(First published on Scan Journal, Vol 5 Number 2 September 2008).
by Michael Goodrum
One way of attempting to guarantee consensus is for the hero to fight someone acknowledged as an enemy by the vast majority of the population. The stories in question do this by repeatedly creating links between the villains and the Nazis, either through positioning them as former Nazis or by having them express sympathy for some aspect of Nazi ideology. These narratives also begin to portray other characters in heroic roles, offering more practical models of heroism to the audience than the slightly problematic superhero. The first of the stories to be studied, “The Hate Monger’s Organisation”, gives the illusion that Jim Olsen, the Daily Planet‘s cub reporter, is the hero, as he goes undercover in the hate organisation, the ‘Guardians of America,’ to gather information. However, he is discovered and becomes their victim, meaning that Olsen is just a narrative catalyst to bring Superman into the story and ensure that the villains, including Franz Hiller, a former Nazi spy, are brought to justice. Whilst Olsen’s actions are undoubtedly heroic, they are only undertaken because of assurances that Superman will protect him; it is also the case that, ultimately, Olsen fails, and his cover is only maintained for the amount of time it is due to Superman’s repeated assistance. Furthermore, it remains difficult for the audience to emulate Olsen’s actions as they are dependent on entering the criminal underworld. As a result, this story firmly establishes Superman as the sole hero and his ideals as those worthy of emulation. This reading is reinforced through the character of Olsen, who effectively offers a point of connection for the audience. Along side this, Olsen demonstrates the assimilation of Superman’s morality into his own character through his actions in the story, something that establishes Olsen as a role model for the audience – an ordinary boy capable of living up to Superman’s high moral standards.
Some of these elements recur in “Al Vincent’s Corrupt Political Machine”, where the heroism of Jim Olsen, Lois Lane and other supporting characters is ultimately proved to be ineffective. Tony Sloane, a reporter for the Daily Planet, manages to obtain letters that incriminate Martin Higgins, a corrupt mayoral candidate. Despite being attacked and almost killed by Higgins’ thugs, Sloane gets the letters to the Daily Planet, only for Mary, a juvenile delinquent, to steal them before they can be printed. Mary is revealed to be working for Al Vincent, a corrupt pawnbroker who organises a juvenile gang for Higgins. As the narrative unfolds, both Jim and Lois are outwitted by Mary, with Lois also being defeated by Mary in a fight. Jim is then beaten by Al’s thugs as he tries to help Lois, and despite a suddenly reformed Mary’s attempts to help Lois and Jim escape from the thugs’ hideout, the three of them prove insufficient to stop Al Vincent and his gang. Again, it is only Superman who is capable of successful heroism as he saves Mary, Jim and Lois before bringing Vincent and Higgins to justice. As a result, these stories are not overly positive about the ability of ‘normal’ heroism to achieve its aims, though in a programme dedicated to a superhero this is hardly surprising. Whilst these supporting characters are useful for relaying the overarching messages on tolerance and the evils of juvenile delinquency, they are still positioned in a hierarchy of heroism with Superman firmly at its head and other contenders somewhere far beneath him.Watch The Channel (2016) Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download
This hierarchy begins to be challenged by “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”. Chuck Riggs is upset at being replaced by Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American, as pitcher on the Unity House baseball team. When Tommy accidentally hits Chuck with a pitch in training, Matt Riggs, Chuck’s uncle, who turns out to be the leader of the Clan of the Fiery Cross, tells Chuck that Tommy was trying to kill him, which Chuck eventually accepts despite his misgivings. Matt Riggs then takes Chuck to ‘give evidence’ at a meeting of the Clan of the Fiery Cross in order to whip the members into a frenzy of action. This results in Tommy Lee being kidnapped and breaking his arm whilst escaping; whilst in itself this is heroic, Superman has to save Tommy from drowning after he attempts to swim to safety. However, Superman’s rescue is only made possible because Chuck has by now seen the error of his ways and anonymously told Clark Kent of the plans that the Clan have for Tommy. Following this, the Daily Planet starts a campaign against the Clan, something they continue despite threats of violent reprisals from the Clan. However, the Planet‘s campaign, and offer of a cash reward for information on the Clan, results in the kidnapping of Perry White, editor of the Planet, and Jim Olsen. Despite the imminent threat of violence, White converts this in to a further opportunity to demonstrate his heroism by denouncing the Clan whilst being able to see the physical punishment they are preparing for him. It is here that Chuck Riggs returns to prominence as, regardless of threats of vengeance from his uncle, Chuck agrees to help Clark Kent and Superman (whilst the listener knows they are the same person, the character does not) bring down the Clan and save White and Olsen, which they inevitably do. There are points in this narrative that are suggestive of a kind of collective heroism, a willingness to take risks for the benefit of others, that has previously been absent from the Adventures of Superman. As the show continues to pursue this democratisation of heroism, Superman’s position as unchallenged hero is further problematised.
