SUPERMAN VS. DEATH RAYS

Superman: The Dailies 1941-1942 back cover

Superman's first crude appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics created immediate frenzy. It's hard for modern audiences to understand how low comic books sat in the media hierarchy. Probably nothing at all other than the large but mostly invisible sex trade ranked beneath it. Comic books were considered porn for children, fit only for the move-your-lips-while-reading crowd. For rags-to-riches cultural, critical, and commercial success, Superman may have been the best idea of the 20th century (narrowly beating out Mickey Mouse). One year later he joined himself on newsstands in Superman #1, the first hero to star in a comic book bearing his name, selling a million copies a month by the 1940s. A radio show, The Adventures of Superman, debuted in February 1940; it would soon be nationally syndicated, broadcasting five days a week. In July the New York World’s Fair held a Superman Day with the first appearance of a live costumed superhero. An 80-foot tall Superman balloon stole the show at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade later that year. A series of seventeen animated cartoons started in 1941. The Adventures of Superman was a full-length novel published in 1942, fleshing out the character and inventing tidbits that would become canon.

And starting in 1939, a daily (Monday-Saturday) and a separate Sunday color strip, putting Superman in 20 million homes seven days a week, as ubiquitous as any pop hero could ever be. His public image was fully formed by then, with the timeless triangle of heroic Superman, fearless Lois Lane, and pretending-to-be-cowardly Clark Kent locked into place. A 1942 sequence dared to mock the joke of Clark's uncanny resemblance and suspiciously convenient absences by having Clark be picked to star in a movie about Superman since he's an exact double when he takes off his glasses!

The problem of Superman's superness had already come to haunt writers. The original Superman was extra-strong but neither could fly nor had invulnerability. With each passing year, his powers were made ever greater so that more and more powerful challenges had to be thrown his way for Superman to be shone struggling to a desperate, last-minute win. Jerry Siegel, Superman's co-creator and still his primary writer, had a brilliant inspiration in The League to Destroy Superman, with a series of evil scientists - Sleez, Slag, Block, Carlos, Coker, and Fant - using their superweapons to try to kill Superman to earn a million dollar prize crowdfunded through "all the crooks in the world" so that they could once and for all be rid of the unbeatable do-gooder. The battle lasted in the daily strip from March to November 1941 as they each tried and of course failed to kill Superman.

Comic strips of the 1940s, as so many modern cartoonists have ruefully pointed out, were physically bigger than those of today, with four large panels and plenty of room for words that could drive the action. Artist Jack Burnley, ghosting for Joe Shuster, kept his art to the bottom half of the panel so Siegel could plaster dialog balloons that often strayed over the borders of panels across the top half. A modern dialog-heavy strip like Doonesbury might make its point in 50 words; Siegel routinely used three times as many. The result made for dense plots with Lois in danger virtually every week and action-packed fist-to-face combat encounters taking out criminal heavies just as regularly.

Episode 22 ran from May 23 to July 5, 1941. After Carlos, the first of the Scientists of Sudden Death, has failed to kill Superman in his heat room, Block goes into his laboratory and finishes perfecting his death ray. Tests are for lesser minds. His ray cannon is ready to take down an airliner by May 26.

He quickly miniaturizes it, making it portable and outfitting the criminals with a "car of death!" Not only that, the car is radio controlled. You might think that an inventor who could achieve that could make far more money marketing his inventions than by crime, but the man is the blockhead he's named for.

Superman daily strip, May 30, 1941

A radio-controlled car seems as much science fiction as a ray that destroys planes and cars. Readers of the time would have been less startled than we are, because radio-controlled cars start appearing in newspaper articles by 1921. A "phantom auto" had been touring the country for more than a decade. Two of them in fact. J. J. Lynch, a radio engineer, demonstrated a Nash auto and R. L. Mack put his equipment on a Durant. The cars were controlled by a trailing car who could see exactly where the driverless lead car needed to go, though at some point around 1933 a low-flying aircraft controlled the car. Claims were made that the controller could be five miles distant, although I don't know of any public demonstration in which this was true. Of course, the antennas on the real cars were huge and obvious, unlike the comic strip car.

Lois soon gets kidnapped and taken to a handy Metropolis castle, complete with a medieval torture chamber. Every large city must have at least one. Superman arrives to save her only to be confronted with the ray cannon. Can Superman be destroyed by a death ray? We'll never know because he agilely dodges the beam and smashes the equipment. The bad guys, as always, complain loudly about him foiling their plan. Indignant evildoers were a Siegel characteristic.

