Superman turned a novelty item into a booming industry still going strong over eighty years since he exploded into the public eye in Action Comics #1. Before long, Superman leapt from the comic-book page into other areas of entertainment and fun. A newspaper strip that ran for decades. Wonderfully crafted, imaginative theatrical cartoons. A thrilling radio show that ran from 1940-1951. A movie serial starring Kirk Alyn. Not to mention so much merchandise that it would take a quite hefty tome to picture all the different toys, articles of clothing, food products and more.
Superman made the comic-book industry. The comic-book industry made him a superstar. It was a great deal all around, save, of course, that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of this legendary character, got screwed over by their publishers. That part of the Superman story is one neither creators or fans should ever forget. However, at the moment, my focus is on the Superman radio show that
kicked off in 1940.
The Adventures of Superman hit the airwaves on February 12, 1940, as a syndicated show on New York City’s WOR. It would be broadcast three to five times a week nationally by Mutual and ABC, ending on March 1, 1951. All told, 2,088 original episodes of show aired on American radio. Some were 15-minute episodes, others were a half-hour in length. At various times, they ran in the afternoons and, at others, in the evenings and weekends.
Somewhere along the line, I either bought or was given CDs of the radio show. I listened to them while driving and thought they were great fun. Narrator Jackson Beck would intone the opening…
Up in the sky! Look!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
…followed by the sound effect of Superman in flight whooshing by. Bud Collyer, his identity not revealed to the public initially, was the voice of Superman and Clark Kent. When he took vacations from the show in those days of no reruns, Batman and Robin would become
the focus of episodes.
When my longtime friend Anthony Tollin, a noted expert in a great many things including old-time radio, told me intriguing Superman radio trivia, I realized several episodes could be adapted to the comic books. The story that most interested me was the one wherein Superman took on the Ku Klux Klan.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about that:
In 1946, the series delivered a powerful blow against the Ku Klux Klan’s prospects in the northern US. The human rights activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK and other racist/terrorist groups. Concerned that the organization had links to the government and police forces, Kennedy decided to use his findings to strike at the Klan in a different way. He contacted the Superman producers and proposed a story where the superhero battles the Klan. Looking for new villains, the producers eagerly agreed. Reportedly, Klan leaders denounced the show and called for a boycott of Kellogg’s products. However, the story arc earned spectacular ratings, and the food company stood by its support of the show.
I pitched DC Comics on a twelve-issue series that would adapt this and a few other episodes of the show. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I submitted the pitch, but it was either during Mike Carlin’s time as the editor of the Superman titles or shortly after he had been promoted to editor-in-chief. That places it in the 1990s, probably after I’d been unceremoniously booted from my 1995 Black Lightning series. The pitch was rejected.
It took three decades, but DC has finally gotten around to adapting perhaps the most famous story from The Adventures of Superman radio show. Superman Smashes the Klan #1 by New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru and lettering by Janice Chiang [$7.99 per issue] kicked off a three-issue retelling of this tale. While it’s a somewhat mild portrayal of the Klan compared to the bloody and obscene history of the real-life organization, it’s a well-told story with inviting art. Hopefully, it will encourage readers to investigate the Klan on their own and realize why evil such as this can never be allowed to be normalized.
A high point of this first issue is the first part of “Superman and Me,” Yang’s essay on what Superman meant to him and far more. It compensates somewhat for the mildness of the Klan in this comics series.
Superman Smashes the Klan is my pick of the week. The second issue should be out by the time you read this column. I’m looking forward to reading that and the concluding issue.
Brother: A Story of Autism by Bridget and Carlton Hudgens with art by Nam Kim, colors by Fahriza Kamaputra and lettering by Tyler Smith for Comicraft [Zuiker Press; $12.99] is the seventh book in the Zuiker Press series of “graphic novels written by young adults for their peers.” I’ve reviewed a few of these books in the past, noting some of them have an “Afterschool Special” vibe that softens their impact.
Brother hit me differently. Possibly because I have some autistic friends, I found it a more effective means of conveying a message. “Message” is perhaps a misnomer here. This GN gives readers who don’t know people with autism a window into what those lives are like and introduces those readers to the large range of what autism in. It’s a wonderful learning tool.
But it’s also a wonderful story of a brother and a sister who care so deeply for one another. It’s that human story that truly makes this GN stand out. The writing is engaging, heartwarming. The art tells the story well, supported by fine coloring and lettering. I love this book. It’s a title that should be available at all public and school libraries.
Finally, Alter Ego #161 [TwoMorrows; $9,95] is a full-issue tribute to Stan Lee, the man I consider the most influential comics creator of my lifetime. If it weren’t for Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, I’m not sure I’d be working in the comics industry. His collaborations with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers and others made me want to write comics, too.
Editor Roy Thomas, himself someone whose comics work influenced me mightily, has put together a wonderful remembrance of Stan the Man. From 1975, we get the transcript of a 1975 radio interview Lee did with Carole Hemingway. That’s followed by some twenty pages of Lee tributes from Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, David Anthony Kraft, Richard J. Arndt and yours truly.
Alter Ego is the leading magazine of comics history. In this issue, we also get articles on Stan Lee’s collaboration with Moebius, and the complex story of Stan Lee, Al Landau and Marvel’s ventures into Great Britain and beyond. Michael T. Gilbert has the first part of an article on Charles Biro, the editor/writer whose comics were an inspiration to Lee. The late Bill Schelly contributed his memories of his few but meaningful contacts with Lee.
It’s an especially great issue of a magazine whose every issue is worthy of being called “great.” If you are at all interested in the history of comic books, you should be reading Alter Ego.
This should be where I say “‘Nuff Said,” but I want to take a line or two to thank InStock Books, the sponsors of this column, for their patience and understanding as I dealt with medical issues. I am managing my newly-discovered type 2 diabetes, getting stronger every day and back at work. Hopefully, this column will appear more regularly in the weeks to come.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all my readers. I’ll be back soon with more reviews.
© 2019 Tony Isabella