Moving on to “Big George Latimer, Crooked Political Boss”, this story is essentially about Latimer’s attempts to manipulate Governor Wheeler of Metropolis into using discriminatory practices in hiring war veterans for state jobs. Whilst the veterans have been promised these jobs, Latimer needs them for the henchmen in his political machine. The story expands on the democratisation of heroism in the previous story by building up the heroism of the veterans themselves, in particular Joe Martin and Sam Robins. Evidence of this can be found in that it begins with a stirring speech from Joe Martin, spokesman for a large group of veterans that cannot get jobs because of Governor Wheeler’s policies. As they march on the gubernatorial mansion to press their claims, shots are fired and Joe is seriously wounded. Latimer accuses Sam Robins, Joe’s best friend, of shooting Joe to make the governor look bad, and Sam is arrested. Sam has been framed by Latimer as he is Jewish, meaning that he can be labelled as a foreigner “trying to undermine America” (1946). Latimer exploits a connection to the tabloid Metropolis Clarion to ensure that Sam Robins is tried and convicted by the media before he can reach trial, even getting ‘Lippy’ Williams, their leading journalist, to plant the gun Latimer used to shoot Joe in Sam’s house. Incensed by the articles being printed about Sam, the remaining veterans march on the police station to demand that Sam be freed, leading Latimer to move Sam to another jail upstate ‘for his own protection.’ Instead, it is a set up by Latimer to get Sam lynched, something that almost succeeds until one of the lynch mob undergoes a sudden heroic reversal and prevents the mob from killing Sam. The mob then pursue both Sam and his rescuer, intent on killing them. The mob is prevented from achieving this by the arrival of Superman, who then proceeds to round up the mob and hand it over to the police. Meanwhile, Wheeler has decided to stand up to Latimer, resulting in Latimer attacking Wheeler and trying to frame another group of veterans for the assault. However, Wheeler is not as badly injured as Latimer suspects and he hatches a plan with Clark Kent to bring Latimer to justice, a plan that is successful.
The difficulty in summarising these stories as succinctly as the earlier two is due to the fact that Superman is no longer the force holding them together. In fact, Superman barely appears in either of these stories, with his heroic mantle being picked up by supporting characters such as Chuck Riggs and Sam Robins, amongst others. The idea of a more collective heroism is developed, with groups of people all contributing towards the final heroic result; in short, heroism is being democratised. As other heroes emerge, the story becomes multi polar, with various complementary centres of heroism that, admittedly, still feed in to the overarching heroism of Superman. However, as more heroes emerge, there have to be more subplots to contain them, meaning that not only the mantle of heroism but also of narrative centre are shifted away from Superman to supporting characters.
Whilst all four of these stories have common themes, the distribution of the heroism in the latter two makes them far more interesting, as well as more successful in putting across their messages. There is a strong reason as to why this should be the case. “The Hate Monger’s Organisation” follows a similar pattern to the formula set out in the Office of War Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry – in fact the opening paragraph of fact sheet number five could have appeared in the show itself:
It is part of the strategy of the Axis to confuse us … to divide us internally … to set one group against another … to foster the persecution of minorities by the majority (Office of War Information 1942).
Given the prominent role of Hiller, a former Nazi spy with a name remarkably similar to Hitler, and other characters described as looking and sounding ‘Germanic,’ it becomes apparent that this narrative is invested in wartime ideas. This is not surprising, given that it is extremely likely that the writers of the show would have come in to contact with either this fact sheet or something similar to it. As such, it is my belief that this story enjoys a significant degree of continuity with that which had gone before it, and that the warm reviews in the press led to the next story arc, “Al Vincent’s Corrupt Political Machine”. The continuity of villains eager to use racism to achieve their goals would ensure that the progressive messages being relayed by the serial stood a greater chance of being received, particularly when they are framed as baldly as in “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”, where Chuck’s mother exclaims, “that Clan’s no better than the Nazis!” (1946). The writers are therefore harnessing the Nazis to other social conflicts, damning the Ku Klux Klan and other villains by association.
