75 years ago, Superman started his humble pulpy life. Something about his story quickly outgrew the funny papers and he became an icon of "the American way" (to use his own words). Here in this anniversary year, there's yet another big-budget film that re-tells his origins. At this point, is there anyone left who doesn't know this modern fable? Escaping the fate of his doomed home planet Krypton, baby Superman ("Kal-El" to his friends) gained super-human strength when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Everyone knows THAT story.
Superman isn't just a hero to comic book shop owners and movie studio impresarios. Superman is a 75 year old media giant that has made enough green to make Kryptonite jealous. There are still plenty of untold tales of how the Man Of Steel conquered the world outside of comic books. All this week, Retro Thing will unearth a few of Supe's lesser known media adventures - no X-ray vision required.
After Superman was a hit in comic books in 1938, the next move was to the funny papers where Superman's creators fleshed out the character's otherwordly origins. In 1940, Superman hit the airwaves in a daily 15 minute serialized show called The Adventures Of Superman. The radio show cemented even more elements of the Superman mythos; the hero's weakness to Kryptonite, and his co-workers Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. The show ran in various forms (mostly with the same cast) for more than 10 years and over 2000 episodes. Bud Collyer (a name familiar to game show fans) was the voice of both Superman & Clark Kent, and the narrator was Jackson Beck who later provided the voice of Bluto in the Famous Studios Popeye cartoons.
I happen to love "old time radio", though contemporary audiences will often criticize the pace of the shows - especially serialized adventure show for children. Those radio shows have an aesthetic of their own, and yes... we may have to slow down our internal clocks a little, but these adventures are enjoyable in their own right (especially on long car drives or cleaning the garage). You can find lots of episodes online, including the origin story. What will surprise you is that even in those early episodes, Superman comes off (and I usually don't talk this way on RT) as an exasperated dick. That alone might be worth the price of admission.
Turning away from Superman's fictional powers, the radio show flexed some genuine muscle when it took on a serious issue in the real world; racism. Stetson Kennedy was a noted human rights activist who infiltrated the KKK and other terrorist hate groups. Kennedy feared that the Klan might have people in positions of influence to act against him when he went public with his findings, so he attacked the group another way. He approached producers of the Superman radio show, and proposed a storyline where Superman battles against the Klan. Since the radio show was in constant search of new enemies (radio Superman often battled rather prosaic bad guys rather than later fantastical super villains), the producers agreed.
"The Clan Of The Fiery Cross" was a string of 16 episodes that took on the issue of racism head-on. For years, the story has been that Kennedy provided details of the real-world Klan's rituals and codewords, which found their way into the radio show. In reality there are no such secrets spilled, but that doesn't blunt the impact of this important story.
The hope was that by trivializing and demystifying Klan goings-on, there would be some impact on the hate group's recruitment and membership. Klan leaders reportedly denounced the show and called for a boycott of sponsor Kellogg's "Pep" cereal. As it turned out, the story returned spectacular ratings, and Kellogg's stood behind the producers of the show.
We've linked to MP3s of "The Clan Of The Feiry Cross" so that you can also enjoy this unique moment in radio history. Certainly there are those hokey plot contrivances that come with the territory in any serialized show that needs a cliffhanger ending every 15 minutes, but in this case there's much more than that at play. Superman ultimately saves the day, but the show gives its intended young listeners the tools to understand what's wrong with racial stereotypes and fear-mongering. It's amazing to hear how this decades-old radio show battles an important issue that still plagues us; a battle that still can make heroes out of regular people every day.