Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Awesome Insanity of the Golden Age Superman

I talk about this a lot, but seriously: the Golden Age Superman was purely batshit. I've been rereading the Superman Chronicles, a series of reprintings of all the old Siegel and Shuster Superman stories, and man, is he one murderous, grinning psychopath. Superman will impersonate a sports figure, declare war on rigged pinball machines, or destroy the wall of a radio station to announce to a town that he's essentially decided to destroy all of their cars if they cross him. He enjoys being shot at, stabbed, and poisoned because it gives him the chance to show off how nothing can hurt him, and he'll actually destroy an entire slum on the off chance the US Government will replace the ruined buildings.

I suppose we should be glad he didn't decide to try that in New Orleans.

I just get such a massive kick out of raving asshole Superman. Let's not mince words: the Siegel and Shuster Superman is a crusader against social inequity, a champion of the little guy, and a grinning, smug as all hell complete fucker who is just itching to fuck with you before he throws you into the harbor. He will deliberately crash head first into your propeller if you try and fly to safety, too.

I wish I had scans of the issue where Superman, in his Clark Kent identity, comes upon a man who has committed suicide after realizing his purchase of stock in an oil company has ruined him because the two gentlemen running the company prefer selling shares to actually drilling for oil. In short order Superman buys all the stock available in the company (coming right out and saying that he wiped out Clark Kent's savings to do it... at one point he buys $5000 worth of stock from a buyer, in 1938, implying that Clark Kent's got some cash stocked away) then runs out to the derelict well the company owns, knocks out the night watchman, and drills for oil himself until the well strikes some. We're then treated to the spectacle of the fraudulent stock swindlers hiring goons to kill Superman (in his cover identity as 'mysterious guy who buys stock in worthless companies that suddenly aren't') because he refuses to sell his shares back to them, followed of course by the inevitable 'Superman lets the goons kill him, then gets up and beats them half to death while smirking' sequence.

We then get Superman demanding a million dollars for his shares: the crooked oil men pay, because the well is worth many millions. Superman promptly changes into his costume, breaks into their homes, kidnaps them, drags them to the well and forces them to watch as he destroys the derrick and throws a gasoline cocktail into it, setting it ablaze. That's right, Superman set an oil well on fire. Perhaps it's even still burning. The best part is, he pockets the million dollars.

It's majestic, in its way. Sure, the evil oil guys had it coming. They even hired assassins, so you really can't feel bad for them. But the magnificent bastardy Superman displays as he methodically dismantles their lives, toys with their thugs, and finally takes all their money while burning down their property is just... I mean, seriously, why can't we have this Superman around when we live in the age of massive govenment bailouts? Then again, do we really want to see Superman hanging Bernie Madoff from a flagpole? I know most people would probably not accept Superman heading into GM and destroying the place over its safety record. Not to mention pretending to be an undead spectre just to screw with a hit and run driver. (I seriously cannot get enough of 'Superman as car safety demon'.)

I get why Superman had to mellow out, and I'm a huge fan of the complicated Weisinger-era mythos of the character. But man, every time I read one of these stories (Superman versus giant yellow rats on Luthor's volcano island! Superman vs pinball machines! Superman vs... Yale, I guess? I'm not sure. Some ivy league college football coach who hires assassins to stab opposing players, I don't know if the sport was just rougher back then) I'm just in awe of how didactic, bombastic and even outright insane (Superman forces a munitions manufacturer to join a foreign military in order to gloat as the guy almost gets killed a few times, then forces the opposing generals into a fist fight, and this somehow fixes everything) these stories get. The Ultra-Humanite first tries to take over Metropolis' cabbies, and when this fails, he unleashes the Bubonic Plague! With no stops in between! He doesn't go from cabbies to, say, ambulance drives, he leaps straight from "I will control all the gypsy cabs in Metropolis" to "I will wipe out 90% of all humans and make a superior race" in one go.

Of course Superman routs him, because if there's one lesson to these stories, it's that scientists can never win against brute force that's very smug.

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