Without the “national recognition for going after real villains, including hate-mongers,” Stetson Kennedy would not have hit on the idea of giving his information to the writers of the Adventures of Superman (Kennedy 1954: 92). The use of such juvenile fare was a masterstroke because, as Dubner and Levitt argue, “turning the Klan’s secrecy against itself, converting precious knowledge into ammunition for mockery,” was the most effective way of undermining the Klan, a point reinforced through the storyline itself (Levitt & Dubner 2006: 65). Possibly inspired by the example of Kennedy, the writers shattered the single centre of heroism, creating multiple heroic poles far removed from the virtually invulnerable Superman. In constantly asserting that the Klan is a threat to all Americans, “who don’t part their hair the way the Clan like,” “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” is making the case that everyone has a duty to fight against intolerance, to demonstrate the kind of heroism on display in the story (1946). Effectively, the writers are moving away from the hierarchy of heroism that one would expect in a Superman story to a multiplicity of heroisms. Whilst these are interconnected, they are not rhizomatic, as Deleuze and Guattari would label it, as the various forms of heroism maintain, “a unity to serve as a pivot in the object” (Deleuze & Guattari 2003: 8). For them to be rhizomatic there would have to be true plurality, with multiple non-hierarchical forms of heroism. Rhizomatic heroism would be superior, for Deleuze and Guattari, at least, because it would allow a multiplicity of heroisms to coexist as equals, devoid of any insistent hierarchy that ordered heroism according to binary principles. These narratives are unable to provide such a development, as Superman continues to serve as a constant point of unity, even in the latter stories where he is the only character capable of making the final, dramatic rescue.
In spite of the continued unifying presence of Superman, the creation of multiple centres of heroism serves to make these narratives seem more realistic, and to make emulation more plausible. For those members of the audience who felt unable to emulate Superman, unsure about how to put his morality into practice due to the fact his superpowers that guarantee his triumph are just a fantasy they are unable to emulate, these narratives offer up other models of heroism. In so doing, the Adventures of Superman, “became a programme with a message,” with that message being a commitment to the promulgation of New Deal policies; in short, a progressive, reform agenda (Van Horne in Widner 2006). Jack Gould, radio critic for the New York Times at the time of broadcast, makes a relevant point in connection to this when he argues that, “if Superman holds an iota of the influence attributed to him by his critics, then his adoption of a new way of life must be seen as an encouraging augury transcending radio itself” (Gould 1946: 8). Whilst this is intended as something of a rebuttal of the doctrine that radio had a negative effect on children, it retains a degree of worth for this argument. The adventure serial, including the Adventures of Superman, came under criticism as it was deemed to be “full of violence, suspenseful, and over stimulating,” something that many critics saw as detrimental to the development of children (Frank 1952: 14). Jack Gould is therefore turning that argument back on itself, arguing that radio can also promote positive messages. Gould’s argument also confirms that contemporaries of the show saw it as a method of conveying ideas to its audience.
Further support for this can be found in a quotation from an unnamed executive for the Mutual Broadcasting Network, home of the Adventures of Superman, who told the New Republic in 1947 that “this tolerance theme is good business. The psychologists tell us we’re planting a ‘thought egg’ into the kids’ minds. It won’t have much effect now, but it will when they become adolescent,” something that indicates strong support for the Adventures of Superman as a vehicle for social change, even if not an immediate one (Von Busack 1998). Stetson Kennedy reiterates this when reflecting on the impact of the Adventures of Superman:
From inside and outside the Klan I could see that a real victory had been won. Never again would the hooded hoodlums be able to face the American public with their old air of self-importance. Equally important, I knew that the millions of kids who had listened to Superman were not likely to grow up to be Klansmen (1954: 94).
Whilst it is understandable that Stetson Kennedy should argue this, given his role in helping to create the anti-Klan storyline, it is of far greater importance that the ‘unnamed executive’ also supported, “the tolerance angle”, as those connected to the programme called it (Von Busack 1998).
From this, it can be inferred that the producers of the show had similar intentions to Kennedy for all the narratives they produced that promoted ideas of tolerance, particularly as the executive was interviewed in 1947, a year after these programmes began to be produced. The failure of Klan attempts to force Kellogg’s cereals, the sponsor of the Adventures of Superman, off shop shelves in Atlanta, the headquarters of the rejuvenated Klan, indicates that they were a significantly weaker force than in Spring 1946, when, “advertisements in Atlanta papers announced a big formal celebration of the Klan’s revival… [to be] held on [Stone] Mountain, and nearly a thousand spectators turned out for the show” (Wade 1987: 288-9). However, any weakening of the Klan cannot be solely attributed to the Adventures of Superman, just as these stories do not indicate a sudden decline in intolerance in US society. It is also possible that this exposure of the Klan could have forced it to modernise, meaning that it only appeared to be weakened and was, in fact, simply changing in character. Despite any misgivings of this nature, these stories gesture towards a growing awareness of the propagandising potential of popular culture and an attempt to harness it to socially progressive ideas. These attempts are supported by the increasing democratisation of heroism that occurs, culminating in Superman barely appearing in the “Big George Latimer” story arc.
