Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Radio's Superman is Different

I'm writing this blog on the assumption that the reader knows who is the guy in the blue pajama suit and red cape, and that the fella can fly. Superman had an undeniable impact on American culture - America's first runaway success in the superhero-ing business. His story origins are the stuff of myth itself, never quite matching up from telling to telling, but it's one of those things that pretty much everyone knows, however peripherally.

The basics being: shot from a dying planet by his scientist dad, landing in Kansas, being raised by a humble farmer and his wife, possessing fantastic powers, using said powers to benefit mankind while keeping up the identity of a timid, bespectacled newspaper reporter. When Superman debuted on the air, however, there were some very significant differences even from his comic book of the time. They lasted until the show rebooted a couple of years later, with more of the elements of the story which people are familiar with today. I touched on them in my first post, and we'll examine them in depth as we come to them, but for now, let's sum up the major ones. For clarity, I use the terms 'Comics Superman' and 'Radio Superman'.

Radio Superman was never raised on Earth - Superman walked out of his escape pod an adult, having spent the majority of his life in a tiny rocket-ship headed towards Earth. Since he left Krypton as an extremely young child, if not an infant, he doesn't even know his real name, so right off the cuff the implications are disturbing. Lucky for us, he seems to have taken the whole ordeal in stride, deciding to help humanity rather than take it over like a deranged man-child. Incidentally, this means that:

There is no John and Martha Kent - Even in the comics, Superman's identity is tied with that of the Kents, the couple who either raised the baby they found as their own, or dumped him in an orphanage (looking at you, Max Fleischer). Because of them, it explains why an alien child learned our customs, our culture, and the basic right from the wrong. Radio Superman's a stranger in a strange, extremely fragile land. The reason for this is likely due to the fact that the comic book Kents of the time had passed on before Clark took his job as a newspaper reporter, and thus it wasn't practical to give them voice actors (having already done 'throw away' roles for Jor-El and Lara, perhaps?) and so gave the roles to the Professor and son Jimmy, who were the first people Radio Superman rescued, from a run-away trolley (The Professor, incidentally, was taking Jimmy to the fair). They have a profound, lasting effect on Radio's Superman anyway, because, you see:

The name "Clark Kent" was pulled out of thin air - Superman states twice in his debut episode (the second one, as the first was entirely set on the doomed Krypton) that he has no name. Comic's Clark Kent is a man who learns he has an alien origin and swears to use those powers well. Radio's Superman has nothing to go on, other than he wants to learn more about Earth and help its frail meat-bags. The Professor helpfully suggests he take on a role of a reporter; little Jimmy (not Olsen) gives him the name of 'Clark Kent'. He might as well have called him 'Hugh Jorgan' or 'Heywood Jabloeme' and Superman would have bought it. Luckly, Jimmy knew better than to play around with a man who demonstrated he could peel back a trolley roof like tin-foil, and also can fly. Oh, also:

He can fly right away - No duh? Well, in his very earliest of days, Comic's Superman didn't fly so much as leap - much like how a grasshopper the size of a man could hypothetically jump high (thus 'leap over tall buildings in a single bound). There's no indication that Superman does anything other than fly through the air, rather than leap, although Lara-El mentions it only takes her 'a step' to her relations over in the mountains some miles away. The reason is most likely that it's difficult to rely the act of leaping by sole use of sound effects (and flying is way cooler). It's implied Radio Superman can hover, or at least land gently. I am not sure if this preceded Superman's ability for true flight in the comics. Speaking of flight,

His powers are kind of vague - Superman's 'Golden Age' and 'Silver Age' are best define that the latter proved he could pretty much do anything, which to me led to severe character decay. Punch a planet out of orbit? No problem, Silver age, baby! Radio Superman is firmly in the Golden Age levels of power, which the running rule being 'just enough to pull off what the story called for'. Later, being able to bust out of a steel room or to push over some large boulders became less remarkible when it's been established your main character can carve his name in the Moon, from Earth, by looking at it really hard. Superman's powers did add up over time, and it's kind of a hoot to hear Superman toss out a line such as 'good thing I can see in the dark!' or when he speaks underwater. Also!

He is not at all a public figure - Contemporary Superman is a very public figure. He's an inspiration to everyone, he's the leader of the Justice League, he constantly makes public appearances, he saves the Earth and basically everyone knows it's him doing it. It all leads to a very different kind of storytelling than Radio's Superman uses. Early episodes on the radio revolved around not only keeping his identity of Clark Kent a secret, but Superman's very existence as well. I'm well over a hundred episodes into the old show by now, and Superman still has managed to keep himself practically an urban legend. It serves him well - like the time he just walks into the headquarters of a villain, gets captured (dressed as Superman), and goes along with it exactly long enough to learn what the plan is before giving them the surprise of their very lives. This one alone would make this a very different story from the Superman today, when an entire world would mourn his supposed death. And because Superman plays down his exploits a lot, it leads to the impression that...

Clark Kent is a total badass - We all know Superman is a strong, manly-man and Clark Kent is a push-over, a wimp, right? At first glance, that might seem to be the case in the Radio. However when I started listening to the radio Adventures of Superman I realized just how incredible Clark Kent came off. Radio's Clark Kent brought down terrorist networks, exposed criminal rackets, and played detective so effectively that it gave him a reputation today's journalists only wish they could have, and this is solely on what the public sees him do. Yes, we know that Clark Kent is secretly super Superman, but they don't! Kent would constantly do heroic things (or appear to, anyway, to cover up the act being that of Superman's) and yet still be called a coward. Not that Kent cares (just the opposite, he encourages it), but it's amazing just the same to listen to the episode where Clark Kent appears to climb out on an airplane wing with a rifle to return fire at a pursuing plane. Or when he flew a plane into another plane, or when he singlehandedly lead Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen out of a forest fire, or when he stood up to an extortion racket, or when he...

One last thing, which probably deserves an entirely separate post - Radio's Superman is not a boy scout. He's not a bad guy by any means, but he's not above threatening the occasional goon, demonstrating he has the means to do grievous harm with his pinky fingers alone. To paraphrase a line he uses more than one occasion: "Bullets just bounce off of me, let's see how YOU bounce! It may not have been intentional, but it is interesting this aspect of Superman is coupled with a version who was not raised on Earth - he is very much a dangerous alien being who, fortunately, is on the side of law and order. He's not off doing good deeds constantly, he's more of a proactive observer, only stepping in to help if he's truly needed, and no more. Again, it's a side of Superman many are not used to seeing.

Friday starts my vigil! On the day of its 70th broadcast anniversary , I'll cover an episode in detail. I'll link to the show on BOTAR, and you are welcome to listen along! See you then.

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