Superman daily strip, June 16, 1941
Superman daily strip, June 17, 1941

Another few rescues later, Superman is confronted the good bad girl, Lil Danvers, the Blonde Tigress, who believes Superman killed her father and wants revenge. She wields a beautifully-finned Buck Rogers-style hand ray gun and it's almost too much for Superman. He knocks it away from her with "his last remaining strength."

Superman daily strip, June 26, 1941
Superman daily strip, June 27, 1941

Too bad the ray cannon was destroyed. If a hand gun comes close to killing Superman, imagine what the big version would do.

Superman daily strip, June 30, 1941

I can't explain this. We're still on the same day in strip continuity. Maybe they stocked them at Radio Shack.

Thinking out of the box, Superman pretends to flee to save Lois but tunnels up from underground to destroy the ray cannon. Since Superman cannot kill, Siegel obligingly gets the criminals to destroy each other. Notice that he never does face the big gun's rays.

Superman daily strip, July 4, 1941

Action Comics #32, January-February 1941, gave readers a rare look at the early Superman using brains rather than brawn, in a way that might turn Batman green with envy. As Clark he slips away to his laboratory - a place almost never again mentioned - and creates: The Krypto-Raygun!

The story is retroactively titled "The Preston Gambling Racket." Breaking up a gambling ring isn't worthy of a Superman plot: any costumed character of the day could handle the assignment. Jerry Siegel made the humdrum more interesting by having Clark create a super-special way of gathering evidence, though the fins on the end might have raised a few eyebrows if he flashed it at any gamblers in the vacinity. Fortunately, he aimed it through a window to get pictures of the crooks.

Why not use any ordinary camera in that case? Because the Krypto Raygun is product placement, decades before that's normally thought of taking place. A comic book dated January-February 1941 would appear on newsstands in early December 1940, prime time for drooling over possible Christmas presents.

The Daisy Manufacturing Co. was imprinted in every kid's imagination as the maker of bb guns: its most famous product, the Daisy Red Ryder air rifle, having come out earlier in 1940. Daisy full page ads could be found on the back cover of nearly every DC title. Who came up with the promotional tie-in isn't known, but Daisy threw its full advertising weight behind the idea. Ads for the Daisy Superman Krypto-Raygun Projector Pistol Outfit could be found on comics from 1940 until 1942, when Daisy converted to making war material. Actually, Daisy jumped the gun, so to speak, placing its first ad on the back cover of Superman #7, November 1940, before the pistol appeared inside a comic.

The raygun was merely a tricked-out flashlight. You loaded a filmstrip in front of the bulb and the "ray" projected a picture onto the nearest flat object. Clicking the trigger advanced the filmstrip. Although ads called this a "Full-Length Feature Film" you got a 28-panel comic book. As Daisy must have known, this wasn't a good deal in days when an ordinary ten cent comic book ran 64 pages and more than 500 panels. I imagine most kids skipped the strips and ran around waving guns in adventures of their own making.

Why "Krypto" Raygun, you ask? Because the gun was made of kryptonite metal. This apparently is the first use of "kryptonite" in any Superman media, two years before it was introduced in The Adventures of Superman radio show. Nobody thought to make it green, glowing, or poisonous to Superman in 1941. The mythos took a full decade to solidify in modern form. That kryptonite has entered the language (as someone's ultimate weakness) is an impressive tribute to how deeply Superman is embedded in our culture.

"Up in the sky - look!"


"It's a bird!"

 

"It's a plane!"

 

"It's SUPERMAN!"

"Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, the infant from Krypton is now the Man of Steel - SUPERMAN!

You know that stentorian introduction. Every American, probably every English-speaker on Earth finds it familiar. It isn't, though. That last paragraph gives it away. This is the introduction for the Fleischer cartoon Superman of 1941-1942.

The Fleischer brothers, Max the animator and Dave the producer/director, had been in the cartoon business longer than Walt Disney. They were early entrants into the sound era with Betty Boop, a 1929 phenomenon, and Popeye. They were to human figures what Disney was to anthropomorphized animals. One small problem. By 1940 the bothers hated one another, a failed full-length movie put them deeply into a financial hole, and their studio was on the verge of breaking up. Only one thing could save them! Superman! Or, to be precise, the Paramount studio waving giant amounts of money at them to produce a series of Superman cartoons!

Betty Boop and Popeye were caricatures of humans. Making cartoons with realistic and attractive human figures was a trickier proposition, normally solved with rotoscoping - filming a human actor and then tracing the movements frame by frame, the kind of endless labor by huge staffs that Disney could use for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. True, Max Fleischer had invented the process, but it was also one of the reasons why his full-length films went over budget. Rotoscoping Clark Kent and Lois Lane was simple enough. A believable Superman required drawing him doing feats no mere human could duplicate. Attempts to do so bombed. The muscleman who merely leaped over tall buildings had to be replaced by a true flying figure. What was that supposed to look like? Paramount said, in effect, would twice your standard budget help answer these questions? Curses, foiled again.

