One of my Christmas presents was something just for fun: Superman: The Dailies 1939-1942(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s a collection of the newspaper strips by Schuster and Siegel that were published in the earliest years of the superhero, and they’re both funny and disturbing now.
First off, Superman was always a jerk. It’s actually a bit off-putting: while he has this profound moral goal of helping the little guy, he’s also constantly treating Lois Lane like dirt — he uses his superpowers to get the big scoops at the newspaper, and Lois is always getting demoted to the “advice for the lovelorn” column. When he does let her get a story, it’s always in the most condescending way possible.
And then there’s his solution to crime: over and over, he uses his super-hearing and his super-telescopic-X-ray vision to find out who the big bad guy is, and then he kicks him around like a football for a few days worth of strips until he signs a written confession. Case solved! One begins to wonder how much of a bad influence growing up with a super-bully as a hero has had.
But what I really wanted to share was a subtly different origin story for Superman. The early Superman didn’t fly, wasn’t absolutely invulnerable to everything, and didn’t have the full suite of superpowers that would gradually be added to the canon. He was just an extremely tough guy with the “strength of a thousand men!” who was able to jump long distances; in one episode, he has to end a war in Europe (by grabbing the two leaders and kicking them around, of course), and he has to swim all the way…faster than a torpedo, of course.
But what was proposed as the source of his great strength? It wasn’t the rays of the sun, as we’d be told later. It was…evolution.
That’s right. Krypton had a few million years head start on us, so everyone on the planet had super-strength, super-intelligence, and near-invulnerability, all because evolution had simply progressed farther than it had on earth.
That was the first panel of the newspaper strip. You can guess how I cringed. The story never quite got to the details of how selection worked to generate people with skin so tough that bullets bounced off.
I have to show you one other instance of unintentional humor. At one point, a wealthy bad guy puts a bounty on Superman’s head of one million dollars and recruits criminals to kill him. These new criminals have an interesting style of introducing themselves:
Where do you get a super-science degree, I wonder? Can I just introduce myself this way in the future? “I am P-Zed, the super-scientist. Give me a million dollars.” I am relieved to see, at least, that super-scientists are not required to wear brightly colored tights.
Carlos, by the way, doesn’t really earn the title of “super-scientist.” His scheme to kill Superman is to lure him into a room (with Lois as bait) and then open up vents that release heat into the room, while he looks through a thick heat-proof glass window and gloats. Superman strolls in, the door closes, the vents open, he starts sweating and standing there dumbfounded, while Carlos chortles over the fact that Superman will be reduced to ash in a few minutes. Superman doesn’t know what to do until he suddenly remembers, oh yeah, he can smash down walls. So he breaks down the wall to Carlos’s room, Carlos and his pals are incinerated, and Superman and Lois escape.
From this we can conclude that the entrance requirements to super-scientist school must be really, really low. I’m thinking now that maybe I don’t qualify. But maybe, just maybe, this is the Discovery Institute’s problem — they keep hiring super-scientists instead of plain old ordinary working scientists, and they keep coming up with hare-brained schemes like “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” that are so easily ripped to shreds.