One of the most common complaints about the recent film incarnations of Superman, in both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice respectively, is just too dark and gritty. The collective memory of the Man of Steel is that of a lovable Boy Scout who follows a strict code of honor and black and white worldview of truth and justice.
I think people seem to forget the fact that Superman wasn’t always that squeaky clean. In fact, the Superman of the 1930s was a massive jerk. Don’t believe me? Well here are five examples of when your Grandpa’s Superman was a total jerk.
Let’s start with the story that started it all: Action Comics #1, first published in June 1938. Although the Man of Steel stopped a woman from being wrongly executed and gave a wife beater a taste of his own medicine, among other things, but Supes took some rather sadistic and forceful approaches.
Just look how smug he’s being after he rips down that door! Superman doesn’t give a sweet damn about the rules. He just strong arms his way into a place and forces his demands on the governor. If it was all about Superman saving a life, he could have just broke her out of prison and then turned over the evidence he had after the fact. Instead, Superman breaks into a man’s home and threatens him for 12 minutes. This sets the tone for a lot of early Superman stories where the Man of Steel barges in places, then threatens to hurt people if they don’t do what he tells them to do. Superman sounded less like truth and justice and more like the kind of guy who breaks thumbs for a living.
Exhibit A: Action Comics #4
Superman Ruins a Football Career With Drugs and Identity Theft
When Superman learns that the coach at Dale University is trying to fix it so that his team will win against Cordell University, the Man of Steel decides to get involved. He decides to pose as Tommy Burke, the best backup for Cordell. To do so, Superman forcibly injects him with a drug-filled needle and steals his identity. Superman then breaks into the wrong locker for a uniform, gets into a fight with another player and gets Burke thrown off the team as a result.
Always one to give authority figures the finger, Superman decides to barge onto the field anyway. It’s only when Superman manages to fight his way across the field and score a touchdown that the coach decides to throw all the rules out the window and let this guy basically win the game. When Burke is about the blow the whistle on Superman, he decides against it because his ex-girlfriend (who dumped him for a tennis player) decides she wants to take him back. When Burke finally gets out on the field he is knocked unconscious the first time out and he decides to quit football because it’s too dangerous.
What’s interesting is that Superman doesn’t even turn the crooked sports coach over to the police. He doesn’t do anything about the heavies put on the field either, even though they were trying to stab him with a knife. Also, nobody seems to be at all curious why Tommy Burke suddenly becomes awful at football at the end of the game. Superman basically stole a guy’s identity so he could beat up some thugs and leave. Does Cordell University win the big game? It doesn’t really look like Superman even cared one way or the other.
Exhibit B: Action Comics #8
Superman Threatens to Drop Children to Their Deaths
In Action Comics #8, Superman decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency. As Clark Kent he learns that a crook named Gimpy is influencing kids to commit crimes for him and then calls the police to rat them out whenever they get too much trouble to deal with. Becoming Superman, the Man of Steel tells Gimpy to beat it out of town – or else. 30’s Superman was not above threatening physical harm to people if they didn’t do what he said.
Superman then tracks down all the kids and he tries to steer them away from a life of crime. During his lecture, one of the kids tries to bash Supes over the head with a wrench which – SPOILER ALERT – is not something Superman responds very well to at all:
These days Superman is more likely to beat some kids at a game of basketball to teach them a lesson about fair play than dash their bodies onto the street from a high rise.
Now if you think threatening to throw children to their deaths wasn’t extreme enough, don’t worry, Superman is way ahead of you. See, the Man of Steel eventually comes to the conclusion that these kids are bad because they live in a slum. So what does Superman decide to do? Tear the place down with his bare hands. The story does say that the slums were going to be torn down anyway and new homes built in their place, but that doesn’t change the fact that Superman didn’t think it was happening fast enough and did it in advance, effectively making everyone homeless in the blink of an eye.
I don’t profess to know a lot about 30’s era gentrification or anything, but I’m quite sure people in a neighborhood were at least granted such courtesies as “advanced warning” and “time to pack your things and move”. The authorities don’t seem overly happy with the Last Son of Krypton either since Superman is chased off by the authorities (with bombers!) and branded a wanted criminal.
