kent asks Lois out, intentionally hesitating, and Lois implies she has turned him down before, but will give him a chance now. hile on their date, both Clark and Lois state that Lois hates Clark, and a confrontation with a "wiseguy" shows why: she hates his cowardice, which is something Clark has to fake for the sake of his "role". Lois slaps the "wiseguy" and leaves the party alone. We then get the very first "Lois-as-a-damsel-in-distress" story, where she is abducted by the previously mentioned "wiseguys". During the rescue, Superman continues to show zero sympathy for his enemies, though he does not use unnecessary force on them. He just destroys their car and leaves their leader hanging from a very tall position near some high voltage power lines in a very precarious balance. Intimidation at its finest, indeed.

Superman tells Lois to not print the story, so of course Lois inmediately goes to her editor and tells him. He does not believe her. Lois then acts even colder towards Clark, implying she is attracted to Superman's stength and bravery.

We then start the third part of this comic: Clark is the assigned a story on a war in a South American republic, but decides to go to Washington to hunt for stories there. This implies that, as a journalist, he prefers exposing the powerful to covering foreign wars. We see him using his job to ge information on a lobbyist, spy on said lobbyist with a senator (who are talking about starting or joining a war in Europe. The Spanish Civil War, perhaps?), and kidnaps the lobbyist. He either enjoys taunting and scaring his enemies witless, or he does a fine job pretending he does. The comic then ends.

On the final advertisement for the next comic, we see the phrase "A physical marvel, a mental wonder" used to describe Superman. This is important because, while it puts the character's physical abilities first (this is, after all, a book called Action Comics), the mentalaspect is inmediately highlighted after it.

So there you go, an extremely dense first issue.

Action Comics #2

No Caption Provided

Superman gets the name of the lobbyist boss - Emil Norvell, a munitions manufacturer - and inmediately goes to look for him. The lobbyist calls Norvell to warn him. So much for "mental wonder".

Upon arriving at Norvell's house Superman is ambushed and shot. He is, of course unharmed, implies he will kill the ambushers and enjoy doing so, and then proceeds to throw them out of the window with their rifles bent around their necks. He later explicitly threatens Norvell with death if he doesn't leave for San Monte (the South American republic at war from the previous issue) the next morning. The next morning, Clark Kent boards that boat to complete his assignment, and is surprised to find that Lois has been assigned to join him. The ship's passengers include a femme fatale named Lola Cortez (and that couldn't get more clichéd if it tried).

Let's talk about the women in this two issues so far. We have a murderess that is bound and never speaks, a wrongly accused woman, a wife being beaten, the archetypical "faux-strong woman" in Lois Lane and a femme fatale. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, Clark dresses up as Superman and further intimidates Norvell, who hires the mercenaries in the ship to off him. Then we have Clark enjoying the view of the ocean and the moon while still in costume. So much for secrecy. He accidentally falls off the ship, but decides to not climb back on. The only way to explain this is to say that Superman expects Lois to care so little for Clark that she won't even notice he is gone.

Superman saves Norvell from the mercenaries only to intimidate him into joining San Monte's army, and then enlists himself only so that Norvell knows he is being watched.

That's a wicked sense of humor you have, Mr. Kent.
That's a wicked sense of humor you have, Mr. Kent.

Anyway, Superman's purpose in making Norvell join the army is to make him see the destruction his weapons are causing. In an alternate universe, Norvell would go on to craft himself a metal suit filled with weapons and fight crime.

This is my new favourite thing ever.
This is my new favourite thing ever.

Clark sends a news article along with this picture. Lois is then framed for espionage by Lola, who stole important documents from the army. She gets a super-brief trial, is about to be executed while wearing a drss that she wasn't wearing on the ship, the hotel or the trial, and is saved by Superman, who doesn't even have to ask if she's guilty, and tells her to go back to the ship. Superman then finds an officer torturing some POWs, stops him and calls him a "torturing devil". He throws him like a javelin towards some trees in the distance and releases the prisoners. It is not clear which side they are on.

Superman then returns to his camp and finds it under attack by an enemy plane. Clark fights the airplane, which shatters against his skin and "falls to its doom". I guess that's it for no-killing Superman. Norvell, after all these experiences, decides to stop manufacturing munitions, and Superman says to himself that, if it is not true, then he will visit Norvell again. He then kidnaps both armies generals, convinces them that they've been manipulated by weapons maufacturers into starting a war neither of them want to fight, and ends the war. It's the most unrealistic thing on a comic about a guy who fight airplane with his bare hands, but I'll give Siegel a pass.

