Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Big Audio Wednesday - Superman vs. Atom Man, wk. 5

It may not seem very remarkable today, but the continuity in these radio serials was completely unknown to comics readers of the time. I have no hard evidence to support this, but I suspect that The Adventures of Superman radio series transformed comics writing.

Not right away, understand. But Golden Age comics were horribly written, with stories churned out in great quantities at high speed with little care given to craft. Character development, continuity, building suspense, complex plotting: none of these existed in comics which consisted mainly of 6- and 8-page stories. The comics were all about action, action, action, every page bursting with color and speed lines.

But there are no colors or speed lines on radio. So the writers of the Superman serial had to take this character, stripped of his visual appeal, and somehow write compelling stories about him. And what they did changed the character, and the face of comics, forever.

They introduced a supporting cast, including editor Perry White and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. They introduced a weakness for Superman: Kryptonite. They concentrated on mystery stories that forced Superman to use his wits rather than his fists.

And with Henry Miller, the Atom Man, they introduced perhaps the first authentic supervillain.

Villains in the comics were usually gangsters or petty crooks with a clever gimmick. The closest they got to honest-to-goodness supervillians were the evil geniuses, mad scientists who used their knowledge to create horrible menaces like death rays or fire apes. Superman had by this time met villains like Lex Luthor and the Ultra-Humanite (who was a disembodied genius brain who possessed other bodies, but was otherwise a Luthor clone). He had also met that merry prankster, Mr. Mxyzptlk, whose magical powers caused Superman great headaches.

But Atom Man was something different: a deadly serious bad guy who could stand toe-to-toe with Superman and and beat him in a fight. That just didn't happen. The whole point of Superman, the whole appeal, was that he could beat anybody with one punch, as long as he knew whom to punch.

In that sense, Atom Man could be the precursor to the whole range of supervillains populating comics today. Even if he's not the first, the sheer popularity of the radio program would make him probably the most influential.

Before we jump into the program, though, one other observation: is it just me, or does the announcer, when he's doing the commercials hyping those ubiquitous comic buttons, sound like he's saying "commie buttons?" Was this some sinister cereal-fueled plot to turn our kids into Commies?

'Collect all your favorites--Stalin, Lenin, and of course, there's lovable old Trotsky with his little beard. Wear 'em on your jacket or trade with your friends. Just make sure not to ask any questions if your friend shows up with a button missing...'

Anyway, enjoy the next weeks' worth of programs.

The story so far:

In their first battle, Atom Man zapped Superman into a near-death coma, killed his mentor Der Teufel, then left to attack Metropolis. However, his battle with Superman had exhausted the Kryptonite energy in his blood. So he contacted the mysterious fat man, Sidney, to obtain more Kryptonite from the Scarlet Widow.

Meanwhile, Superman's comatose body was discovered by hunters and taken to the hospital, where doctors were unable to help him due to his impenetrable skin. He finally revived enough to escape the hospital and made his way back to the Daily Planet as Clark Kent, still dazed and incoherent. Perry White decided to take him to Florida to recuperate.


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