Superman continued to be the most successful character in comics through this period. His solo book quickly went from being a quarterly to a bi-monthly, and he would also get the lead slot in World’s Finest Comics, a follow-up to the New York World’s Fair specials, that would feature both Superman and Batman.
Every story is credited to Siegel and Shuster, but this is blatantly untrue. Shuster stayed with the strip longer than he did on any of his other creations, but the sheer volume of Superman stories necessitated bringing on other artists. Some were definitely of lesser ability, but by far these men did a much better job of keeping the look and feel of the series. Wayne Boring would have the greatest influence, under his pen Superman’s crest would take on its “normal” shape, but Jack Burnley executed some beautiful stories as well.
Aside from occasional mentions of Krypton in the opening blurbs, nothing more is shown or mentioned about Superman’s background. We learn in one story that he has no living relatives, but we have yet to learn anything about the Kents. We do get to see Clark’s apartment in Metropolis a few times, though it has little distinguishing character. The most notable thing we learn about Clark is that he has a massive clock collection. This proves to be of significance in Action 73,” The Hobby Robbers,” but is never mentioned again. The curious justification for his collection is that he is fascinated by clocks because time seems to stand still when he moves at super-speed.
Superman’s vision powers get a lot of play in this era, and expand from merely x-ray and telescopic vision to include microscopic as well. In Action 69 we learn that his x-ray vision cannot see through lead. He uses super-breath for the first time, and super-hypnosis gets almost over-used as a way to prevent Lois from discovering his identity. He is credited with having a photographic memory. Yet at the same time his invulnerability seems to decrease a bit, as he is frequently knocked out by electric guns and paralysis rays. The reason for this is obvious, it builds suspense in the stories, and enables Superman to show his fortitude in overcoming the effects of the weapons and breaking free.
By the end of this period Superman is clearly flying, but there is no one issue that can be referenced as the moment that changed. While the narrative will still talk about him leaping and jumping, we see him execute impressive aerial turns, and battle planes. In 1941 the text simply stops describing his movements this way, though he will still hang on to the exteriors of buildings rather than hover. In Superman 15 one of the villains exclaims “you can fly!” and from then on he clearly can.
Superman continues to deal with the bad guys harshly. He throws one man into the path of a bullet intended for Lois, and tricks two saboteurs into drinking “deadly narcotics” that they plan to poison the reservoir with. In numerous stories the villains are abandoned to die in plane crashes or burning buildings.
The resiliance of Superman’s costume gets addressed in Superman 5, as we learn it is made from a special cloth he invented himself. In Superman 17 he constructs his “Citadel” in a remote mountain chain. It has a massive and impressive doorway, an art deco gem with a large “S” crest prominently displayed, so there is no doubt about whose place this is. But the Citadel rarely appears, and all we see of the interior is a small trophy room and an extensive work out space.
As the era begins, Clark is working for George Taylor at the Daily Star, but by 1941 he is at the Daily Planet under Perry White. These changes were done to correspond to the popular Superman radio show, but are poorly executed in the comics. In Action 22 the Daily Star sends Lois and Clark to the European country of Galonia after it is invaded by Toran, but in issue 23 they file their story on the invasion with the Daily Planet. George Taylor’s appearance alters, as he becomes older, heavier and starts smoking a cigar. In Superman 7, he abruptly changes names to Perry White, though visually this is clearly the same man.
Superman 5 introduces the publisher of the Planet, Burt Mason, and more staffers debut in the story “Freedom of the Press” in World’s Finest 13, as the Planet celebrates its 100th birthday (meaning it was founded in the spring of 1844.) We meet Old Sanford, the news editor and Happy, the photographer. We also learn that Perry White began as a newsboy for the Planet, and worked his way up.
Lois Lane remains the most important staffer, aside from Clark, and is even gets to take Perry’s place as editor in Superman 18. She is still stuck writing her advice to the lovelorn column (though she foists that job on Clark during his stint in charge), while taking rash actions to pursue more serious stories. Her curiosity lands her in jail more than once, and of course puts her in danger almost constantly.