Action Comics #3

No Caption Provided

This one is about a cave-in. Clark Kent gets assigned to this story, and disguises himself as a miner. After using his clumsiness as a facade to get inside the mine, he finds the rescue expedition unconscious. He smells poisonous gases, but is unaffected. He also does not care to put his costume on when no one is looking. Hesaves the trapped miner, and later interviews him as Clark Kent. The miner tells him that the cave-in could have been avoided, that the miners warned the owner that this would happen but the owner told them he would fire them if they didn't want to work in those conditions. Clark interviews the owner, who denies any responsibility and puts all the blame on the miner, after which he claims he will pay part of the hospital bill and give him a $50 retirement bonus. Clearly, the guy is pure evil.

You gotta love outdated dialogue and out-of-context scans.
You gotta love outdated dialogue and out-of-context scans.

Superman lets himself be captured and ends up inside the party. The mine owner initially wants his guards to beat him, but later decides to first ridicule him in front of his guests, then insult his guests to their faces, and then tell them they'll continue the party inside the mine, and Superman will be their guide. He's one charismatic plot convenience.

You gotta love the Golden Age
You gotta love the Golden Age

Superman causes a cave-in and then refuses to help the rich people get out. The mine owner tries to use the emergency alarms but they don't work. One of his guests tries to kill him upon realising they are all going to die because of the mine owner's negligence, but they eventually decide to dig themselves out with the mining tools. They fail, but after Superman hears the owner repent, he saves them while they are unconscious. The next day, the owner promises to make his mine the safest in America. Clark thinks to himself that if he doesn't, Superman will pay him another visit.

CONCLUSION/TOO-LONG-DIDN'T-READ

The Superman presented in these first three issues is a person who enjoys intimidating people. He targets criminals, those who abuse their power and people who are simply rude to him. He wishes to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, to steal Batman's phrase, and is extremely successful. As a journalist, he prefers to expose corruption among the rich and powerful. He manipulates two corrupt businessmen into changing for the better, and at the same time is skeptical enough to decide to pay them another visit if they regress. He believes he knows what the right and wrong things are, and enforces this sense of justice even when it is at odds with the law. He wishes to change society for the better, but knows any advance he makes in this mission is fragile and could disappear at any given moment.

The Lois Lane introduced here detests Clark Kent for his cowardice and wimpiness, and is attracted to Superman due to his power and bravery. She is constantly getting herself into problems she can't solve.

That's it for today. I'll get to AC 4, 5 and 6 next time.

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Action Comics #4

No Caption Provided

This issue starts with a hit-and-run. Superman, having seen it, chases it towards some train lines, where he starts racing the train towards the now parked car (there is no indication how he knew the car was there). The drunk driver panics upon seeing Superman and refuses to let go of his car, and Superman gets scared that the train will kill them (thus giving us the first indication that Superman is less than invincible and the first instance of him being afraid of something). While Superman manages to get him out of the car, the driver dies of a heart attack anyway, thus giving us the first time Superman failed.

Supes doesn't have much of a reaction to this, and proceeds to sneak into the train, where he witnesses a coach hiring two thugs to be in his team during a game and injure the other team's best players. Naturally, Superman decides the best way to stop this plot is to stalk an innocent player (Burke), knock him out with a hypodermic needle and kidnap him for days after telling him he is going to be living his life until the game. As we see later when he meets the actual team, he didn't bother researching the player first, and punches one of his teammates, thus getting Burke knocked out of the team. In a surprising moment, Superman shows regret for having destroyed Burke's reputation, but then proceeds to drug him, lets him be kidnapped by the previously mentioned thugs and leaves him there once he figures the kidnappers aren't going to harm him.

During the game, Superman basically solos the other team, and we have the first instance of a "regular" extremely talented person being envious of Superman, when his teammated start to resent him. This all ends well when the crooked coach resigns is position once he realizes he can't win, Burke's ex-girlfriend becomes interested in him again after seeing Superman play and Burke himself is fine with all of this because his life is better after Superman's actions.

This issue, by its lonesome, justifies Lex Luthor's existence.