There is a further dimension to this democratisation of heroism that should be considered. Even before 1946, threats were often universalised in superhero narratives. However, the response was always solely from the superhero, meaning that the larger threat was simply being used to build up the hero, to make them appear more heroic purely because they saved a larger number of people. What makes these radio serials of such interest are their attempts to universalise the threat and offer a democratised heroic response to a problem in contemporary society. This approach is summed up by Charles G. Bolte, chairman of the American Veterans Committee, in that group’s official commendation of the Adventures of Superman during the “Big George Latimer” story arc on the 17th of September, 1946, informing the audience that “there’s another kind of war going on – a war in which you can help us this time.” Whilst excluded from active participation in the previous war, the juvenile audience is offered a frontline place in the war against intolerance. As if this were not enough, the announcer mentions “the millions of American boys and girls in our audience who put into their daily lives the principles we broadcast” when accepting Mr. Bolte’s commendation, reaffirming that the producers of the show were aware of its role in helping to shape values and were positively encouraging the audience to internalise their positive messages about tolerance.
In short, the Adventures of Superman began to deploy multiple centres of heroism in order to relay its socially progressive ideas more effectively. Whilst the success rate of any endeavour such as this is difficult to measure, the fact that the ‘unnamed executive’ continued to regard the tolerance angle as worth promoting indicates that audiences were certainly not decreasing. Whether those audiences were absorbing the values being promoted, however, is difficult to prove. What can most clearly be ascertained, however, is that the Adventures of Superman deliberately promoted socially progressive ideas and sought to position itself as a constitutive participant in discourses promoting tolerance. As superheroes are being mobilised more conservatively in the war on terror post 9/11, it is worth remembering that they are not always used to further conservative ends. As evidenced by these narratives under consideration here, Superman’s Truth, justice and the American way has not always been interpreted as a call to defend the realm and punish wrongdoers. Instead, the Adventures of Superman is more interested in social justice, reform and negotiating a new, inclusive, ‘American way’ than depicting punishment, a marked difference between the post Second World War and post 9/11 USA.
“The Hate Mongers’ Organization”, Adventures of Superman, Mutual Broadcast Network, Aprile-Maggio 1946.
“The Clan of the Fiery Cross”, Adventures of Superman, Mutual Broadcast Network, 18 Giugno 1946.
“Big George Latimer”, Adventures of Superman, Mutual Broadcast Network, 3 Settembre 1946.
“Big George Latimer, Crooked Political Boss”, Adventures of Superman, Mutual Broadcast Network, 10 Settembre 1946.
Author’s Note: All references to the Adventures of Superman radio serial are taken from a DVD containing the complete run from 1940-1951 in mp3 format, purchased through eBay in 2007. This material is presumed to be out of copyright and in the public domain. The seller’s website, www.classicotr.com, was unavailable at the time of publication.
Brooker, W. (2005) Batman Unmasked; Analyzing a Cultural Icon, London/New York: Continuum.
Deleuze, G. e Guattari, F. (2006) Millepiani; Capitalismo e Schizofrenia, Roma: Castelvecchi.
Frank, J. (1952) Comics, Radio, Movies – and Children, Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 148, New York: Public Affairs Pamphlets.
Gould, J. (1946) “On the new Superman”, New York Times, April 28, pp.7-8.
Kennedy, S. (1954) I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, London: Arco.
Levitt, S. D. and Dubner, S.J. (2006) Freakonomics; A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, St. Ives: Penguin.
Office of War Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry (1942) “They Got the Blame”, Fact Sheet Number 5, http://www.libraries.iub.edu/index.php?pageId=3301, consultated 2008, April 1st.
Reynolds, R. (1992) Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, University Press of Mississippi.
Superman Super Site (2008) “Superman Radio Programme”, http://www.supermansupersite.com/radio.html, consultato il 15 Aprile, 2008.
Von Busack, R. (1998) “Superman versus the KKK” in Metro, July 2-8, http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/07.02.98/comics-9826.html, consulted 2008, April 4th.
Wade, W.C. (1987) The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wertham, F. (1955) Seduction of the Innocent, London: Museum Press Ltd.
Widner, J. (2006) “Episode 45: Adventures of Superman”, Adventures in Radio, http://adventures.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=72978, consulted 2008, April 26th.
Wright, B. (2003) Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America,Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press.