In Superman 11 Lois first notices that Clark is never around when Superman is, and she wonders “is it possible that…?” This goes on for about a year, until a story in Superman 17 in which Lois tries to prove Clark is really Superman. She fails, of course, but will go on trying for decades.
She actually almost succeeds, though doesn’t realize it, in Action 61’s “The Man They Wouldn’t Believe,” as Lois pretends to fall for Craig Shaw in hopes of getting evidence that he is a criminal, even accepting an offer of marriage. Clark fears losing her, and reveals that he is Superman, though Lois does not believe him. All his attempts to prove it backfire – he gets shot, but the gun has blanks, he lifts a weight that turns out to be a prop. When Lois’ scheme gets revealed, he breathes a sigh of relief. Strange relationship these two have.
Lois has an aunt, Berenice, who is a Hollywood screenwriter and marries prominent actor Lionel Brainerd in Superman 24, and she also has an unnamed sister, married to an unnamed husband. They have a daughter, who has a name, Susie. Susie debuts in Action 59, but gets developed in Action 68 as a teller of fibs, which Superman makes come true.
Jimmy Olsen is slowly and sporadically worked into the comic. Again, this was a character from the radio series, retroactively combined with the unnamed office boy that appears in occasional issues. In Superman 5 the boy has brown hair, but no name. In issue 13 he is finally called Jimmy, and gets the surname Olsen in Superman 15. He still does not look quite like he would, though a red haired, bow-tied elevator operator looking much like how he would eventually appear had a cameo in Action 38. Jimmy gets the red hair and bowtie in Action 49, and a few months later, in World’s Finest 6, he and Clark become friends.
Jimmy’s appearances are largely confined to small, supporting roles, until Action 71’s “Valentine Villainy.” This story is more comedic than anything else, as Jimmy’s valentine’s day present for a girl he has a crush on gets mixed up with Clark’s joke present for Lois, and a stolen diamond necklace.
The Daily Planet’s iconic globe debuts in this era, though for some reason it failed to capture the interest of the various artists, and is not ever shown clearly on in detail. When we first see it, in Superman 11, it is from a distance, and it resembles Saturn, with its rings. This is how it would also appear on the masthead of the paper itself. But for the rest of this era, on the rare occasions we see the globe, it appears to be a simple sphere perched atop the building. In Superman 25 we do see the Daily Planet lettering, though it does not seem to circle the globe, but appears attached to the roof of the building independently.
The rival newspaper The Morning Herald has a number of appearances. It gets taken over by criminals at one point, and in a later issue its star reporter, Scoop Carter, is revealed to be the leader of a criminal gang. Nonetheless, the paper itself is a legitimate contender with the Planet, as two work together, and with another journal, The Evening Standard, in Action 37 to combat a crime wave.
Metropolis Police Sergeant Casey is introduced in Superman 6, and would make frequent appearances until Superman 23. He is a no-nonsense cop, who does not trust Superman for quite a while, not until Superman has saved his life twice. Casey gives Lois access to crime scenes in exchange for being mentioned in her articles, but he also gets exasperated with both Lois and Clark for constantly butting into investigations, and arrests both of them at different times. In Superman 9, Casey is pursuing a car with hoods who have kidnapped Clark, when Lois drives right into the middle of the shoot out. Clark is thrown from the car, Lois slams her vehicle into Casey’s car to stop him from running over Clark, and all three blame each other for letting the criminals escape.
The Ultra-Humanite returns for two more appearances at the start of this period. He has actress Dolores Winters kidnapped, and has his brain exchanged with hers before starting another crime spree. He/she also has nuclear scientist Terry Curtis captured, and forces him to develop a disintegration ray. Superman frees Curtis and destroys the Ultra-Humanite’s base in an extinct volcano, believing him dead. Though this was the last appearance of the Ultra-Humanite until the 1980s, his survival was revealed in the pages of All-Star Squadron, as well as the fate of Terry Curtis, who would be transformed into the villain Cyclotron.