Exhibit D: Action Comics #10
Superman Stops Torture By Getting People Tortured
Even criminals have rights and when Clark Kent stumbles upon a story about prisoner abuse he causes some problems for the Coreytown Jail whose warden’s hobbies include whipping you raw and extreme sweat boxing. When Clark’s story about the jail gets Superintendent Wyman in trouble with the governor he demands to know where Kent’s source is hiding. Since this was escaped criminal Walter Crane, Clark gives him up when he’s threatened with arrest for being an accessory to crime.
To be fair, as Clark Kent, Superman needs to act like a timid wimp in order to protect his secret identity, so cowardly ratting out his informant is all part of the act. Naturally, as Superman, Clark is going to square accounts. However while the Superman we all know and love would find basically legal ways to solve the problem, the 1930’s Superman (as you are probably discovering) was certifiably insane. This Superman’s solution to this problem was to buy a car then intentionally ram into the warden’s vehicle, then beat him up. Was this to teach him a lesson?
No, that’s not insane enough. He does it so he can get arrested and thrown in jail. Superman is quickly sentenced to six months. Once inside the prison, the increasingly cocky Superman keeps on getting into trouble so he can be tortured by the guards. Since he’s the Man of Steel, he simply shrugs this off, no problems for the Man of Tomorrow! Later, Superman breaks out of jail to get his costume and a camera to catch the warden in the act. On his way back to the prison, Superman notices that Walter Crane manages to escape from jail but gets stuck in quicksand. While Superman saves his life, he then turns him back over to the prison he knows is torturing prisoners. Superman then stands by as Walter gets tortured so he can snap pictures like some deranged snuff photographer. It’s only then that Supes steps in and forces Wyman to endure the same torture as the prisoners. Superman then threatens to kill Wyman to force a confession out of him.
Superman could have saved Crane a whole lot of pain and suffering if he let him in on this scheme and then had Crane take the damning photos while Superman was shrugging off his own torture.
Exhibit E: Action Comics #12
Superman Stops Reckless Driving by Destroying Personal Property
Car ownership in a world of superheroes is never a good idea. Owning a car increases your chances of it getting wrecked in a superhero battle by about 100%. Insurance rates in Metropolis must be so insane you probably have to decide on having the convenience of a car or providing the basic necessities of life for your family. Although usually your car was getting totaled by a superhero was just happenstance. Unless you’re a crook the only reason why a superhero was going to wreck your ride was because they unintentionally punched Doomsday into it. Unless that is, we’re talking about 30’s Superman. He hates cars. Remember the iconic cover to Action Comics #1?
- Flash forward to Action Comics #12 where Clark Kent’s friend Charlie Martin is hit by a reckless driver. Superman responds by forcing his way into a radio station and declaring war on cars. Now while Superman has the best intentions in mind he once again goes overboard because apparently he doesn’t have a sense of proportion. He starts by destroying cars that have been impounded for traffic violations with little to no discrimination.
Likewise, he also destroys a whole bunch of used cars he considers unsafe….
And because no 30’s Superman story is complete without the Man of Steel threatening to murder or maim people, please enjoy these moments where Superman threatens a drunk, a hit and run driver, and the mayor.
I think what really makes this story stand out is the fact that Superman doesn’t practice what he preaches as at the end of the story he gets ticketed for illegal parking. Thankfully for the officer writing the ticket at the end of the day, Superman’s murderous rage is quelled because the he’s happy that the law is getting enforced.
- With that, I conclude our look back at your Grandpa’s Superman. The next time someone complains about the new Superman being too dark and gritty, kindly point them to this article as proof that Superman wasn’t always a lovable Boy Scout. Back in his heyday he was a homicidal maniac with a warped sense of justice. Oh, and before you go on to say how this was just a product of the 1930s… trust me Superman wasn’t any less of a jerk over the years.
Between saving the world he was always finding new ways to…..
Potentially murder Lois Lane….
… To finding inventive ways to crush Jimmy Olsen’s hopes and dreams. Superman has always kind of been a jerk.
In all fairness, Jimmy Olsen kind of deserved it, but that’s a story for another time…..