10 Pieces Of Superman’s Lore That Started On Radio
In addition to Shakespeare, Dante, and Nellie Bly, I am also a comic book aficionado. As such, I am always fascinated on how stories change and transform between mediums. In this case, the cross-pollination of comic books to radio – or rather, vice versa – when it comes to the last son of Krypton, the Man of Steel himself, Superman.
Superman’s mythos is iconic, and seemingly set in stone—or rather, steel. But in his early days, his fictional world was still being invented and altered, from his catchphrases to his supporting cast. Ironically, the most enduring elements of Superman’s mythology didn’t originate in the pages of his own comic books. Instead, they came from his radio show, The Adventures Of Superman.
It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane…
The original opening to the radio series was a ground’s-eye view of the Man of Steel as he flew through the air over a crowd. “Look, up in the sky!” This dramatic introduction served to establish the sound of Superman in flight, created by rotating a drum of wooden slats against a canvas sheet. This introduction from the awestruck crowd lasted two years before being incorporated into a longer opening sequence, and again to close the show.
Strange as it sounds, Superman gained the power of flight on radio. When he first appeared he could only leap long distances—an eighth of a mile, according to Action Comics #1. In the third episode of the 1940 radio series, however, he flies to Denver. “All planes were grounded by fog and sleet,” but then “a strange figure hurtles through space, red cape streaming in the whistling wind.” The radio Superman was showing off a power he did not explicitly have in the comics until May 1941!
Faster Than A Speeding Bullet!
“More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” This exciting new opening technically first appeared in the Fleischer Brothers’ 1941 Superman cartoon, “The Mad Scientist.” Still, this animated feature used the narrator and voice talent from the Superman radio series, and the intro was quickly incorporated into the regular show. Additional phrases tried were out, such as “faster than a streak of lightning,” “more powerful than the pounding surf,” “able to soar higher than any plane,” “able to change the course of a mighty river,” and “mightier than a roaring hurricane.” But the original remained the favorite. Why tamper with perfection?
This Looks Like A Job—For Superman!
This catchphrase was invented to let the audience know that mild-mannered Clark Kent was changing into the caped hero. Clayton ‘Bud’ Collyer, who provided the voice for both Kent and Superman, would begin the line in a soft tenor, then drop his voice into a powerful baritone as he finished “for Superman!” When creating the show, the producers considered having two separate actors portray Kent and the Man of Steel. It was Collyer’s ability to do both that sold them on the idea of just one, starting a tradition that has lasted to this day.
Up, Up, And Away!
Early on, the producers of the show ran into a problem: how to let the audience know Superman was flying in a medium without visuals. Part of the solution was the sound effect of flight. Another was to have Superman announce that he was about to take off, cuing the audience into his actions through a simple catchphrase. It stuck, and was even recently used on the TV show Superman And Lois.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet debuted on radio in February 1940, ten months before he appeared in the comics. In his early days, White was not the affable father figure we know today, but far more like the hot-headed editor of another paper who demands photographs of a certain webhead. White threw tantrums and fired his staff on a regular basis, yet was known for his philanthropy, with a soft heart under all his bluster.
Though an unnamed bow-tied office boy had appeared in Action Comics, the character of Jimmy Olsen was created for the radio show. He first appeared on April 15, 1940, just one month after the first appearance of Batman’s sidekick, Robin. Both Jimmy and Robin were aimed at being self-insert characters for the target audience of little boys, allowing them to believe that they, too, could fight crime alongside Superman and Batman. On the radio show Jimmy was often the catalyst for some new wild adventure, with Superman coming to save him from whatever fresh trouble he’d gotten himself into. Jimmy was added to the comics by name a year later, and has been “Superman’s Pal” ever since.
Speaking of the Dynamic Duo, though Superman and Batman had appeared together on various comic covers and promotional material, their very first team-up was on radio. On September 5th, 1945, Superman discovered a wounded Boy Wonder in a rowboat, leading to a search for the missing Batman. The trio became friends, and sometimes Superman would call upon the Caped Crusaders for help, with the show following their adventures for several episodes—allowing Collyer to take vacations from the daily live radio show.
Possibly based on an unpublished comic book story, the public became aware of kryptonite, the mineral from Superman’s home planet of Krypton that strips him of all his powers, in June, 1943, six years before it appeared in the comics. One anecdote says that kryptonite was created to give Collyer a break from the show, though given the date it might also have been used to explain to millions of young listeners why Superman did not simply go end WWII—the Axis powers had gotten ahold of kryptonite. This became a major plotline after the war, with a Nazi scientist finding a way to inject kryptonite into a human, making The Atom Man, Superman’s first super-human foe on the show. In its earliest incarnation, kryptonite did not kill Superman, but made him weak and listless. Since he remained invulnerable, his foes’ plots centered on imprisoning the Man of Steel with a hunk of the mineral and starving him to death. Gruesome.
Truth, Justice, And The American Way
In the early years of the program, the announcer stated that Superman fought a “never-ending battle for Truth and Justice.” It was not until the aftermath of World War II that the show added the iconic “American Way” to the list. This happened as the show changed its tone and subject matter. After year of fighting mobsters, mad scientists, and foreign agents, in 1946 Superman began fighting religious intolerance, xenophobia, and racism, culminating in him battling the Clan of the Fiery Cross, a clear stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan. These shows led to the highest ratings the show had ever received, as Superman made it clear that “the American Way” stood for standing up to bigots of all types.
The radio shows are available free on many platforms today. Check them out!