Friday, February 12, 2010

What Radio brought to Superman! (1)

To keep up appearances that I am serious about keeping this blog stocked well and often, I'll be sprinkling articles now and then between the episodic reviews. There's a lot of stories about the people behind the show, as well as the general fun it can be to compare and contrast the Superman of today with the Superman-that-was.

Last Post I rattled off a list of major departures that the radio show initially made from the then-two-year-old comic book that beget it. The radio show turned around and added major characters and devices that the comic would later adopt, and so later the serials, the television show, a number of movie, and eventually led to a heavily armed Santa-Superman facing down Twin Hitlers and a army of mutant Batman clones At Earth's End. What? Damnit, wrong decade!

Yes, anyway, we're back in the early 1940's when Superman had yet to strangle himself under years of conflicting continuities, crossovers, and camp. We're back at the time when the radio show introduced:

Perry White - That's right. Superman's editor in the comics was a man named George Taylor (but usually called Chief or 'the Editor'). The show gave us the grumpy, lovable old Perry White, and he took over Taylor's place in the comic book in 1941. Radio's Perry White *is* Perry White, and actors in other medias would depicted him as voice actor Julian Noa did. Perry's a particular favorite of mine, as he's a risk-taker, taking a chance on a resume-less, literally-walked-in-off-the-street greenhorn named Kent to cover a story he claimed could be 'bigger than the Lindbergh Baby!' Also fun was the time he appeared more concerned that a bomb would destroy his presses than he was evacuating the freaking building. His memory is as notoriously short as his temper, going as far as threatening to fire Kent over petty things. Kent, the man who not only broke open many, many sensational Daily Planet exclusives for White, but also saved White's life repeatedly, (and not as Superman). Then again, you don't get to run a newspaper by being soft with your minions. Oh, speaking of soft - hey look it's copy-boy

Jimmy Olsen - Superman's pal, although technically he's the second Jimmy Superman became pals with (see episode 2). (Jimmy was probably introduced to keep with the status quo of heroes having boy sidekicks, a trend begun by Dick Tracy and Junior in the funny papers.) He first shows up as a copyboy employed the Daily Planet, and jumps into our hearts with a tale of woe as his widow mother being shaken down for protection money for her failing candy-store, shit which obviously did not fly with a superman who took the idea of 'shaking down' rather literally. After that Jimmy accompanied Kent on many adventures, some invited, some not; at least he didn't get under foot too much. He certainly never gained super-powers ("Golly!") or had a time machine ("Golly!", Radio Jimmy was more likely to assist Clark with the mystery of the week, getting trapped in a burning hotel, cave-in, or flooding pirate cave. Interestingly, his voice actor was briefly replaced with a prepubescent boy, before resuming the tone of a teenager. And of course, Jimmy found his way back into the comics and even got his own series! In contrast, the first Jimmy appeared in only one episode and we never find out if he ever got to the fair after Superman flew away. Yes, flew because of

Superman's ability to fly - Yep, calling it, Superman flew first on the radio. As I mentioned last post, Comics Superman jumped around with the proportionate strength of a human-size grasshopper; he could glide, but that's not the same thing of being able to fly under your own power, hover, etc (you're just jumping really high and controlling your fall creatively). Try to convey that to a radio audience, however, using a sound-effect. Superman's original 'whoosh' stood in for him flying, not jumping around, and it was easier to describe (and for the audience to picture) a flying man than get into the technicalities of the thing. Depicting Television's Superman flying involved putting a man into a complicated harness, and even that was easier than trying to simulate a jumping Superman, so it follows that form follows function in this case. Regardless, the artifact of Superman's jump-no-fly days seems to be the famous line: "Leap tall buildings with a single bound!". I have to wonder if Superman never was on the radio, if he would have stayed a jumper rather than a flyer.

Kryptonite - Superman's infamous green Achilles' heel. It deserves an article all on its own, because it owes its existence to the benefit of Bud Coyller, the talented voice actor who gave the iconic superhero his first real voice. Although the radio show was pre-recorded ('transcripted'), re-runs were unheard of and production was a constant thing. Writers could give a voice actor a break (or replace them!) ahead of time by writing his or her character out for a few shows, either by having the character not present, unable to speak, or simply have the narrator describe what the character is doing in passing reference (the latter led to a notable storyline where Lois gets in the thick of some gangsters over the course of several shows, without actually saying a line!). Mr. Collyer, of course, was both Superman and Clark Kent, and had a speaking part the vast majority of the shows. Small breaks could be fudged where Collyer could miss a recording session, but in order to give the man a vacation, kryptonite was invented as a way to incapacitate the nigh invincible Superman in a believable manner.

Bonus: On the subject of giving Bud a break, there was one other way his vacations influenced the show. Although the comics had the crossovers first, five years in Batman and Robin started to guest-star in the show, occasionally filling in whole episodes, keeping kryptonite from becoming a one trick pony, or making it come out with other colors than green or some such nonsense as that.

Well, tonight is the night the first episode, 'Baby from Krypton' debuted! I'll be posting it then. Enjoy!

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