With a budget of $50,000, the ten-minute Technicolor epic titled merely Superman, but later given retroactive descriptors like "The Mad Scientist" and "The Death Ray," debuted on September 26, 1941 to stupendous acclaim and soon an Academy Award nomination. The radio team of Bud Collier and Joan Alexander provided the voices. Dave and Max managed to get eight more cartoons out the door before the inevitable break-up; Paramount used their remaining staff to produce an additional eight. By that time America had entered WWII and the plots started to revolve around Axis enemies rather than the robots and dinosaurs more suited for Superman's foes. Without the gloss of science fictional pixie dust, the cartoons waned in popularity. It would take another quarter-century before Superman appeared again in cartoon form.

A full quarter of the cartoon is taken up with the backstory of Superman, a member of a race of people who are all super. It occurred to no one in those early days that they could be super enough to fly themselves off-planet. The superbaby whose rocket ship reaches Earth is put into an orphanage until he grows up to be mild-mannered Clark Kent. Orphanage? That Clark had the Kents as adoptive parents was canon since Superman #1. Anyway, the editor of The Daily Planet calls in Clark and Lois to show them a threatening note from an anonymous somebody who warns that his electrothanasia-ray will strike at midnight! One of the writers - the story is credited to Seymour Kneitel and I. Sparber - must have been assigned dictionary duty because electrothanasia is a real word, meaning "to kill by electricity" or "electrocute." Lois gets into her personal plane and flies to the top of a mountain with a huge suspicious structure on it. How she lands in a space just big enough for her plane is a mystery, though not quite as perplexing as her next step. She knocks politely on the twenty-foot-high door. The mad scientist immediately grabs her, ties her up, and makes her a witness to his evil.

 

"So you want a story! I'll give you the greatest story of destruction the world has ever known!"

 

With the traditional plethora of lights and dials and bubbling tubes, he strikes as promised. Less of a death ray than a destructo-ray, the middle of the Tower Bridge disintegrates as the ray plays along it, sending cars and pedestrians to their death. In a convenient stock room, Clark changes to Superman, shown to the viewer in silhouette. (Did you know that the classic rock song "Silhouettes" was originally done by The Rays?) He flies up, up, and away out a window in the Daily Planet skyscraper, which looks suspiciously like the a cross between the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. It's not clear where he's flying to because he needs to turn back when he sees the ray hit the skyscraper. Superman catches the falling building and pushes it back upright. It obeys the new laws of physics and stays upright even though its base has disintegrated.

Even more wonderfully, Superman steps in front of the ray, puts up his hands, and blocks it. After a bit it dawns on him that he needs to get to the source. So he - I swear I'm not making this up, check the image - punches the ray back and back until he reaches the mountain lair.

Superman punching death ray, from Superman cartoon, 1941.

There he... You know already what he does. He bends the steel tube of the ray cannon into a knot, creating a bubble of energy that moves backwards through the works until the whole apparatus blows up. Is this the start of that cliche? He grabs Lois and the mad scientist and flies off, throwing the villain into jail and depositing Lois at the Daily Planet to write her front page story. The final shot is of Clark sitting in front of a rosy view of the peaceful city in glorious and expensive Technicolor, having saved the day yet again.

Death rays would become more common in the future. When every villain sported one they turned into cliches too numerous to bother with. One pair of Silver Age stories are worth a quick mention even so. "The Death of Superman" is an imaginary tale from Superman #186, November 1961. In it Luthor literally kills Superman with a Kryptonite death ray.

Supergirl, whose existence had been a secret in the comics, reveals herself and captures Luthor, who is sent to the Phantom Zone as punishment.

This must have been a trial run for just three months later Superman gloriously introduces Supergirl to the world. And wouldn't you know it, her very next adventure, Action Comics #286, March 1962, is titled "The Death of Luthor."

Luthor, after first thinking she's a robot hoax, is incensed there is yet another superpowered Kyrptonian to plague him and tries to take Supergirl out with a "nuclear kryptonite ray-gun." Although kryptonite isn't dangerous to humans the ray gun apparently is, because he literally dies when it hits him. How he does return? Supergirl wants him to pay for his crimes - as if death weren't sufficient - and scours the universe for materials with which to build a cocoon to being him back to life. She of course succeeds and one gazillion more Luthor appearances were to follow.

EK

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