Luthor debuts in Action Comics 23, with no first name but a healthy crop of red hair. He would go through the entire period without getting a first name, but his hair would not last more than a year. He is first seen as the manipulator behind Toran’s invasion of Galonia, hoping to set the world at war so that he can march in and take over after everyone has been weakened. He operates out of a base on a platform high in the stratosphere, suspended from a dirigible.
He makes two more appearances the following month, both in the pages of Superman 4, threatening Metropolis with an earthquake machine, and then attempting to raise the sunken city of Pacifiq, stealing the oil from Oklahoma to power the machines to raise it, and flooding the California coast as the city rises.
In his fourth appearance, in Superman 10, Luthor is suddenly bald, with no explanation, having developed an invisibility ray that he uses to enable his gang to rob banks. Perhaps he tried out a prototype of the serum on his hair and it went invisible and never came back.
In Superman 12 he creates giant animals on Baracoda Island, intending to use them as weapons. Luthor attempts to disguise himself in his next two stories, pretending to be an alien conqueror, Zytal, in Action 42, and going by The Light in Superman 13, as he kidnaps a senator.
This makes he suspect that he is really meant to be the villain in Superman 14. A man wearing green robes and a hood, calling himself Lightning Master, appears in that story, blackmailing Metropolis with a destructive lightning weapon. Lois unmasks him dramatically in one panel, and it is a bald man who looks like Luthor, but the text tells us she does not recognize him, and he dies at the end of the story. It’s hard to believe that the big unmasking scene would have been there if we really weren’t to recognize the man under the mask.
As well, in his next appearance, the first part of the Powerstone story in Action 47, Luthor is wearing the same green robes that Lightning Master wore, though without the hood. This is the best Luthor story of the era. He creates a machine that uses electricity to give himself super-strength, and the ability to electrify things and electrocute people. He tricks the wealthiest men in Metropolis, taking them hostage at a dinner party, and forces Superman to penetrate a trap-layered ancient underground city to retrieve the Powerstone for him. Superman gets the stone, but turns a fake over to Luthor. His electric powers having faded by this point, Superman captures Luthor. But the story itself continues in Superman 17. Luthor is sentences to the electric chair, but that simply recharges him, and he escapes and manages to trick Superman out of the Powerstone. This enables Luthor to grow to giant size, and also allows him to strip Superman of his powers. Superman wins only by tricking Luthor in return, goading him into running across a ceiling, allowing Superman to grab the necklace with the Powerstone as it dangles down.
The Powerstone would also return in the pages of All-Star Squadron.
Luthor makes only one more appearance in this era, in Superman 18’s “The Heat Horror,” using a meteor as a base from which to torment Metropolis with a heat ray.
The Archer faces off with Superman in issue 13 of his comic. This guy just had an ordinary bow and arrow, and was no match for Superman. The only reason he merits a mention here is that he was used as a Batman villain in the 60s tv show, played by Art Carney.
The Puzzler has two encounters with Superman, his debut in Action 49, and a return in Superman 20. A professorial looking man, with glasses and a van dyke beard, the Puzzler considers himself a master of games, and embarks on a criminal career using gaming strategy, leaving behind half a bent nail puzzle as his trademark. His second story is the better of the two, as he seeks vengeance against card players that have bested him, killing them in appropriate ways (like budgeoning the poker player with a fireplace poker.)
World’s Finest 6 is the only appearance of Metalo, the golden age predecessor to the later major villain. This Metalo is simply a man in a powerful metal suit, though for much of the tale people believe him to be an alien robot.
Action Comics 51 is the debut of the Prankster, a masterful con artist who resembles a vaudeville comedian, with his oversized collar and ugly green plaid jacket. The Prankster pretends to rob banks, but in fact leaves money for them each time. This is all a plan to have one banker open his vault, with millions in jewels and stocks inside.
His return in Action 57 sees him hoodwink other criminals, getting them to front him thousands of dollars that he uses to get himself pardoned, and by starting an “appreciation” business, gets him well-loved. It’s all another scheme to allow him access to the wealthy, but after paying back his criminal investors, he robs them as well.