Action Comics #5

No Caption Provided

This issue completely ignores the previous one's characterization and has Superman take on a natural disaster (which is a new level of competency for the character). The story starts when the Daily Star editor yells for Clark, wishing to assign him to cover a flood that is threatening to destroy a dam. Since Clark isn't there, Lois offers herself for the job, but the editor turns her down with the excuse that “It’s too important! – This is no job for a girl!” After Lois has her very first sort-of-feminist moment ("No job for a woman, eh?"), she ruins any cred she might have by manipulating Clark into covering what will basically be a minor footnote (and that isn't even true). Clark genuinely believes her, thus giving us our second moment of vincible Superman. Anyway, Lois takes the job, Clark is fired for not having been there, and decides to go to Valleyho to hopefully save his career.

He passes Lois' train only to notice that the bridge they are about to cross is bent. Of course, he saves the train without anyone noticing and proceeds to the dam, where he keeps it together while everyone else is escaping. Everyone else, that is, except Lois, who gets a car and drives towards the dam with no regard for her life, all just to get the scoop. And thus classic Lois Lane is born.

In another moment of vincible Superman, the dam breaks despite Clark's best efforts, and is about to kill Lois until Superman saves her. He then proceeds to crack a mountain in half to contain the flood. The next page speaks for itself:

No Caption Provided

As we can see, the classic Superman-Lois-Clark "love triangle" is fully established here. It was there in the first and second issues, too, but here everything is made completely explicit. Notice how Lois admits to having been scared of Superman at first.

Action Comics #6

No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided

In this issue we get our most whimsical story yet. It starts with two important things. First, Superman gets his moniker of "Man of Steel" from one of the Daily Star headlines. The second important thing is that Clark Kent is explicitly stated to be the Daily Star's best reporter, and the one in charge of all the Superman news. Maybe he was even the one to give himself that title! Anyway, the editor introduce Clark to Nick Williams, a man who calims to be Superman's agent. Clark is furious from the use of his name, but listens to the con-artist as he names every single thing he has licensed Superman's name for: radio shows, fuel, cars, bathing suits, costumes, physical development exercisers and even movies, but apparently the most impressive one is having gotten Superman his own comic book. You gotta love these people's pride for their work.

Proto-Jimmy Olsen!
Proto-Jimmy Olsen!

Clark accuses Williams of being a fraud, and Williams arranges an interview with Superman to convince him. Not-Jimmy-Olsen overhears this and inmediately tells Lois, who decides she wants that assignment and "manipulates" Clark into a date that will include the interview. Clark, having already caught on to the fact Lois only ever acknowledges him to screw him over, decides to let her believe she is manipulating him, because apparently he needs her to think him that gullible.

Greatness
Greatness

During the date, we get a singer performing her soon-to-be hit, "You're a Superman". I approve, and so does Lois. Next we get Williams with an actor he hired to play Superman, who he tells he believes Superman is just a myth. We see Lois drugging Clark so that she can get the interview for herself (that's a lot of hate for one man). Superman either notices her drugging his drink or recognizes the taste of the drug, and decides to pretend to be affected. When Lois meets the Williams and the fake Superman, she is indignant, either becuase their act indults her integrity or because it insults the object of her lust (I'm not clear on that one, but I'd bet it's the later). She debunks their "feats" and threatens to expose them, after which Williams throws her out of the window to silence her. Luckily, Superman had already arrived and saves her from certain death, after which he engages on some unnecessary property destruction, tears off an elevator's doors and captures the would-be murderers. I guess Siegel and Shuster had to showcase his power. The actor punches Superman only to break his hand, marking the beginning of this cliché.

Could it possibly get more Alpha-Male than this?
Could it possibly get more Alpha-Male than this?

Superman carries the criminals to a police station, where they attempt to deny the charges, but this happens:

No Caption Provided

For this version of Superman, intimidation and fear is a very important tool, and this glare alone makes the actor confess. The comic ends with the actor and the fake agent accusing each other.

Conclusion

This version of Superman is very practical, not caring about what image people have of him, so long as it gets the job done. He also relies a lot on intimidation, and on manipulating other people to change for the better. While he initially believed Lois, he soon realised what kind of person she was, and didn't fall for her manipulations afterwards. Even knowing this, he is still attracted to her.

This version of Lois Lane hates Clark Kent so much she is willing to destroy his life for a scoop. We get the introduction of her soon-to-be-annoying character trait of not having any kind of self-preservation instinct.

Also, we got psycho Superman, but I'm not going to count that.

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