After a failed attempt to copyright the English language in Superman 22, and an elaborate blackmail scheme using rewards for lost pins in Action 69, the Prankster returns to his usual style of con job in Superman 29’s The Wizard of Wishes, making people’s dreams come true as a set-up for robbing them.
The Toyman makes his first two appearances in this era, debuting in Action 64, an aging toy maker with a mop of long curly blond hair, who has decided to use the toys he builds for crime. In this first tale the toys prove to be bombs. He uses a toy Superman to escape from prison in Superman 27, and opens a high-end arcade, using it to entertain the crowds while he robs them. His hair changes to brown in this story, which it will remain.
The Puzzler, the Prankster and the Toyman are not given any other names in these stories, and even the last villain introduced in this era would not get his “full” name revealed yet. Called only Wolfingham in his debut, and Wilbur Wolfingham in his return appearance, the self-proclaimed King of the Confidence Men had stories that were much more comedic than the other villains. In his first tale he takes advantage of aging actors, getting their money for a phony film company, and in the second he plays an elaborate scam on a town devastated by a tornado, buying up their land cheaply, then fleecing them further by getting them to invest in a phony oil well. Superman gets the townsfolk their land and money back, and makes the oil well really work. The most curious thing is that despite attempting to murder Lois during the course of the story, Wolfingham is allowed to walk away with no repercussions. Even Lois feels badly for him at the end.
The basis for what would become the “Imaginary Stories” is paid in this era, though by and large, not well. Superman 19 has a tale in which Superman reveals his identity to Lois following a car crash, but this turns out to just be a dream. Action 59 has Clark fall asleep while telling Susie the story of Cinderella, and dreaming himself into the story. In issue 60, Lois gets hit by a car, and while undergoing surgery dreams that she gets a blood transfusion from Superman and gains powers, becoming Superwoman. The last of these, in Superman 24’s “The Perils of Poor Lois,” is likely the best, if only because it doesn’t use the dream cop-out. After watching a revival of an old melodrama, and getting their heads stuck in posters, Lois and Clark imagine being in a period melodrama.
There are a few stories that play with the medium of comic books. The Funny Paper Crimes, in Superman 19, pits him against newspaper comic strips that have come to life. This story would be re-told in a Superman-less post-Crisis reality in the pages of Al-Star Squadron in the 1980s.
Action Comics 55 has a wonderful story that deals with the comic strip L’il Abner (though he is called Tiny Rufe.) Daily Planet cartoonist Al Hatt (Al Capp) heads out into the remote backwoods for inspiration, and comes across a hillbilly town, Tiny Rufe and his girlfriend Maisy Dae, and creates a comic strip based on their lives. When Rufe and Maisy decide to get married, Hatt gets terrified that the comic will lose readership. In reality, L’il Abner and Daisy Mae did not get married in the strip until 1952, but one can easily see the correlation here with the Superman-Lois Lane romance.
Superman 25 features one of the most “meta” of the stories. A popular comic strip features the super-powered character Geezer. Lois and Clark are assigned to do a story on the comic’s creator, and find a nerdy, overworked artist and writer, with a factory churning out Geezer stories. Clark uses his powers to impersonate Geezer to get the artist to care again about his creation.
My favouite story from this period is by far the most “meta”, Superman 19’s “Superman, Matinee Idol.” The story was published in conjunction with the release of the first Superman movie serial, a beautifully animated work that is still admired. Lois and Clark attend the premiere, and Clark resorts to all manner of tricks to prevent Lois from seeing the parts of the movie that reveal his identity. Even the art takes on a meta element, as the side of all the panels are black with little white rectangles running along the sides – resembling film stock. The best moment has a mystified Clark wondering who Siegel and Shuster are, deciding that they must be clairvoyant to know so much about his life.
Superman continues in the Late Golden Age
Superman: Action Comics 20 – 74 (Jan 40 – July 44)
Superman: 4 – 29 (Spring 40 – July-Aug 44)
New York World’s Fair 40
World’s Best Comics 1 (Spring 41)
World’s Finest Comics 2 – 14 (Summer 41 – Summer 44)